Supporting international students

The new academic year has begun, and international students are beginning to settle in – so it’s a good time to think about how we can better communicate with and support them. Some will be arriving late, due to visa problems or other issues – it is opportune to consider how to help these students catch up and integrate smoothly into the academic year.

Over the past 13 years the cases we at the OIA have reviewed have given us good insight into effective ways of supporting international students. We see examples of good practice modelled in many academic institutions, as well as the fallout when things go wrong. Well-prepared students are more likely to be successful on their course, and less likely to generate complaints and academic appeals which can be time consuming, emotionally draining, and even cause visa problems. A good induction programme is key to this. Often problems arise because the induction programme has not covered important concepts, or because students arriving late have missed induction.

However good the programme, orientation into higher education and UK life should not stop after the first few weeks and the excitement of Freshers’ Fairs. There are many points during a student’s journey when they might need to be reminded of processes or introduced to new ones. For example, you might not initially need to give too much detail on some areas of student support – the aim is to raise awareness and to let the students know where to go for more information. You can then pick up on particular aspects as the term progresses when students need to know about, say, the concept and practice of mitigating circumstances.

UKCISA has done some excellent work on induction and orientation and has various publications and toolkits to highlight the key issues for such a programme. The starting point is to think what it is that international students might need to know that home students might take for granted.

British culture

It is important to help international students to understand British cultural norms – and to consider the implications of the way we communicate. Particular idiomatic forms (Pull your socks up!) may confuse.  

For example we once saw a case which involved a late academic appeal from an international student. The student had been to the Department several times after the examinations to ask for results. She was told: “I’m afraid you have failed”. The student believed that this meant that her results had not yet been issued and the administrator was expressing her personal concerns about future results. The student did not realise that she was being informed that she had actually failed.

Clearly there is a need to explain academic and study issues – expectations around self study, academic practice (including plagiarism and referencing), assessments and deadlines, fees and other requirements. But there are also information needs around everyday living. International students may not understand British expectations around arranging and paying for accommodation, opening a bank account, paying bills – and may need support with health and personal safety issues.

Student visa obligations

Students are often unaware that only staff in International Visa and Compliance can offer detailed advice and guidance on immigration regulations. We have had many cases in which students have been given advice as to academic progression and appeals at Department and Registry level without the student or staff checking that this advice is still valid when considered in light of the student’s current visa situation. It is good practice for students to be reminded throughout their studies that at each stage, and whenever there is any change of circumstances, they should always check the implications for their Tier 4 visa with the International Student Team.

Having a buddy system or peer advice from established international students, to whom new students can direct their queries in a safer, less formal way can work well.  It is important for students to get to know the culture of the institution as well as the particular department. There is a need to think about specific skills that the student might require: research skills for PhD students or language skills for non-native speakers of English. International students also need to know how health and other problems can have an impact on their academic progress, why it is important to tell the relevant staff at the time it affects them, and how they can disclose this confidentially. Another useful tip is to keep copies of all induction materials and have them available for students to access.  This makes it easier to draw them to the attention of late arrivals and so ensure they have the relevant material. This also means that the information is always available for reference.

Supporting international students in these ways can help to make sure students are well-placed to reap the benefits of higher education in the UK.

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