The story of internationalisation of UK Higher Education is an undoubted success. There has been a significant growth in international students coming to the UK and the 2030 target of 600,000 has already been achieved and the work on the international education strategy 2.0 is being conducted by the International Higher Education Commission, Chaired by the rt hon. Chris Skidmore MP. Transnational education (TNE) has been expanding as has the flow of students to spend study time from overseas in the UK and visa versa. This growth in participation and movement gives us the chance to diversify the educational experience and, where this works well, students have the chance to learn from others whose background and experience can provide different perspectives and a source of insight and inspiration.

Research has always operated on an international stage as knowledge development occurs through global communities and research-led teaching has tended to introduce students to developments from around the world. Equally, developments in educational practice, including decolonisation of curricula, have helped challenge and ‘decentre’ singular national perspectives where they have previously existed. Through these changes in who is doing the learning and what is being learned, internationalisation has led to improvements in quality for all.

In addition to these sources of intrinsic value, there are extrinsic forms of value. These include the ‘soft power’ of many graduates from UK HE who go on to play significant leadership roles in government, business and other organisations around the world and as Nick Hillman, CEO of HEPI, shows over a quarter of the world’s countries are headed by someone educated in the UK . International students contribute through the fees they pay and also through their entrepreneurship to the economy of the UK.

Given these many successes, a key question for the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, and for the whole UK HE community is: What should we be learning from the international student experience? In dialogue with international students from six universities we were told about a range of experiences in UK HE and the welcome they received in the UK more generally.

What are international students expecting and what do they experience?

International students are stepping outside their comfort zone and paying significant sums and their expectations are reasonable and appropriately high. In particular, they expect engaged staff, up to date and research-led curricula and a diverse student population. In addition, they are looking forward to an education that will help them develop the advanced skills, such as critical thinking, analysis and creativity, needed in productive careers. Many are hoping for the placements and experiential learning which can help them exercise and practise advanced skills and knowledge which is part of the promise of many universities.

The students who participated in our consultation were appreciative of staff and their enthusiasm and of relevant learning materials and careers support. However, for some there had been expectations set by recruitment agents and universities themselves that paid work would be more available than it is. While many had found work, it had tended to be in low wage occupations and did not reflect their knowledge and skills sufficiently, particularly at postgraduate level.

The students were also expecting to make connections and build relationships at personal, educational and career levels. They found Students’ Unions, clubs and societies were excellent for personal connections, a feeling of belonging and support. For some there was a risk of spending too much time in societies with membership predominantly from one nation and all found it beneficial to interact in multi-national groupings. Most found classroom interaction to be well managed and there was an effort to mix students in educational activities. In some universities and courses, however, there were fewer opportunities for this if a particular cohort was drawn from a small number of countries. In general, the students found that they had less chance to build connections that would help in their future careers than they had expected.

The primary area where students’ expectations were confounded was with the welcome to the UK. Arrival and pre-arrival in the UK were often less than smooth experiences. Visas were costly, guarantees needed to be provided and insurance and travel add to costs considerably. Similarly, NHS costs are high and the students’ perception was that very few of them used any NHS services. Some that had found the system difficult to navigate and not as welcoming as intended. It is also worth noting that concerns over cost are likely to be heightened for future intakes of international students given the significant increases to visa fees and the health surcharge by Government. Similarly, dealing with banks and accommodation was not straightforward. Increasingly, universities are helping with these matters and Students’ Unions are developing welcome packs on how to navigate UK systems in advance and on arrival.

The lack of good employment opportunities was significant. It is a popular misconception that all international students come from affluent backgrounds. In fact, like UK students, many need to work to fund their studies and living costs. Universities are seeking to help, but this is an area where more needs to be done. This also has, for some, implications for the classroom culture. Some of the students in our consultation reported having less technology than other students and this symbolising their otherness. Along with internationalising curricula there is also a need for staff to understand the background of international students and its economic diversity.

Some lessons from the international student experience

  • International students were willing and able to play a dynamic role in student representation and university governance, and indeed many are already playing this role. We should encourage this and it is also clear that international students do not want a separate voice – the intrinsic values in education were the same for them as for UK students.
  • Curricula have become more international and decolonised, but there is space for further development and cross-cultural understanding in education practice and engagement
  • Academic and professional staff would benefit from greater insight into the diversity of the international student body and their economic diversity in particular. This can help challenge assumptions and ensure an inclusive approach to the classroom culture.
  • Connections need to be fostered both within the classroom and the lab and with employers, businesses and organisations through visits, projects and placements.
  • Student societies are crucial to fostering belonging and enjoyment and Students’ Unions and Universities can encourage more collaboration between societies with a view to enabling greater cross-cultural engagement.
  • As universities, we cannot replace government agencies, the NHS and private accommodation providers, but we can help these organisations to understand how they are perceived, develop a dialogue at a national level and, crucially, work in partnership with Students’ Unions and external agencies to improve welcome and ongoing experience.

These lessons can support the work of the UKSCQA in providing a forum for collaboration across the UK on quality and international student experience and maintaining the UK HE sector’s reputation overseas.


Nic Beech, Chair UKSCQA and Commissioner in the International Higher Education Commission

Diana Beech, CEO London Higher and Commissioner in the International Higher Education Commission

Jess Strenk, Head of External Affairs at Middlesex University

Emily Dixon, Programmes, Communications and Research Officer at London Higher