All international students need more help to adjust to university

Even students who have spent many years in UK secondary schools struggle to make the transition, says Pat Moores

May 14, 2022
A confused student
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It is understandably assumed by many in higher education that the international students who are best prepared to flourish at university are those who have already studied in the host country.

For example, many international students in the UK previously studied at UK boarding schools, language schools and day schools, sometimes for several years. But recent research conducted by the UKI Forum suggests that even in these cases, the transition to university is often far from seamless.

The forum, set up by UK Education Guide, BSA Group and the universities of Exeter and Sheffield, has found that, in reality, international students already in the UK (known as UKI students) face similar challenges to those confronting students arriving at fresher’s week directly from their home countries.

When asked which aspects of moving to university they were most worried about, the most popular answer among the 165 16- to 18- year-old UKI students who responded to our two surveys was “learning at degree level”. Respondents to our first survey, conducted in September, highlighted concerns about English competency in particular. As one put it, they would welcome “reassurance that if you are studying at school in English today then you will have a good enough level in English to cope with university.”

Respondents to our second questionnaire, carried out in March, saw their biggest academic challenge as “being able to show critical reasoning to gain high grades at university”, followed by “being able to engage in debate with other students in tutorials and seminars”. These issues, too, are usually more associated with international students entering the UK to start degree programmes.

There are many courses that prepare international students for university study in the UK, but there seems to be a real need for further practical training that bridges school- and university-style educations. There is a definite role for universities to play in encouraging faculty to visit schools and explain in specific terms how learning at degree level will be very different to studying for the International Baccalaureate or A levels. Taylor Wearne, regional manager at Exeter, even suggests going so far as providing students with “examples of how an A* A-level essay looks very different from a highly graded first-year degree essay, how to present extended research from many more sources and how to evidence advanced critical thinking.”

However, on the last point, the terminology around critical thinking needs to be much more consistent and culturally sensitive to allow students from all nationalities to fully embrace it. For example, Eastern cultures recognise a more Confucian style of evaluation and feel more comfortable with a “kaizen” approach: continuous improvement, as opposed to a burn-the-house-down-style of critique. There is no reason why the output in terms of quality or academic rigour should be lessened by such a change in terminology.

Another major concern of UKI students is “picking the wrong degree”. And, asked what would help them most with making decisions about going to university, the most popular answer among our respondents was “more general advice about how to select the university that is right for me”.

Even though they are already in the country, UKI students, like international students generally, do not get a lot of opportunity to visit multiple institutions because they do not have parents on hand to drive them around – even when we aren’t in the midst of a pandemic. So while universities typically focus on explaining the merits of their own institutions at recruitment fairs and campus visits, those institutions that receive the warmest response from UKI students may be those that take a step back and make more helpful and informative presentations about what they can and can’t offer compared with other institutions.

Providing information about the local area is also important. As one of our respondents put it, “I'd like to know more about the country and how to live in it. As an impressionable international student, I need to figure out a place where I can stay at; things like that. I’d appreciate if schools and unis had more extracurricular classes on how to live outside of school.”

As Joe Doherty, student recruitment officer at Sheffield says, “Conducting further research into the specific needs of UKI students is vital to help us better connect with them and meet their needs”. Doing so may well increase recruitment of such students. But, more importantly, it will help UKI students make better-informed decisions and benefit as much as possible from their UK university educations.

Pat Moores is founder and director of the UK Education Guide.

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