If you don’t only see us as cash cows, it’s time to prove it

Tonari Arikekpar worries that issues in the international student experience offer are being lost in the lobbying over immigration - and sets out a positive agenda for changing that

Tonari Arikekpar is President at the University of Plymouth SU

It’s hard to overstate how lonely and lost I was when arriving into the UK as an international student.

And while there was plenty on offer that helped me settle in my city, confidence – to build connections, challenge decisions or even just seek support – remains a problem even after we’ve all been to the receptions and welcome talks.

The internationalisation of higher education in the UK – which has been much more dramatic in recent years – has ushered in what should be a new era of diversity and cross-cultural exchange within universities.

The UK is a prominent destination for international students seeking world-class education, and the influx of learners from across the globe ought to enrich both the cultural fabric of campuses, but also contribute substantially to the economic and intellectual vitality of communities like mine here in Plymouth too.

But while UK HE sells internationalism on these factors to both policy makers and students, in my discussions with students on campus and across the country, there remain significant challenges – ones that threaten to undermine the academic experience and overall wellbeing of international students regardless of the immigration regulatory environment.

Barriers and exploitation

Recent reports highlight concerning trends – where some international students face suboptimal academic support, exploitative working conditions, or a lack of access to tailored support services.

These are further compounded by barriers such as language differences, cultural adjustment difficulties, and inadequate protection mechanisms – leaving international students vulnerable to potential exploitation, including the risk of modern slavery.

Universities bear a big responsibility to address these gaps in support – and create an inclusive, equitable academic environment that nurtures the success and wellbeing of all students, regardless of their nationality or background. If they fail, we not only compromise the integrity of the educational experience we offer, but also risk undermining the UK’s reputation as a leading destination for international students.

Addressing these challenges needs a multi-faceted approach that encompasses academic, cultural, and pastoral support. Firstly, universities must prioritise the development of comprehensive academic support programs tailored to the unique needs of international students, who have often done well in entirely different systems with different expectations.

This could include initiatives such as targeted language support, academic writing workshops, and group peer mentoring programs that facilitate the transition to the UK’s academic culture.

Universities should also work to create an inclusive campus climate that celebrates diversity and promotes cross-cultural understanding. Recent Wonkhe polling suggests that international students are not spending as much time as we might hope with home students, for example.

Change here can be achieved through initiatives such as cultural awareness training for staff and students, the establishment of dedicated cultural centres, intentional integration of diverse perspectives into curricula and campus activities and string partnerships with SU international student societies.

When things go wrong

Crucially, and discussed much less often, universities must also prioritise the safeguarding and wellbeing of international students by implementing proper support mechanisms and protection policies that are focussed on international students.

This might involve partnerships with relevant organisations and authorities to address issues such as exploitative working conditions, housing insecurity, and potential instances of modern slavery.

Institutions should also ensure that international students have access to mental health and counselling services that are culturally sensitive and equipped to address the unique challenges they face, and there should be specific strategies that tackle differences in understanding over harassment and sexual misconduct.

It’s also clear that any area where students feel that raising an issue or asking for help might bring them into conflict with their university, or risk their immigration status (such as requesting financial help) need careful attention – to ensure that students are not unnecessarily dissuaded from accessing the support they need and are entitled to.

And given what we know about international currency issues, it’s never been more important for universities to double down on making sure that students get accurate and honest information about the cost of living in the UK, and to make sure hardship is available when we need it – as well as maximum flexibility over fee paying and instalments that enable us to overcome unexpected and unavoidable barriers to paying.

We do need to be much more curious about what international agents are saying about both courses and the UK more generally. And whatever the Migration Advisory Committee decides on the graduate route visa, students need careers support that understands international labour markets so we can realise the ambitions we had when choosing the UK.

Underpinning all of this should be a commitment to ongoing research and data collection, so that universities can continually assess the effectiveness of support strategies and adapt to the evolving needs of their international student populations.

I’ve been there (and here)

Through my involvement in student governance and leadership as a student leader at the University of Plymouth, I have witnessed first hand (and second and third!) the huge range of challenges faced by international students.

This experience has fuelled my commitment to driving positive transformations in the area of academic support for international students – and that’s true too for the growing number of international student officers in SUs around the country.

We can be a huge resource for understanding the international experience – but just as we are trained to understand the workings of universities, we need universities to be even more curious about the experiences of international students that we carry in our WhatsApp groups and student forums.

Sometimes that means difficult conversations – about housing, money and mental health – as well as the more comfortable conversations about recruitment and marketing. And it means extending work on these issues – all of which have been inserted into OfS’ Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, and so risk being looked at only from a home student, “compliance” perspective.

Building an inclusive and supportive academic environment is not just a matter of ethical responsibility – it is a strategic imperative that directly impacts the overall quality of education, student success, and the global reputation of UK higher education institutions.

That means that while recruitment concerns dominate, we also must focus on the gaps in support for international students – so that universities can position themselves as those that set the standard on inclusivity – attracting and nurturing the best talent from around the world while upholding the principles of equity, diversity, and student wellbeing in a way that generates positive memories rather than regret.

That requires a collective commitment from institutions, policymakers, and stakeholders alike – including students. Like our journeys to the UK, it is a journey that demands continuous reflection, innovation, and a strong dedication to upholding the values of equity, diversity, and student success.

When we embrace this challenge, we not only enrich the academic experience for international students but also pave the way for a more inclusive, globally minded, and socially responsible future for higher education.

2 responses to “If you don’t only see us as cash cows, it’s time to prove it

  1. An important piece. The experiences of international students often overlooked in the ‘debate’ over international students that has played out between government and universities recently.

  2. It is important but in the end it comes down to money – for the student, the University and the British taxpayer. The most important of these, is the Birtish Taxpayer.

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