What international students say they need: quality

The international student experience as a concept is growing fast and gaining in importance for higher education educators. Universities around the world offer a wide range of support services to satisfy the needs of students.

However, the provision of services for international students has not been deeply analysed and assessed in relation to the views of all those affected. The trend towards internationalisation and increased mobility drives the globalisation agenda in many higher education institutions yet in some cases there is no clear strategy for identifying the possible needs of international students.

Are universities aware of international students’ perceptions and needs?

My recent doctoral work and research shed light on the different needs that international students have when visiting new countries and the particular services they might require.

A comprehensive study taking into account the views of around 60,000 international students on this topic, titled "International Students’ Perceptions of Their Needs When Going Abroad: Services on demand", was published in August in the Journal of Studies in International Education.

Little academic research exists on this aspect of student mobility, but recently universities, journals, fora, blogs and magazines on higher education have begun to tackle the topic and are bringing new ideas for enhancing the student experience, as one of the key elements of the internationalisation of higher education.

One example is a recent article in The Guardian, “How can universities help international students feel at home?”, which reported that some universities have started to promote the same orientation days for domestic and international students in a bid to avoid differentiation between the two groups and a sense of isolation.

We already know that not all students are the same. It follows therefore that “not all students have the same needs” because different push and pull factors influence their decisions during the mobility process.

Global shifts in internationalisation

Global trends and pressures may affect the way that higher education institutions execute their internationalisation policies and strategies and therefore their provision of services for students. Moreover, as a European Parliament study on Internationalisation of Higher Education in 2015 identifies, there is a shift in the way internationalisation as a concept is now understood by higher education managers.

This has occurred alongside internationalisation becoming more mainstream, managers widening their scope and focus from student and staff exchange programmes to a broader range of activities on and outside the campus, and as internationalisation moves from being located exclusively in ‘international offices’ to becoming a more integral part of university strategy with greater stakeholder involvement.

For this reason, support services and the inclusion of all stakeholders matter for promoting an international dimension and culture in higher education institutions that support international students’ needs.

International students’ comments after they have spent time abroad show that their primary concern when they go abroad is quality. Next comes topics related to living expenses, such as food and accommodation. They underrate other costs associated with their experience abroad, such as transport, medical costs and insurance and academic expenses.

International students also comment on issues related to teaching and academics. After this comes financials. This involves living expenses issues, but also relates to macroeconomic issues. The fifth most popular topic relates to what the city in which the university is located offers. Students focus on the people they encounter in the city and on the variety of choice that a large, diverse town with a full cultural agenda can offer.

The study focused on a group of European Union students moving around the world for studies or internships abroad. Most were Erasmus students. They represent the needs of a large group of international students who would benefit from a better support service system provided by both home and host higher education institutions.

For this reason, it is clear that a better understanding of the needs of international students is required so that universities can provide them with a better student exchange experience. Universities should be aware of international students’ views and concerns and should implement the strategies needed to fulfil their expectations.

There are three important steps they can take:

  • • Assess their international students’ needs,
  • • Include all stakeholders of higher education institutions in the internationalisation process,
  • • Implement organisation- and programme-based strategies to meet their needs.
Institutions that are able to identify their international students’ needs will provide them with a better service.

Host university support services can be a key factor in attracting and retaining international and domestic students so institutions of higher education should adapt their student services and curricula so that they are in line with international students’ expectations, and so that they create an inclusive environment that meets international students’ academic, cultural and personal needs, with the support and engagement of all stakeholders involved in the internationalisation process.

Adriana Perez-Encinas is assistant lecturer and researcher in the department of business organisation of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain. She was awarded the European Association for International Education's Rising Star Award 2017. Email: