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HEi-think: Room for improvement in how UK supports international students

As International Students Day and the British Council's International Education Week turn the spotlight on overseas students, Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International, considers what more UK universities could be doing to better support them.

 

The UK is the second most popular destination in the world for international students with 416,693 studying here in 2013–14

This is a boon for three reasons: First, students build lifelong connections in the UK which don’t end when they return to their home countries. They become natural ambassadors for us at every level of industry and society. Second, visitors of every kind add to the UK economy – and international students bring in £11 billion. Third, international students provide British students unable to travel extensively with a multi-cultural experience. As the jobs market grows ever more global, ‘soft skills’ like cultural understanding and experience working with diverse groups become ever more important.

The UK is the most recommended major English-speaking country by international students, as a report we published earlier this year revealed. Indeed, 89 per cent of postgraduate taught, 90 per cent of postgraduate research and 91 per cent of undergraduate international students were satisfied of their experience in the UK, at all levels (arrival, learning, living and support levels).

The UK also does fantastically well when it comes to the quality of the teaching and learning environment - coming top for satisfaction on most indicators when compared with students who studied in the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

However, there is always room for improvement. One challenge for international students is integration with home students. Universities around the country are coming up with innovative approaches to help this process.

For example, at the University of Warwick the international team has set up intercultural workshops, which gather international and home students together in one public setting. Students discuss their cultural perspectives and opinions with each other, and even share negative experiences they have faced, which helps them know each other better and feel more at ease in the UK. 

Celebrations of the nationalities on campus, and efforts to use international students' different perspectives to expand the horizons of UK students through deliberate moves to internationalise the curriculum are common across many universities in the UK.

We also see universities making efforts to improve international careers advice for graduates, not least as a response to concerns about the availability of post study work opportunities in the UK. That means our universities have to take a tailored approach to supporting their employability. Many are building relationships with employers in countries from where they have a significant number of students.

They are also making sure students tap into the bespoke services run to support student employability, like those offered by Swansea University's newly created Employability Academy, which works closely with the Students Union to effectively reach international students to let them know about what’s on offer.

UK universities work hard to deserve the reputation they have for providing a high quality higher education. Despite Brexit, and the government rhetoric around visas, there is much we can be positive about. That's why at Universities UK International we have shifted our focus to put much more of our effort in promoting the considerable strengths of UK universities around the world.

 
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