Everyone can play a role in changing the perception of international students

How can universities turn around the perception of students who come to the UK to study? Carsyn Wiley has ideas.

Carsyn Wiley is a Senior Account Executive at PLMR

Packing up my life and leaving my family, friends and home country to move to the UK and study abroad was one of the most important and challenging decisions of my life so far.

I imagine the same can be said for anyone who’s chosen the international student pathway.

From researching an unfamiliar educational landscape, to passing English exams, wading through visa applications (and fees) and figuring out how to uproot an entire life – becoming an international student takes grit.

Now in the face of an increasingly hostile attitude towards international students and proposed deterrent policies, we’re staring down the barrel of a future which turns its back on a group that positively contributes to the UK’s social fabric.

The debate regarding international students is nothing new, but the temperature is rising in the battle to prove whether foreign tuition income is worth the influx of immigrants.

Some headlines have gone as far as reducing international students to “dumbed down foreign cash cows”, but there’s a strong argument that much more is at stake than a tuition check.

International students also bring with them human capital, sharing their culture, perspectives and innovations that have helped make the UK the global force it is today.

But what is driving this increased scrutiny? If we unpack the debate into three broad contributions – financial, cultural and research and innovation — we can gain a better understanding of international students’ true value and hopefully address these concerns.

Cash cows?

On the financial side, we know international students pay higher fees than domestic students – a critical contribution that many universities would struggle without. This value also appears to be supported by the public, with a recent Savanta poll of 2,280 members of the public, commissioned by PLMR in May 2024, revealing 63 per cent agree that international students make a positive economic contribution to the UK.

Several government Ministers are also in agreement, with both the Foreign Secretary and Education Secretary successfully lobbying the Prime Minister to scale back his efforts to reduce graduate visas, and in turn immigration.

In real terms, the UK cannot afford to lose, or significantly reduce the number of international students. While it’s true that decreasing dependency is a more sustainable economic model, it is not currently feasible to adopt a hard line – the implications for domestic student fees, the UK’s higher education sector and the country’s GDP would be catastrophic.

Reducing graduate visas also has a ripple effect for the UK’s research and innovation capabilities. International students are flush with fresh ideas and different perspectives but also often keep the door open to international collaboration between higher education institutions. This contribution also has broad support, with 61 per cent of respondents agreeing international students make a positive contribution to research and development.

Despite this, in an era of deglobalisation that sees several countries and companies reducing immigration and international collaboration, it’s worth reflecting on where we’d be without international student innovations.

For example, Charles Kao, the “godfather of broadband” and Nobel Prize recipient attended UCL, where he created fibre optics and forever changed the world; Tillmann Henssler, a graduate of the Open University who has been honoured by AACSB International and Pfizer for his exceptional contribution and commitment to inclusivity within his organisation and society; and Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, the global women’s rights activist who founded the Stand to End Rape initiative and was named one of Time100 Next’s people of the year, graduated from Swansea University.

Culture vultures

Limiting international students impedes our innovation capabilities but it also constricts the diversity of the UK’s population.

International students are a gateway to cultural enrichment, bringing with them different lived experiences and perspectives. This can also broaden the horizons of domestic students, introducing them to new music, film, food and art, but also by supporting more well-rounded research and learning environments that helps equip them with internationally relevant and in-demand skills.

Sharing culture is a long-proven way of expanding world views and developing social skillsets so unsurprisingly, the majority of poll respondents (59 per cent) agree the cultural contribution of international students is positive.

Despite this broad support for international students and the contributions they make, when asked if the number of international students should be limited, almost 50 per cent (49%) of respondents agreed. What this shows is that while in isolation their contribution is clear, there still exists a deep-rooted anxiety about how international students impact opportunities for domestic students.

Looking to the past, perceptions around international students followed a similar trend. A 2023 poll from Universities UK revealed 64 per cent of respondents felt the UK should host the same or more international students, with only nine per cent calling for students and researchers to be discouraged from coming to the UK.

The majority of respondents, 62 per cent, also agreed international students gave more to the economy than they took out. While the figures depicting public perceptions have remained relatively steady, the recent debate in the media risks acting as a deterrent for prospective students or spearheading anti-immigration policies.

Helping address this imbalance of perceptions, it’s clear an educational and awareness campaign driven by sector-wide collaboration is needed to help distinguish between the role and value of international students and what this means for domestic students and jobs.

University leaders and sector bodies can work hand in hand to not only showcase data on international students but break down harmful stigmas cluttering the media. We can all play a role in delivering this work – with universities, businesses, government and students coming together to share the positive impact and success stories of international students.

While the financial argument is an undeniably important piece of the puzzle, and hopefully something that will be better understood following the Education Select Committee’s inquiry, to truly change perceptions we need to focus on impactful storytelling. International students are too often treated like a faceless group and spoken about as if they aren’t ‘in the room’.

We need to humanise them and share their economic, cultural and research contributions through real stories that connect them to everyday lives and experiences. Perhaps then we’ll be able to turn the tide, ensure international students feel welcome and truly unlock their potential to the UK.

2 responses to “Everyone can play a role in changing the perception of international students

  1. As the parent of a child the left the US to study on the UK, I can tell you first hand that it was one of the hardest, and best, decisions that we ever made. By learning in an environment very different than her home country, she has broadened her view of society and been able to understand how she can positively impact both countries in way not limited by either culture. Being exposed to the viewpoints and opinions, has allowed fully realize the potential she has to contribute to the community and society she chooses to live in.

    1. For all the talk of exchange of ideas in this piece, the author appears to have made little attempt to understand the perspective of those who are against international students.

      As with all forms of immigration, there is no doubt a positive subset of wealthy, culturally similar peoples who give more than they take out. I sincerely doubt there are many people amongst the British public who object to an American or a European coming to study and make contributions to a hard science at top tier university.

      What is objected to is the way in which the international student pathway is abused as a source of unwanted, culturally dissimilar mass immigration. The ability for ‘students’ at third rate universities to bring relatives and to stay on in the UK post-graduation (or to simply drop out and disappear into the black market) is significantly less beneficial than the idealised case presented here.

      It is indeed no doubt true that without such people there would be many second and third rate UK higher education institutions that would fail to meet their funding requirements, but one fails to see how that is anything but positive. If your institution can only exist so long as it is permitted to effectively operate as a reseller of UK citizenship, then it is a de facto immigration processing centre, not a higher education facility; one somehow doubts Oxford would struggle were international students forbidden.

      There is no campaign of awareness-raising or public education that can address the simple truth that the British people have seen with their own eyes. It is insulting and presumptuous to state otherwise: what is actually being proposed is to ignore these legitimate problems and once again gaslight the British into welcoming their own abuse to the benefit of others.

      If you wish to seek a genuine solution to this issue, one would suggest you heed your own advice and engage in a cultural exchange with those who disagree with your views. Soon you will learn that there are genuine issues with international student migration pathways and will come to see the obvious truth here: if one wants to keep these pathways open for the mutually beneficial cases then one must ensure that they are not abused by undesirable cases.

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