In the UK’s International Education Strategy, we claim that we have a “world-class” higher education offering, a “global reputation” and a “strong presence” in international markets.
In it, we argue that our higher education institutions are amongst the most renowned and prestigious in the world, and we comfort ourselves with stats that show we are ranked first by international students for student experience across several measures.
Those things might be true now. But will they always be?
As that strategy makes clear – the global market for international student recruitment is changing, the UK cannot afford to be complacent, and we have to do more to ensure that a high-quality student experience remains at the heart of what we offer.
To help with that process, UKCISA has launched a new Student Charter on the international student experience – that offers guidance on delivering a world-class international student experience, from pre-arrival to post-graduation.
And uniquely, it is guidance that has been driven by students.
Nothing about us without us
Written by UKCISA’s #WeAreInternational Student Ambassadors, and developed with the input of students and staff from across the international education sector, it prioritises what matters to students – and describes the standard that all universities who recruit international students should be aspiring to meet.
There are several aspects to the Charter. The first concerns the diversity that students bring beyond a homogenous lump of “not being home students”. Frequently, external events or internal changes in institutional policies can impact international students in different and dramatic ways – so institutions should always be mindful of the potential impacts of any given policy. And intercultural awareness should be nurtured across and throughout education providers to promote clarity and accessibility of information – fostering an equitable environment for international students.
As global learners, international students place a particular priority on strategies to address the climate crisis – which should involve international students as important stakeholders, and involve considering sustainable alternatives to any policies and practices that have potential negative impacts on the environment.
There are many aspects where, when international students speak to friends and relatives in home countries, they want to be able to say that the UK delivered the support they need. They expect, for example, providers to ensure that international students have access to timely, accurate and consistent information on immigration-related issues – including application, arrival, entitlements and responsibilities, signposting to external sources of information and advice where relevant.
Providers have a crucial role in supporting international students to navigate life in the UK – through the promotion of spaces and structures where international students can have access to straightforward information about key areas such as access to healthcare, accommodation, transport, and finances. Good providers, for example, are being honest right now about how expensive the UK will be to live in this coming September.
Connections and social capital
Almost all universities help international students to find others from their home countries, but they were “sold” diversity. Education providers should assist international students to navigate the diversity of the campus socially and culturally, proactively facilitating the integration of domestic and international students, promoting the connection between current students and alumni, and publicising content from trusted sources that supports a safe, healthy, and positive international student experience.
When it comes to the academic experience, we all know that there is a difference between setting and enforcing minimum requirements for study, and ensuring that students receive the help they need to meet the potential they show at application. Education providers should recognise that academic standards and pedagogical relationships vary across cultures, and ensure that international students receive support and accessible guidance to enable them to properly navigate things like assessment criteria or teaching structures used in the UK academic environment.
And international students also expect assistance to cover guidance and advice on academic writing, academic integrity, and the relationship with peers and academic staff such as personal tutors and module convenors.
When it comes to mental health, international students face unique challenges – such as culture shock, diverse understandings of wellbeing and healthcare practices, and time-zone differences that affect access to counselling services, when studying remotely. Education providers should consider these unique challenges faced by international students and reach out to them through different communication and engagement strategies in order to make access to wellbeing services inclusive.
And at its best, a UK education offers international students a springboard for their future careers. But international students often encounter specific hurdles when accessing careers and employability support, which can undermine their experiences, compared to those of domestic students. Good providers structure specific career services and tools for international students and embed professional experience opportunities in different levels and modes of study when possible, help them to connect academic and professional experiences during their studies, and help them to find post-study opportunities in the UK after graduation.
Unlike some charters or quality standards, the ambassadors that led this work do not think that a “tick box” exercise would be appropriate. International students are keen to work in partnership with education providers – and expect them to nurture, value and cherish international students’ perspectives and voices in institutional policy and decision-making. Strategic plans, policy reviews or governance strategies should be designed with them, not just “for them” – and close collaboration with and involvement of student bodies such as students’ unions and international student groups and societies are pivotal to the promotion of these principles.
Above all, we should expect international students and their providers to work together – using the charter as a guide to discuss current provision, and reflect on the lived experience of those that chose the UK. Working together, we can make improvements to meet the ambitions of the international education strategy, and deliver that “world-class” international student experience that we say we offer – both now and in the future.