International students feel exploited, commission is told

Too many international students in the United Kingdom feel they are just a number and the means for their university to make a profit, a session of the recently created International Higher Education Commission (IHEC), devoted to giving students a voice, was told.

The commission was launched by former universities and energy minister, Conservative MP Chris Skidmore to bring experts together to help shape a future international higher education strategy now that the UK has surpassed its 2030 target of recruiting 600,000 foreign students.

It is largely seen as a response to the clamour by some right-wing MPs and anti-immigration groups who say Britain grew its overseas student population too quickly and this helped net migration to reach well over half-a-million last year, as University World News has reported.

So far, the IHEC has focused on trying to ‘head off’ the political challenge of maintaining and building on the original international education strategy, of which Skidmore was a key architect, by hearing from university leaders, policy experts and former ministers.

However, on Tuesday 21 February it honoured a pledge to hold a special session to let international students have their say about studying at British universities, which was held jointly with the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA).

No holding back

There was no holding back, especially after Middlesex University Vice-Chancellor and IHEC Commissioner Nic Beech asked the student panel whether they felt “like numbers” when they read some of the coverage in the media about international students in the UK.

Gino Obaseki, a masters student at Glasgow Caledonian University from Nigeria, said the UK had to go beyond recruiting students and make sure that universities helped international students secure accommodation.

“You are making us think we are just a number, and I can tell you that 50% of the Nigerian students I’ve spoken to at Glasgow Caledonian University with a spouse would go back home if they hadn’t invested so much in this trip and had the opportunity and the country back home was okay.

“You are making us feel like we’re just numbers, but we know what financial role we are putting into the university so we cannot be looked down on anymore,” he said.

Aditya Metha, a PhD student at the University of Leeds from India, told the IHEC online session he considers himself a global citizen and normally feels comfortable anywhere, but he was taken aback when attending a ‘high-level meeting’ at the university where the authorities had “no qualms about admitting they made no money on local students and subsidised that cost” with international tuition fees.

Feeling like a ‘hybrid’

Sara Kozakova, a postgraduate student from Slovakia studying at Newcastle University, said she feels like a ‘hybrid’ because she was an EU-student prior to Brexit at Portsmouth University, but now has a pre-settled status and is a “home student, at least on paper”. However, she still gets asked when she is going back home (to Slovakia).

“I am kind of a hybrid, not only by being an international student, but coming from a background where my family can’t support me financially. I feel quite disadvantaged because I constantly have to make sure I am working and sometimes I have more than one job so I can cover my rent and living expenses.

“I have a postgraduate loan to cover my tuition but was turned down for financial support because I didn’t have access to a maintenance loan during my undergraduate degree,” she said.

She also cannot provide landlords with a UK financial guarantor and is forced to pay six months, or sometimes a year, in rental fees upfront.

“I feel a bit discriminated against,” she said, adding that Newcastle had been supportive with internships.

Student labelling

Kozakova said part of the problem was the labels that universities put on students: whether they were ‘home’, ‘international’ or ‘European’.

“They are making the integration process just a little bit more difficult,” she said, adding her main reason for coming to the UK was to “live and study in a multicultural society. I come from Slovakia which is the complete opposite. I wanted to learn from people from other cultures, from places I had never visited, and that was definitely met by my experience.”

Reese Chamberlain, an undergraduate student from the United States studying international relations at the University of Edinburgh who arrived during the COVID pandemic, said: “There was a disconnect between what the university promised me and what actually happened in reality.” He questioned why international students were told to come to campus.

“We were locked down in halls and taking classes by Zoom all day and I didn’t really feel the executives had our interests at heart,” he said, adding that it was left to the students’ union to provide more comfortable surroundings. “They put on a lot of events to encourage international students to meet. A lot of students felt that they should not have been made to come in that first year.”

Like several of the speakers, Chamberlain said it was only when he got a part-time job in the centre of Edinburgh that he felt part of the city. “My job made me feel part of the local community. Integration is not just about what the university can do. My job was really the catalyst to feeling part of Edinburgh,” he said.

Graduate route: a ‘primary reason’ to come

Asked by University World News about the importance of the post-study work visa regime, known as the graduate route, which was introduced in 2019 to allow international students to stay for two years in order to find a job in the UK after they graduate, Mehte said a number of Indian students told him it was the primary reason they choose to study in the UK.

“It gave them the opportunity to potentially repay the loan, but I have found that the ongoing political rhetoric [around foreign students in the UK] has caused a degree of discomfort among international students,” he said.

Obaseki agreed and said the post-study work visa was the biggest draw for most Nigerians studying at British universities. He was lucky to get a full scholarship, but criticised the hike in international tuition fees, from £13,000 (US$15,700) to £16,000, and the £1,000 increase in the deposit since the influx of Nigerian and Indian students in the UK several years ago.

Lindsay Nygren, a PhD student at Glasgow University from the US, who is studying international students' employability, said many institutions are recruiting so heavily from some nationalities that certain classrooms were failing to bring the multiculturalism that international students were seeking.

“You can have a class of two local students and a handful of other nationalities, and then just one major nationality,” she said.

Jie Fei Lau, a final-year medical student at Aberdeen University from Malaysia, spent two years in an English boarding school before enrolling in her degree and still found many international students struggling, particularly with the ‘drinking culture’ which is so important with many UK students, and particularly during their freshers’ year.

It can exclude certain groups of students, she said.

‘Extortionate’ tuition fees

She also highlighted the ‘extortionate’ tuition fees for international students in medical degrees, which had risen by between five to 10% every year since she started her medicine degree in 2018. “When I started out, my parents were paying £39,000 a year; right now it’s gone up to £46,000 a year,” she said.

She warned that the UK is likely to see fewer international students willing to come to study medicine and said universities and medical schools in particular needed to offer some financial support and hardship bursaries to widen their appeal.

“We’re losing a lot of doctors and even the British doctors are contemplating moving abroad because of the [low level of] junior doctor pay and all that.

“The tuition fee is one thing [putting off international students from studying medicine], but it is also the prospects of a better future in other countries,” she said.

Lau plans to stay and work for at least two years in the UK but admits: “With a British medical degree I could work in Australia, or some other country, where they are prepared to pay me a salary that is commensurate with my qualification.”

Among the new IHEC commissioners announced on 21 February is Sanam Arora, founder and chair of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union, UK, who told University World News she was looking forward to working with colleagues across the sector “to develop an international education strategy for the UK that is student-centric, ambitious and world-leading, and gives a voice to recent international students”.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.