Happy International Students Day. But will they be celebrating?

It’s International Students' Day today - the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of a university in Prague in 1939 when they imprisoned, killed or tortured nearly a thousand students.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Today it’s evolved into an opportunity for universities globally to celebrate their international student populations and praise the contribution they make to their communities.

But will students be celebrating come the end of the academic year? That can tend to depend on their results.

When a student doesn’t do as well as they might have hoped on their course – or in the worst case, actually fails that course – the question then is who’s to blame.

There are plenty of people that would castigate me for framing the question like that on the basis that educational outcomes are co-produced – they require a collaboration between student and educators, which is of course right in both principle and practice.

But the reality is that in practice, once a student gets a result, the principle goes out of the window. It doesn’t matter what a student writes in an anguished appeal letter, if it’s some or other allegation of failing on the university side of the partnership, it’s always the student’s fault.

Academic judgement, and all that.

If success is a shared endeavour, then failure would be too – resulting in universities offering widespread refunds. That’s not going to happen either.

Pinning the blame

But maybe the results thing is not the only context where success is shared but blame is pinned. I was talking to a student officer the other day who was in a university meeting where an animated member of staff was sounding off about international students.

I’m paraphrasing a little – but basically said contributor was complaining about international undergraduates in her department’s English language skills (both written and oral), “attitude”, attendance and general familiarity with UK higher education norms.

She said all the quiet parts out loud, basically.

It’s that kind of contribution that might explain the international attainment gap, which runs at about 10 percentage points nationally – with much more significant gaps for some providers. In fact in the Russell Group, non-EU students are twice as likely as UK students to get a 2.2 or third.

Here’s the data for 2021/22 – if your university is missing, your university has requested to not routinely make this information via HESA:

So whose fault is it? In this piece in the FT, the Russell Group says there is a “degree of adjustment” for international students. Universities UK says that language barriers and different education systems partly explain the gap. And a spokesperson for Nottingham Trent – where the gap is almost 30 percentage points – says it’s partly about its efforts to combat grade inflation, for which it has been “widely recognised”.

What’s worse? Blaming international students for not doing well, or punishing them when the regulator is bearing down on handing out Firsts like sweeties?

The Trent spokesperson continues:

It is important to note that 2.2 is a good degree, and highly valued by employers both in the UK and abroad. For the skills-based recruiter, academic qualification levels are becoming less significant.

That may be true, but we do still have to ask ourselves – why would international students be attaining so poorly in comparison to their UK counterparts?

At UKCISA Fest this week, where international student reps and ambassadors came together to discuss the issues of the day, there was some acceptance that differences in culture, problems with integration and some language issues were almost certainly at the root. There was also plenty of reflection on the cost of living crisis.

But for them, given the fees they are paying in comparison to home counterparts, that meant that more of the fee they’re forking out should be spent on them to help them overcome those barriers. Paying more only to do less well felt like quite an insult, when in their view there were things that could be done to close the gap. And it certainly meant giving access to international students to hardship funds – and not pretending that the immigration rules don’t allow it. They’re international, not stupid.

Of course one of the wrinkles here is that National Student Survey data consistently has international undergraduates scoring their university more highly on experience factors than UK domiciled students.

In 23 of the 26 questions the score is higher, which on the face of it would suggest that international undergrads are thrilled about doing worse than their UK counterparts – although tellingly, one of the questions where there’s a worse score is where students reflect on whether they’ve been able to produce their best work.

For the students at UKCISA Fest, this was a reflection not of significantly higher satisfaction but a sense they had had drilled into them that they’re lucky to be here, only have their home country’s education system to compare it to, and are keen to rate their university highly to protect its reputation and league table position. Maybe that’s right – some cognitive testing to get at the reasons from the regulator would really help.

They were also, as ever at these events, pretty exercised about the antics of agents, whose commission cheques appear to grow in line with the false dreams they sell. That said, universities have to share some of the blame on areas like cost of living – one of my party tricks at those events is to ask delegates which university they’re from, and we then find their university’s CoL webpage. You can guess what tends to happen next.

Political interventions

We used to have a politician that appeared to care about this. When the graduate route post-study work visa was reintroduced, Gavin Williamson no less proclaimed that it was “critical that international students receive a world-class experience.”

