By Camille Kandiko Howson
Higher education recruitment has become a political issue. Stricter visa regimes for foreign students were implemented in April 2012. International students have fewer opportunities to work in the UK after they finish their degree, and it has become more challenging for partners of students to work and study. The House of Lords issued a report criticising the government’s immigration policy, to decrease immigration overall whilst also increasing international student numbers, and its effect on student recruitment. With the government’s stance on immigration, Britain does not seem a welcoming place for many international students. Taking a tough stance on immigration for the domestic market also sends signals abroad.
There is a complicated web of “push and pull” factors with international student recruitment. Changes in domestic economic markets, the development of high quality institutions at home and opportunities for on-line study can keep formerly mobile students at home. However, large scale scholarship schemes can encourage students to study abroad, such as Brazil’s Scientific Mobility Program, which aims to facilitate sending over 100,000 students abroad.
Are UK universities becoming too complacent?
It is an increasingly competitive global market for international students. Over half of internationally mobile students are from Asia, but new recruiters such as Spain, Russia and Korea are entering the student market. Malaysia, a developing international hub for education, is now a net importer of international students. Japan hosts over four times as many students as it sends abroad, and in South Africa 12 students enter the country for every one that goes overseas. Given the competition, UK universities may be falling into patterns of complacency and one-way exchanges. As noted in The Global Student Experience internationals students are savvy about where they study, are sensitive to price and the quality of education provided. At the same time the number of international fell in the UK, the figures for the US increased for both incoming and outgoing students.
Across UK higher education, the student experience is gaining attention, through new research, funding initiatives and management positions. However, the international student experience is often forgotten or ignored. There is no ‘inter’ in internationalisation for many students who enrol in institutions with little interest in diverse cultures or ways of knowing. Institutions are not supportive of the holistic student experience, often leaving co-curricular activities to underfunded student unions. International students are often denied internships, placements and other opportunities that would enhance their employability. The lack of support leaves international students feeling that they pay more and are treated worse than home students, which is reflected in lower international student satisfaction scores.
Talk of negative experiences spreads fast
International students’ difficulty in acclimating and feeling welcome is seen across higher education staff as well. There is a lack of diversification of staff. Of the UK’s 18,510 university professors, just 85 are black, and only 12.8% of academic staff are from a known ethnic minority background. Furthermore, among international student communities there are concerns about safety, reports of students being treated suspiciously, even detained and searched. Talk of such negative experiences passes quickly through tight-knit ethnic communities in the UK and abroad.
International students are seeking a high-quality education, and while the teaching and learning and standards of degrees are seen as high, the UK lacks support for transition into higher education and then into employment. To change this, integration needs to be improved between schools and universities, as well as between universities and employers. The sector needs to acknowledge the global student market, and that the world is opening up.
Effect on institutions
Significant drops in high-fee-paying international students puts staff jobs at risk across the UK higher education sector. There is particular danger to subjects linked to the modern knowledge economy, including science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), which are dominated by international students, particularly at the postgraduate level. This adds to recent instability of funding across the sector. The consequent need for institutions to cut costs is likely to decrease the quality of education on offer.
Institutions need to diversify, both in terms of hiring diverse staff and broadening student recruitment. The government needs to welcome international students and the benefit they bring to cultural diversity, driving the STEM agenda forward and supporting the UK higher education sector. Researchers need to explore specific issues for international students, but also include international students in general research. Wider issues of equality and inclusion should also be researched and brought into the policy sphere. But most importantly, international students need to be treated as people and learners, not numbers on a balance sheet.
Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is research fellow at King’s College London and co-editor of The Global Student Experience: An International and Comparative Analysis. Camille is also co-convenor of the SRHE Student Experience Network. A previous version of this post appeared on the Guardian, 4 April 2014