In the 2019/2020 academic year there were over 500 million international students studying in the UK. (Universities UK, n.d) They account for a significant portion of university enrolments and degree completions. They also hold incredible economic and cultural value to their host countries, according to this study by the Higher Education Policy Institute.
Just one cohort of International students who stay in the UK to work pay 3.2 billion in tax. They also found that International students who stay to work in the UK typically find jobs in sectors that are going through skill shortages which debunks the whole “they are displacing local graduates” nonsense.
However international students are also a vulnerable demographic for a number of reasons – ordinarily, moving to a new country where you may have no family or friends is hard enough, but doing it in a pandemic makes it harder still. For most countries, there is still no sure end in sight to the effects of and measures against the Covid-19 virus, so it looks like we’ll have to keep adapting to this new ‘normal’.
How institutions can support international students
Before I wax lyrical about how, as an institution, you can make your students feel warm and welcome and heard in these times, let me remind you that International Students in the UK pay an average of 10,000 to 38,000 pounds per annum for an undergrad degree and 11,000 to 32,000 for a postgrad degree. (TopUniversities, n.d) With most schools mandating online learning and prohibiting all but essential visits to campus this year, that took a massive chunk off the value for money.
Being able to socialize and form social networks with peers is an essential part of the university experience, one that could help manage academic stress and affect academic performance. (Stadtfeld et al, 2018) Most university students I talk to cannot understand why they are having to pay full fees for online schooling, as they are missing out on the social aspect of university.
Easing some of the financial burdens on your students or their sponsor by way of hardship funds (that are not impossible to qualify for) or discounts that apply to all could be a step in the right direction. Also, sharing information with your international student body on how they could save money with their travel plans, accommodation, grocery runs, and the likes (it took me a while to figure out amazon isn’t always the cheapest option) will help international students to manage their budget.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a “great equalizer”, it affects all of us, yet we are not all equally affected by it. Existing inequalities and discrimination such as racism have caused racial and ethnic minorities to be disproportionately affected. The UK is not free of these ills and as an institution one way to better cater to your international students is to boldly confront the issues that threaten their safety and acceptance in society.
Do your part in spreading awareness and educating your students and staff on the topic of discrimination and racism. Be truly anti-racist, which means going beyond denial and identifying the role you play presently and the role you can play in making society better and more inclusive.
Do not wait for a protest to happen or for your institution to be called out before taking action, the absence of that does not mean the absence of discrimination. Find creative and relevant ways your institution can advance inclusivity and back your words with concrete action.
Striking a balance between social and academic support for your students is key, all work and no play makes Femi a dull boy as the saying goes. Take it from someone currently finishing her master’s degree as an international student, making friends, and having any sort of social life has been near impossible, even with the well-meaning gazillion break-out rooms we were assigned to in classes.
Now that restrictions have been lifted, take a note from elementary school, and organize trips and fun places for your students to go, the uptake might surprise you. Virtual events are a welcome alternative, take advantage of platforms like House Party or Kahoot to get your students engaging with each other over fun games, their inner child will love it.
In high school, we had social prefects, which was a person in charge of making sure There was fun stuff on the calendar. Universities should have at least one person in such a role for each department, that way they would ensure the social satisfaction of many of their students. Everyone’s social skills are a little off so we all need a little help.
Supporting the mental health of international students
Did you know that compared to local students, international students are more likely to struggle with their mental health and less likely to seek help (Alharbi & Smith, 2018).
Imagine this: you are an international student who came into a new country for school with no friends or family, you are now indoors 24/7 doing online classes by day and giving encore worthy performances of your favourite songs at night to a non-existent audience.
You get out to get your groceries or to go on the occasional walk, a month passes then two then three, finally restrictions are eased but you have no friends to hang out with. While this has not been every international student’s experience, I’m willing to bet many can relate to this situation as I certainly can. It’s important for universities to have mental health support systems in place that students can reach out to if they are in need, also because international students are less likely to ask for the help they need, finding ways to incorporate that support into things they are already viewing like emails or tutor meetings would be helpful too.
While some universities have adopted flexibility and leniency in their operations this pandemic. I’ve heard students complain about lecturers keeping the same requirements in online school as in physical school with zero flexibility or consideration of how the pandemic is affecting their students. This is not okay. Putting in place measures such as extension allowances (giving students the right to ask for a certain number of extensions in a semester without any rigid processes) and increased exam submission windows could be a step in the right direction.
If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this. Listen to your students, be intentional about being accessible to them, and letting them know no issue is too minor, when they do speak, listen (hear and do).
All students are not the same, neither are institutions, while there are many common ways institutions can help their international students, there are so many issues that are unique to your students and institution that you will only know by listening to YOUR students, not just listening to the news or the staff or The Inclusion Post but by listening to your students and doing your best to provide solutions to their problems.
Here’s a quote from Michael Natzler, Policy Officer at HEPI that sums it up best;
“There is huge potential for higher education institutions to listen to and engage students more effectively. This collection shows authentic engagement delivers value to students, to universities and to taxpayers. This happens when universities invest the time and resources to listen to students and to act upon what they say.”