If we neglect the complex needs of foreign students, how can UK institutions claim to be truly global?

“In order to claim we have truly global universities, we need to start proactively seeking solutions”

With another academic year now underway, a new generation of fresh-faced, wide-eyed students are filling UK lecture halls once again to embark on a new adventure.

This is perhaps especially true for international students  – who now make up nearly one third of the entire student population. Many will be coming to the UK for the first time, attempting to memorise their new timetables while simultaneously wrapping their heads around unexplained references to a weekly spectacle known as ‘Strictly’, grappling with Scouse, West Country and Glaswegian accents, and unravelling the secrets of the mythical ‘Cheeky Nandos’.

It’s safe to say that all grand beginnings come with great challenges. When studying abroad, students face layers of subtle difficulties that can go unaccounted for, tied to a lack of familiarity with the places, culture and language of a new country.

Despite very high or near-native levels of English language among many of the students coming to the UK to study, linguistic fatigue is real. This inevitably puts them at a disadvantage to their peers, particularly at the start of their degrees; as anyone who has ever lived abroad will testify, the added burden that comes with translating every piece of information that reaches you leaves you utterly exhausted.

There are many complex cultural factors that account for the broader set of inequalities facing international students. These require a varied set of solutions – access to counsellors and mentors native to their culture, and adequate funding for societies that foster inclusion and wellbeing, for example.

But when language capabilities and cultural differences feed into students’ abilities to achieve their academic goals, it’s imperative that universities do everything within their power to reduce inequality.

Grades are on the line – particularly in competitive courses that use bell-curve grading – and vast fees are being shelled out with every term. If students sense they are not on a level playing field, they may look elsewhere to education systems where they feel they are better served. With the fees of international students accounting for £1 of every £5 of UK university income, the education sector can’t afford to ignore the needs of this audience.

We’ve already seen resources and educational channels become increasingly digitised by forward-thinking universities, which vastly improving the offering for overseas students by baking levels of flexibility into teaching – particularly with regards to timing.

The field of corporate training is stretches ahead of universities in this regard. For decades, innovative companies like Learnerbly have been well attuned to the enhanced outcomes delivered by highly personalised teaching styles. As Learnerbly’s Head of Growth and Marketing, Elena Bersadschi said to me recently, “employees don’t learn in the same way, nor do they have the same upskilling needs. It’s important to choose a workplace learning solution that takes this into consideration for maximum impact.”

She noted that her company’s tailored training packages have helped customers record 4X higher engagement rates with learning, as well as marked increases in general performance and retention rates.

There’s patently scope for universities to go much further, and match the effort being put into innovative educational programmes in the workplace.

As well as giving greater flexibility with timing, localising recorded teaching content is one obvious solution that would considerably improve outcomes for foreign students.

Data shows that dubbing is the optimal form of translation needed for information retention. In a study which monitored participants’ ability to retain information across untranslated educational videos in foreign languages, vs their subtitled and dubbed equivalents, researchers found that those watching dubbed videos retained 70% of the information imparted, compared to 40% in the untranslated video and 50% for the subtitled version.

Again, these figures only underscore that it’s not just personal experience on the line here – as if that weren’t important enough – but real academic outcomes.

Particularly for courses where students aren’t being tested on the quality of their expression in English, like engineering, or physics, giving students at least the option to access content in their own languages can only enhance opportunities for learning. It’s a simple change, but would send a clear message from any university adopting it: we are investing in improving outcomes for our international students.

We know that today’s universities live and die by their student satisfaction rankings – making life easier for students yields dividends to those who successfully do so.

In order to claim we have truly global universities, we need to start proactively seeking solutions for the problems faced by our ever-growing population of oversea students. Ensuring equality of opportunity regarding educational outcomes surely has to be a priority if we are to keep attracting top scholars from around the globe.

About the author: Amir Jirbandey is currently the head of marketing and growth at Papercup, the pioneering AI dubbing startup, helping media companies like Bloomberg and Fremantle to localise their content at scale, using lifelike synthetic voices. With over a decade experience in scaling global tech companies such as Paddle and Treatwell, Amir leads a go-to-market team at Papercup to educate and increase adoption of innovative AI technologies.