Thawing the frosty welcome for international students
(Last updated: 13 May 2021)
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A Guardian article published this week asks the question: How can universities help international students feel at home? The article is a response to the tougher visa rules and the anti-immigration rhetoric stirred up by last year’s EU referendum, which have combined to present a decidedly chilly welcome for international students. It's no surprise that applications by non-British students to study in the UK both from within and outside the EU are down this year, and indeed it's a surprise in many ways that the numbers are holding up as well as they are doing.
Still, that doesn't mean that universities are resting on their laurels: the Guardian article discusses several initiatives spearheaded by individual universities to convince international students that, despite noises to the contrary, the UK remains a place that offers them a warm welcome. And well they might. International students are now worth a staggering £25 billion to the UK economy, and pay upwards of £10 billion in tuition fees alone. It's no wonder universities are willing to go to any lengths to recruit and retain such valuable clientele. What's downright puzzling is the way international students are frequently treated with indifference and even hostility by those with an anti-immigration agenda; it's difficult to imagine well-paying clients in any other lucrative business being treated this way.
International students maintain the richness and diversity of our curriculum
If you hear the word "diversity" used in discussions of international students, more likely than not the conversation pertains to cultural diversity and the increased richness of the experience of campus life it brings. But the diversity of our HE curriculum is sustained by international students as well – a fact that makes them even more valuable than their economic contributions would suggest. A 2014 report by Universities UK highlights the relatively high number of international students who take taught postgraduate courses in the UK – especially in the STEM disciplines – and argues that many of them couldn't be run consistently and might even have to be abolished altogether were it not for consistently high international student enrolment.
So who’s responsible for making the UK a welcoming environment for international students?
When surveyed in 2014, the vast majority (76%) of UK domestic students said they believed Britain had a collective duty to make international students feel welcome, with a similar number indicating that they believed international students were made welcome by their peers. This suggests a view that everybody in the UK who interacts with international students – from their peers to the institutions at which they study to the government officials who stamp their visas – should participate in making the UK a welcoming home for its international student population.
This is all good to hear, but when you look at the stats, there's a fairly big difference between the 76% of domestic students who believe the UK has a collective responsibility to make international students feel welcome in the UK and the 36% who believe they actually benefit from studying alongside international students. The Guardian article describes a number of laudable initiatives, notably the one instigated by the University of Leeds, to change the attitudes of domestic students to international students and promote an “intercultural” student experience. However, those two figures in combination suggest that significant number of UK domestic students view welcoming international students as an altruistic action on their part, rather than something with an intrinsic benefit to them.
There's nothing wrong with a commitment to civic duty, of course, and it does the majority of UK students credit that they're willing to take on the responsibility of making a group of people from outside the country feel welcome even without seeing any benefit to themselves. But the assumption on which this combination of attitudes rests is perhaps a little more worrying: all too often, international students are talked about as if they're a population who are being done a favour by being allowed to study in our academic institutions – or even live in our country – at all.
This attitude extends into the high reaches of government, which has insisted on continuing to count international student numbers in net migration figures – when the vast majority of international students travel to our country for a fixed period of time, inject vast sums of money into our economy and then leave again – and which continues to perpetuate myths about student visa overstays even after these myths have been comprehensively debunked.
And while there's no question that universities value the international student market, there's a big question mark surrounding their commitment to treat their international students as a collection of individuals with diverse support needs rather than a homogenous group all with roughly the same needs. The fact that international students account for a disproportionate number of the total complaints levelled against the quality of university teaching suggests that the relatively consistent performance of British Higher Education as an export market has led to universities taking their international clients somewhat for granted. The truth is that, in the Higher Education market just as in any other market, it's the clients who do the providers the favour by patronising their businesses, and not the other way round.