“There has never been a greater need to welcome and support international students so their experiences are happy ones”
In a time of far-right movements in Europe, Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK, international students need to be welcomed more than ever, argues Pat Moores, director and co-founder of UK Education Guide. She digs into recent best practice studies that ensure international students feel welcomed and supported.
Across the globe there are, at best, ‘mixed messages’ from national governments about how welcome international students are, making the complex marketing exercise of attracting and then welcoming international students even more challenging.
Therefore, there has never been a greater need to welcome and support international students so their experiences are happy ones and they then become advocates, promoting study in the UK and other host countries.
Historically, universities felt it was most helpful to have separate fresher’s weeks for international and domestic students, but some are now feeling that this separation right at the start of the student experience is not helpful.
As the Guardian has reported, Bournemouth University made a conscious decision to bring home and international students together during fresher’s week.
“We used to have a separate induction programme for these students, but we felt that it was isolating them,” explains Mandi Barron, Bournemouth’s head of student services. “Now we just badge some events that we think would be particularly useful for international students, but non-international students are welcome to attend if they want.”
The university also runs pre-arrival webinars on topics such as visas and UK culture for students, and trains staff to be aware of the different cultural needs they may encounter. But it is also wary of treating international students differently.
“We try not to focus on a homogenous group and more on individual needs,” says Barron. “Rather than having an international students department, we have a one-stop-shop service for all students, because if you’ve got an accommodation problem you’ve got an accommodation problem, and a complaint is a complaint, whether you’re international or British.”
Whilst Bournemouth is approaching the task of welcoming international students from the perspective of focusing on similarities, rather than differences, between students from different nations, Nottingham Trent University is taking a different approach.
The university is trialling a new scheme that helps international students celebrate their differences in background and culture. A project funded through a UKCISA grant sees international students lecture other students on aspects of their home culture, helping them gain academic confidence while educating others.
“It’s very small scale because it’s the first year they’ve run it,” UKCISA director of policy and services Julie Allen explains. “But this is a really good example of recognising the resources that these students are bringing rather than thinking that students who’ve come from outside the UK are in deficit or need additional support.”
The focus of celebrating differences to help educate the whole student body is backed up by research in the US. Contact between domestic and international students has also shown significant benefit to domestic students, as recent studies of US alumni have found, a significantly larger proportion of highly interactive (in terms of international student engagement) U.S. students in one cohort not only seriously questioned their political beliefs, but also challenged their beliefs about other religions, other races or ethnicities, and people with other sexual orientations, than did their non-interactive peers.
These initiatives highlighted have an important aspect in common – they are clear that forcing ‘integration’ is not a good way forward. Bournemouth’s initiatives are aimed at treating each student on their specific needs, regardless of country of origin and Trent is celebrating the individual experiences of overseas students to help benefit the whole student body.
Further afield, in Canada, the Université Laval in Quebec, which came top in the 2014 International Student Barometer for its welcome experience, focuses on a broad program to help its international students adapt to student life in Canada. The program focuses on practical issues like support in setting up a bank account and links to local families to experience Quebec culture.
Alongside helping international students understand local practical and cultural differences, there is also a requirement to be immediately ready to help international students who need additional learning support.
While US and UK pedagogy is more interactive, a recent US study* has once again highlighted that some international students simply don’t understand what is expected of them within the learning environment. For example, many are surprised that they are expected to answer questions and offer viewpoints in class or seminars.
A final note is a recent study completed by igraduate that shows that the challenges faced by international students on arrival are somewhat different from the fears prior to departure. Therefore, improving online sources of information and online interaction with a university and other students prior to arrival can arguably help address some of these concerns.
“Universities can produce their own closed MOOCs designed specifically to educate their foreign students about life on campus including insights about cultural norms. These could be offered as part of the recruitment process as part of a ‘no surprises’ approach,” suggests Simon Nelson CEO from FutureLearn, a social learning platform that offers free and paid-for online courses and degrees from over 150 leading universities and organisations across the world.
*The findings are from the survey Policies and Practices in Enrollment and Student Affairs, which was conducted in March 2017 by Maguire Associates of Concord, MA, for the ETS TOEFL Program. The results are based on the responses of 556 recruitment and admissions officers at two- and four-year, public and private institutions, including both undergraduate and graduate programs.