Rise in student concern about safety while studying abroad

As international student mobility grows, the number of reported attacks on students has also been increasing and students are becoming more aware of the risks they may face when studying abroad.

The issue of personal safety has risen sharply in importance for international students when considering where to study, from just 17 out of 19 listed factors they had to consider five years ago to fifth position in 2012, according to a longitudinal study of some 160,000 students carried out by the British Council’s Education Intelligence unit.

The data signal a significant shift in attitudes, said a just-released Student Insight report, The Rise in Global Student Safety Concerns.

In 2007, perceptions about whether a study-abroad destination was a safe country was near bottom of the list of student concerns, but a year later safety shot to ninth, seventh in 2009 and fifth in the past three years.

“Safety has overtaken previously important factors such as opportunity for employment while studying, low tuition costs, and opportunity to learn a new language,” according to the report.

But the top four factors influencing student destination decisions have remained consistent: quality of education, internationally recognised qualifications, career prospects and university reputation.

Factors influencing safety perceptions

In India, students, parents and agents said “without exception” that safety had become a huge concern when considering overseas study.

This follows almost a dozen high-profile incidents in Australia in recent years and the murder last December of 23-year old Indian student Anuj Bidve, who was studying at Lancaster University in the UK. His killer was sentenced in July to life imprisonment.

In contrast to Australia’s relatively poor reputation on safety, the UK’s rating as the safest place to study implies perceptions of a lower level of crime against students and better handling of incidents by police and other authorities – despite last year’s riots.

Issues such as lack of a network of family or friends in the destination country, human rights violations, racism and sexism and other forms of discrimination, street crime, threat of terrorist attacks and the prevalence of guns, added to feelings that a country might be unsafe for students from abroad.

However Elizabeth Shephard, research director for the British Council’s Education Intelligence team, cautioned that the survey was one of student perceptions rather than a basis for real comparison.

“This cannot be used as evidence to advise students on individual [university] choices,” she told University World News.

Integration of international students into domestic student communities was seen as an important factor influencing perceptions of safety. Shepherd said the unique situation of international students made them particularly vulnerable.

“The key to making them feel secure is integration – both with students at the institution where they are studying and within the local community.”

As young people have increasing recourse to online information and social groups beyond their immediate circle, reports of attacks on students can quickly go viral and cause concern, more so than in the past. This has pushed the issue of security higher in students’ minds.

While acknowledging the "sensitive and emotive nature" of student security, the report steers well clear of the key issue of racial attacks, which have been among the most high-profile of crimes against international students.

Instead, it says that “the nature of international student communities – their temporary status and relative lack of familiarity with their new environment, culture, and in many cases, language – leaves them exposed to a large number of risks. Crime statistics show that international students are among the most vulnerable students on campus.”

Countries known for educational excellence may continue to attract large numbers of international students if their reputation on student safety is tarnished, as is the case for Britain or the US.

“However, the significant impact that a limited number of high-profile incidents involving international students had on the Australian international higher education market highlights just how damaging a negative student safety record can be,” the report notes.

“Student safety requires institutions and national organisations to be proactive rather than reactive to student safety issues,” Shephard said, adding that universities only tended to take notice “when they see a direct correlation between safety and recruitment numbers".

The report says the results should help universities and countries to “better understand if there is a growing climate of fear among international students, whether that is based on fact or hearsay, and how the many new ways in which information can be shared is impacting decision-making and opinion.”