Although often considered “privileged”, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of international students during times of global upheaval.
In the spring of 2020, they were one of the first groups to acutely feel the impact of the pandemic. When national borders closed and host countries went into lockdown, international students were effectively left stranded with many simply told to “go home”.
Those on temporary visas were often ineligible for the financial support offered so generously to citizens and other residents of their host nations. As part-time jobs in the catering and hospitality industry were lost overnight, many international students experienced precarious financial circumstances with thousands turning to food banks for their basic needs.
It is becoming increasingly clear that being an international student during a global public health emergency takes its toll, both mentally and physically. In a recent survey by researchers at the Newcastle University Institute for Social Science of 343 international students who undertook degree programmes at UK universities in 2020-21, more than half reported that they had experienced anxiety and disrupted sleep, and 41 percent felt “extremely” or “very” worried about their mental health during the pandemic.
International students are far less likely than their domestic peers to seek out wellbeing and mental health support services offered by their host universities. The pandemic has introduced additional barriers given that many international students were undertaking their degrees from outside the UK – and thus had little access to support in situ despite the best efforts of university wellbeing teams to reach out to them online.
The parallel pandemic
As the UK focused its efforts, rightly so, on vaccine rollouts and virus containment measures, a parallel and largely silent pandemic was unfolding among its international students – one of loneliness and social isolation.
More than half of those surveyed reported having felt lonely during the pandemic, and these students were significantly more likely to experience low personal wellbeing and satisfaction with life compared to those who felt socially connected. National lockdowns, social distancing measures, and the move to online teaching often made it impossible for international students to instigate and maintain meaningful social ties.
Nearly sixty percent reported “never or rarely” having social contact with people in their local host community, and more than a quarter reported being “not at all satisfied” with their degree of social contact with British people.
Where international students were able to venture beyond their campus environment, the reaction of local people was not always one of warmth and compassion with one in four survey respondents reporting having experienced Covid-related discrimination such as name calling and scapegoating.
Despite these experiences international students were, by and large, happy with the Covid-19 response of their host institutions. Around one third reported being “very satisfied” with the support offered to them by their university, in particular clear and timely communication, safety measures aimed at limiting virus transmission, practical support such as grocery vouchers, academic concessions, as well as the individual efforts and availability of university staff.
Support in a crisis
The coronavirus pandemic is a stark reminder that international students are not to be treated solely as temporary visitors, but as individuals who make considerable contributions to the UK, in both economic and cultural terms. The universities and communities that host them owe them support in times of crisis. What might this support look like as the higher education sector emerges from the shadow of Covid-19?
With future global pandemics ever more likely, it is imperative that different members of the university community work together to develop “pandemic-proof” international student support structures. These should have at its core targeted measures aimed at alleviating loneliness and social isolation.
Academic departments could work in partnership with student integration officers to develop structured online networking opportunities, drawing on established links with the local community where possible. Examples include virtual volunteering or World Café sessions which might offer a sense of purpose when social mixing is curtailed.
Covid-19 has accelerated the speed at which universities are embracing technology, and a pandemic-proof higher education curriculum is one where independent learning is taught more explicitly, given that this is something many international students already struggled with pre-pandemic.
It is also crucial to prepare university lecturers for scenarios in which they may need to deliver their teaching virtually at short notice, thus digital competencies should be a priority in professional development offered to academic staff.
Given that international students are often reluctant to seek out mental health support, it is vital that university wellbeing teams are offered appropriate resources and training to provide proactive and culturally sensitive support to students in need. International students themselves might also benefit from initiatives that improve their mental health literacy, given that they are often unaware of the support available to them on campus.
Many of the issues experienced by international students during the pandemic are probably just as salient to their domestic counterparts, albeit perhaps in slightly different ways. Despite the havoc it has wreaked, the Covid-19 pandemic is a unique opportunity to rethink the international-home dichotomy that so pervades UK higher education.
As decolonisation and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) agendas are gathering momentum, lessons learnt from the experiences of international students during the pandemic can hopefully inform a more holistic and integrated approach to student support.