Trend of decentralised international student support

Nowadays universities do not need to be convinced that their student support services need to cater to international students as well as domestic ones. However, the support system that exists depends on both external and internal factors. A lot is shaped by context: national regulation, the predominant language(s) in the country, the changing demands of the job market; but also and just as importantly, the university’s development strategy.

The language barrier is the first and major hurdle to accessing the system of student support. The second obstacle is the lack of a flexible interface for every university service that takes into account the diversity of the student body.

In such circumstances, and when the number of international students is relatively small, it is often easier and more effective to start with a centralised approach, as that allows institutions to ensure adequate and timely support of predictable quality to incoming international students.

However, despite the impression that this is how a student can resolve all the issues they have in one place, it is a quasi-one stop service because the central office is not a provider of university services but a mediator between students and relevant units. Consequently, it becomes the bottleneck that slows processes down when the number of international students grows.

Moreover, a separate track of support creates an isolated bubble for international students, providing fewer possibilities for intercultural experience and, thus, increasing the risk of creating a split university.

Decentralising support

Worldwide the idea of decentralising support for international students has been gaining popularity in recent years. It is usually based on the assumption that each faculty or school can better deal with their own target audience, both in education and its administration. There are definite positive sides to the decentralised approach: it allows the university to ‘absorb’ large numbers of international students and to immerse them in the environment.

One of the greatest advantages of a decentralised system is that it provides room for multiple solutions and each faculty can choose what works best for them. However, there is a downside: there is no single standard of support for international students across the university and this becomes a sensitive issue for the students who take courses at different departments.

Given this fact, it is crucial to maintain a delicate balance between providing adequate support for incoming internationals at any given moment and benefitting from decentralisation of university services.

Designing the support network: an integrated approach

Traditionally, one legacy of the Soviet era was that in Russia all universities had a centralised support system because the majority of students were coming to study at Russian-taught programmes so they would either take a prep year first or were already fluent enough in the language to receive education in it.

The Higher School of Economics, or HSE, was in a similar situation until recently: the majority of its international students came from Commonwealth of Independent State countries and had quite a good command of Russian and only a small number of students came to take courses in English.

When the number of international students who do not speak Russian increased at HSE in 2013 and the existing mechanisms could not cope with it, their support was transferred to a newly established Office of Internationalisation or OI.

When choosing between a centralised and decentralised model, the OI opted for an integrated approach: as a central office, it focuses on developing support services in relation to international students, on internal advocacy for their integration and on designing standards of support and sharing them through training. Direct provision of support is carried out by frontline offices.

This integrated model quickly proved effective thanks to its three main attributes: building a reliable front and back office, creating a professional community and taking a deliberate approach to development.

First, the frontline addresses routine tasks that can be formalised into guidelines and standard procedures. The central international student support office plays the role of a back office – troubleshooting non-standard cases, finding solutions and developing guidelines. It also shares good practice with frontline managers via regular meetings and workshops and provides support directly to students when there is a benefit of scale.

At HSE the international student support office is the initial point of contact for exchange students; it distributes them among frontline managers, updates the website for international students, organises orientation sessions and works with student organisations.

The major challenge to creating an integrated student support system was to find the right partners, and thanks to the institutional transformations HSE was undergoing, the OI was lucky to find like-minded colleagues in the support system for educational programmes. Instead of previously common faculty-wide offices each programme got a dedicated manager and the university made English proficiency one of the requirements for hiring.

Second, the Office of Internationalisation is deliberately working towards creating a self-perpetuating professional community among those who provide support to international students.

One of the key tasks for the central office is to create opportunities and mechanisms for professional interaction, allowing the managers to sync knowledge in terms of the concepts used, how the processes are organised and what the timeframes are. This shared understanding enables the support system to share knowledge not only between the centre and frontline managers, but also within the community, which creates a synergetic effect.

Third, OI acts as a think tank, making sure that plans for development of support services for international students stay in line with the university strategy. At a time when things are changing fast and universities are responding by making the necessary alterations in their priorities and strategy implementation plans, the role of the central office is to proactively and quickly ensure that international student support matches the current needs and anticipates the future ones.

The model’s success still leaves room for improvement, especially regarding the issue of internal advocacy for the needs of international students and, more broadly speaking, internationalisation. Ideally, everyone who is involved in provision of student services would be taking into account student diversity (linguistic, cultural, etc) in all of their everyday actions.

Nonetheless, rather than thinking of the integrated model as a preparatory phase and a milestone towards a decentralised approach, the Office of Internationalisation treats it as a sustainable solution. This allows it to adapt to the fast-changing external context, to analyse challenges and find ways of responding to them, at the same time as mainstreaming internationalisation in the university.

For this to work, the OI takes on the mission of building a professional community involved in international student support and a development strategy for support services which aligns with the university’s evolving needs.

Yulia Grinkevich is director of internationalisation at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russian Federation. Email: Maria Shabanova is deputy director of the Academic Integration Centre at the Office of Internationalisation, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russian Federation. Email: This article was first published in the current edition of Higher Education in Russia and Beyond.