Universities need a wide safety net for foreign students

The last two years have been a roller-coaster ride for international students, fraught with anxiety and uncertainty about the future amid the coronavirus pandemic, regulatory barriers and the looming global economic recession brought upon by it.

As borders worldwide open and international students, particularly from Asia, return to study overseas, the new normal is marked by financial and emotional stress. On top of traditional language and cultural barriers, students face new economic and social integration challenges in the post-COVID era.

Asia – led by China and India – makes up 72% and 52% of the international student population in the United States and the United Kingdom* respectively, and has the potential to contribute almost 80% of the growth in foreign students by 2025.

However, Indian and Chinese international students need institutional support to keep coming back to higher education institutions in the West. Shrinking student demographics negatively impact the workforce and economic competitiveness. If the US and UK are committed to increasing international student enrolments, they will need to streamline the regulatory bureaucracy associated with recruitment.

New challenges in the new normal

While in-person international education programmes have now resumed post-pandemic, getting students back to campus isn’t as easy. The global economic downturn may lead students and their families to economise on the expenses related to studying abroad.

Students may defer their higher education plans abroad, drop out or opt for remote learning, which may be cheaper than on-campus courses.

International student mobility is slowly bouncing back. India sent 12% more students to the US in 2021 than in 2020, while in 2020 there was a drop in Indian student numbers of 16.7% compared to the previous year. The UK attracted 60% more students from India and 3% more from China in 2020-21, as compared to a year ago.

To attract and retain international students in an economically and socially turbulent environment, it is imperative for educational institutions to create a safety net by providing more logistical support, better and more comprehensive initiatives for inclusion and interactive channels that address their well-being.

The well-being quotient

Beyond financial aid and academic guidance, international students seek a sense of belonging in a foreign environment, a lack of which makes them mentally and emotionally vulnerable. They primarily look for systemic inclusion and integration, both socially as well as through technology.

Traditional software and systems used by universities often follow a one-size-fits-all approach to enable students to connect with support programmes, faculty members and other students. This can be difficult and intimidating for new foreign students. It also fails to establish their trust in institutional support initiatives.

The obvious problems are language barriers and a lack of knowledge about the availability and accessibility of support initiatives.

The bigger problem is the cultural barriers that make the current support system unable to understand or resolve their issues. This poses a challenge, especially for the families of international students looking to access more information about their children’s education and well-being, or looking to accomplish complex logistical processes like international payments.

Hence an end-to-end strategy is required to address the mental health and well-being of this student community.

Pre-departure orientation

For instance, universities can start prepping foreign students for their new environment early on. International student associations can play a crucial role here by supporting students and their parents with local pre-departure sessions – giving them detailed orientations on daily student life as well as how to take advantage of available health and well-being programmes.

This will also help alleviate the worries of family members of international students as their child enters an unfamiliar environment.

Universities can also improve the assimilation process for international students via social networks, such as through using common interests and geographical background. This could help establish a sense of belonging well in advance of the student’s arrival on campus.

Once these students reach campus, educational institutions can deploy multiple channels to support them in the transition and integration process. In addition, institutions can follow up with separate programmes, communicating with this student community about their well-being and mental health.

Logistical barriers

A number of institutions have logistical processes for the international student community, for instance, concerning bank transfers, which create ‘artificial barriers’ for international student matriculation.

These barriers and challenges could range from the complex – having the students navigate the regulatory environment and compliance with local laws by themselves – to the deceptively simple: a lack of guidance and support in the local language and time zone.

Removing barriers for international students to apply to and matriculate in their institutions and eliminating the bureaucracy of international student matriculation processes are vital for ensuring that universities address the real needs of their international student community.

When a university cares about the well-being of its international students, it builds its reputation by word of mouth and attracts talented individuals, which ultimately leads to improved rankings.

Besides, at a time when the competition in international higher education is immense (it is expected that international higher education will become a US$433 billion industry by 2030), addressing the overall well-being of foreign students, be it economic, emotional, psychological or social, will be the key to standing out.

Tony Gao is the president and co-founder of EasyTransfer, an online payment services platform dedicated to improving international student mobility. Tony started the company in 2013 as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California after realising that international tuition fee transfers are complex to navigate at banks and can take several days to process while incurring hundreds of dollars in fees. Now, EasyTransfer processes over US$3 billion+ in payments annually, and has served 250,000+ international students from China, India, Malaysia and Singapore. Tony is currently on entrepreneurial leave from his MBA programme at Harvard Business School.

*Asia makes up 52% of the international student population in the UK: this is derived from the number of Asian students in the UK in 2020-21, divided by the total number of international students. The percentage as such isn’t given anywhere.