Navigating in a new world: how senior leadership teams can continue to provide a quality learning experience for international students
Last updated on Friday 4 Mar 2022 on 8:42am
There's a real change going on in international student behaviour. Universities must acknowledge this and tailor their services accordingly if they want to compete with fast-improving higher education institutions worldwide.
When the pandemic first hit, many students, particularly from East and South East Asia, decided to delay their studies. Those who really valued face-to-face education didn't want to lose out on that experience, especially because the rapid move to online teaching was challenging. Now that we're two years in, more students have acknowledged that the online experience being delivered is actually okay, especially the experience from UK universities.
While the conversation about the future and advantages of online education continues, there is also an increasing recognition of just how important in-person teaching is for many students, particularly for overseas students who value the many experiences gained from learning and living in another country. There are certain things that these students and their families will be prioritising post-pandemic, and if UK universities don't fulfil these, then we're going to lose out to other countries like Australia and Canada, which have been making steady progress in articulating benefits they offer international students.
An increased focus on pastoral support
When it comes to international students, there are two key areas of pastoral support that universities must focus on - physical and emotional support, and pre-departure preparation. There’s been a much greater emphasis placed on mental wellbeing recently, for domestic and overseas students, and institutions must ensure that sufficient services are in place, especially for international students with additional pressures of studying far from home without their normal social support structures.
There are a wide range of actions that universities can take to support students from different backgrounds. Throughout the past two years, for example, we have seen that Covid prevention measures are essential in providing levels of reassurance to some students. As we are entering a phase of fewer restrictions, universities should consider how to continue to provide reassurance surrounding health and safety. Similarly, having regular check-ins with personal tutors can be a great way to support student wellbeing.
Secondly, pre-study preparation has become even more important. While this has traditionally been delivered once students arrive in the UK, more students are requesting that it's carried out in their own countries. This way it can be cheaper and still very effective. For any young person, even in the UK, it's a big jump to go from school to higher education, and for an overseas student there are many additional challenges. That's why, at Oxford International, we're offering more of those programmes overseas both online and on a face-to-face or blended basis in their home country. It’s not just about English language preparation, it’s also about helping them to understand the differences in a whole raft of academic and social approaches in the UK. And, while this isn’t a standard part of pastoral care, it should be as we move forward.
More financial pressures have created a shift in priorities for students and their families
The financial impact on families from Covid has, understandably, resulted in students and their parents becoming much more conscious of value for money, and UK universities will need to concentrate on what's truly important to them if they want to compete with up-and-coming education markets. The university experience is unique - you cannot buy it - as a student you co-create it, investing yourself in it, and if you decide you don’t like it, you can't sell it on and you can't return it. It is then, truly, one of the few “once in a lifetime” decisions. So, we must continue to demonstrate the return on investment - academically, socially, financially - from choosing to study in the UK, ensuring their choice is the right one. However, the competition is rising.
There has been a huge growth in programmes being delivered in English outside of the usual top four (the UK, America, Canada, and Australia). Dubai is just one example, but we're also seeing an increase in education in markets like Southeast Asia where it's also cheaper to study. We’re seeing record enrolment in the UK, but circumstances are exceptional and it’s not clear that the decades-long growth in global student mobility to traditional centres will continue. If we're not careful, countries in the Middle East and Asia, such as China which is already one of the leading destination countries for students (and not just from other parts of Asia) may reduce the UK's flow of international students.
A greater emphasis on life after education
Universities must join the dots between the beginning and end of a student's university journey, preparing them for life beyond the classroom as well as within it. A big aspect of this is employability, especially in a global context - preparation for the increasingly global world of work - and, given all we have learned during the pandemic, we should be embracing the opportunity to provide virtual work experiences.
Even with economic growth resuming, there are only a finite number of internships at major companies that can be provided, and so it needs a radical re-think. We need to think much more imaginatively about how we can support student employability, and, for a lot of students (not just international), they aren’t necessarily interested in opportunities exclusively in the UK.
Finally, we need to be wary of becoming too transactional. Of course, we must look at where the money comes from, but we shouldn’t focus solely on the short-term goals. Financial sustainability was rightly a major focus during the pandemic, but we need to address the long-term strategic issues around the nature of what we do: who we do it for, and who we do it with. International students provide great value to UK universities in bringing not only a positive economic benefit, but also great impact on the wider communities in which they live culturally and socially. Therefore, UK universities must put what’s important to both domestic and international students at the heart of what they do.
Hear more on this topic at UUKi’s International Higher Education Forum on 16-17 March.
Dr David Pilsbury will be speaking at Ahead by Bett on 24 March.