His letter to the Office for Students at the said that he would like it consider steps to ensure international students…

…feel integrated on campus; are supported in terms of their mental health and wellbeing; and [that they] receive the employability skills they need and are supported into employment, whether in their home country or the UK.

Not at lot came of all that – one of those best practice PDFs that are hardly read emerged at some stage. He also said that it will be…

…critical to ensure the OfS makes public transparent data on the outcomes achieved by international students, including those studying wholly outside the UK, such as it does for domestic students.

Graduate Outcomes data on employment is fairly hopeless for all sorts of reasons, and so therefore are the TEF medals being deployed by agents, but I’m pleased to be able to contribute to degree classification data being made public via that chart above that DK has made for us.

Williamson also said:

…such data should also inform the approach the OfS takes to setting and monitoring compliance with its quality requirements.

I was thinking about that when I was reading OfS’ Quality assessment report on Business and Management courses at the University of Bedfordshire.

It doesn’t break out international and home domiciled at all, and at various points seems to suggest that the university ought to be thinking about offering blended learning – something that the immigration rules appear to have banned out of the back of Covid.

Both in that Williamson letter and in subsequent missives from the Home Secretary, work on agents was also supposed to emerge. We’ve not seen that either.

Whatever is going on, I can’t see that negative gaps are justifiable – if entry standards are as robust and consistent as universities say they are, and the right support is in place for international students when here, there really ought to be no gap. And as such, applicants really ought to know if there’s a big gap because of what it suggests about a provider’s standards of support.

If the story of the BAME attainment gap tells us anything, it’s that after the cod theory stage where the relevant committee decides that it’s the external environment or the students themselves that are to blame, to make a proper difference we first need rich, nationally published data, then decent research that gets at the lived experience, and then some pilot projects and some solutions. It feels like we’re some distance from that right now.

3 responses to “Happy International Students Day. But will they be celebrating?

  1. “Whatever is going on, I can’t see that negative gaps are justifiable – if entry standards are as robust and consistent as universities say they are, and the right support is in place for international students when here, there really ought to be no gap.”

    Indeed, there should be no gap, but the realities of different academic scoring from their home nations, along with the ability to pay (bribe) or blackmail someone to give a higher mark, often by parents who have strong links to ‘the party’ who pressurise teachers and lecturers involved in marking course work are not uncommon. My own department had an overseas PhD student who presented an amazing portfolio of academic achievement, within two months the truth had become obvious that they had constructed it with the aid of bought and paid for Academics and lacked the ability to have done a fraction of what had been claimed, other departments report similar things at undergrad, masters and PhD levels. Departments employing interpreters because most of an ‘overseas’ cohort cannot understand, speak or write in English has been an issue too “said contributor was complaining about international undergraduates in her department’s English language skills (both written and oral), “attitude”, attendance and general familiarity with UK higher education norms” is the reality many are aware of, but few dare speak of.

    And we should not ignore the fuerdai who having had their way into and through Academia bought and paid for by their parents have no real Academic ability or integrity and see a UK University course as a prolonged holiday. But without their parents being able to ‘buy’ them a ‘good’ result they often fail spectacularly, and are one of the worst groups for blaming ‘others’ like the Academics who would have taught them, if they’d have bothered to have turned up to lectures and labs. The ‘Universities’ however are more than happy to take their ‘clean’ money (course fee’s and accommodation), and often have become too reliant on it to do anything about their poor attitudes and attendance.

  2. I think one major factor, for our Russell Group university at least, is how the concentration of international student from certain countries has reduced their integration with the rest of the student body. In the past, our international students were relatively few in number and diverse in their country of origin, so we could admit students with borderline English skills and be confident they would improve rapidly in their first year through social interaction with peers and transactions with the local community. Now that 35% of the students in our department are from China, they form a distinct campus community who socialise together and even use Chinese-run businesses which have grown up around the university to serve them. So their English skills are not developing to the same extent during their time here, but the English language entry requirements have not been recalibrated, and still represent the level required to get started on the degree, not the level required to take their finals.

    1. I think this too. Poor understanding of English, arising from poor integration with English speaking people, is the main reason for under performance among overseas students.

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