How many international students is too many?

The pandemic has exposed some anglophone universities’ financial over-reliance on overseas students. But if internationalisation takes a step back in the coming years, how much will be lost pedagogically? And will anything be gained? Anna McKie reports

September 30, 2021
row of planes flying vertically to depict international study
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“International students are too easily framed, both inside and outside the sector, as a problem or a burden. They're not. They’re just an absolute gift.”

This is the view of Cath Ellis, associate dean of education at UNSW Sydney. Such students, she believes, should be valued not only for the high tuition fees they pay, which provide the bulk of the surplus that her university needs to carry out its research programme, but also for “the richness that they bring to the classroom”.

But that second kind of richness has been in abeyance recently. While international students have continued to pay their fees during the pandemic, border restrictions have rendered them unable to participate in the physical classroom even when it has opened up again for domestic students. That is particularly true in Australia and New Zealand, whose borders have remained firmly shut; the former’s volume of commencing overseas students has fallen by 35 per cent compared with 2019 as a result.

THE Campus resource: Bringing international and intercultural dimensions into your programmes

Universities have long argued that international students can enhance the classroom experience by exposing all students to different cultures and experiences. However, in recent years there have been quiet rumblings that anglophone higher education’s lucrative embrace of overseas students has gone too far.

That sense is, again, particularly strong in Australia. Even pre-Covid, some of the country’s top universities faced tough questions about whether their internationalisation efforts had proved too successful. UNSW, for instance, doubled its earnings from international students between 2014 and 2018, with its mainly Chinese overseas cohort generating A$872 million (£464 million) a year by 2019. At the University of Melbourne, international students accounted for 46 per cent of full-time equivalent students in 2018, according to that year’s annual report. Overall, there were 720,150 students enrolled in Australia’s various post-secondary sectors, an 11 per cent increase on the previous year – which was an 11 per cent increase on 2017.

However, in May, the country’s Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (Teqsa) said that the pandemic “has exposed the inherent weaknesses of business models for Australian higher education institutions that have been heavily reliant on income derived from overseas students from two major markets – China and India”.

Nor is the concern merely financial: it is also pedagogical. In 2019, Attila Brungs, vice-chancellor of University of Technology Sydney, introduced guidelines stipulating that international students should not exceed 30 per cent of his institution’s student body. Brungs, who will lead UNSW from February 2022, stated that this would deliver “the benefits of different worldviews in the student body” while limiting the potential impact of excessive international admissions on the experience of both local and international students. The previous year, Brian Schmidt, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, vowed to put an end to an explosion in overseas enrolments after a 61 per cent leap in just three years, taking them to 36 per cent of total enrolments, commenting: “If we get any bigger, we will not be better.”

Alex Usher, chief executive of Canadian consultancy Higher Education Strategy Associates, says that similar concerns have been raised in his country, too. Universities in Ontario, for instance, have seen their incomes rise by about 30 per cent in the past three to four years, entirely on the back of international enrolments. “This brings challenges that you can let slide when international students are 10 per cent of class but get a lot harder when they are 30 per cent of the class,” he says. “When you’re getting those third-tier institutions that suddenly ratchet up the number of students coming from the Indian subcontinent from 50 to 750 a year, you are likely to face those challenges.” Institutions have “largely left their professors to figure this stuff out”, he says – but they need to do more to ensure that international students are having a meaningful educational experience.

There are also issues for domestic students, of course. The UK’s 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey, conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Advance HE, found, for instance, that while a majority of UK students believed that sharing a classroom with overseas students gave them a “better worldview”, 24 per cent believed that international peers “require more attention from the lecturer”, 22 per cent believed that they “slow down the class”, and 16 per cent said that their presence means that “academic discussions are of a lower quality”. And a 2012 Australian study found that adding international students to a tutorial “leads to a reduction in most students’ marks”, with the effect felt strongest by students from English-speaking backgrounds.

One obvious concern is international students’ language ability. Louise Kaktiņš, a lecturer in the linguistics department at Macquarie University in Sydney, has studied the English proficiency of international students at Australian pathway colleges and universities and she has concerns. “Not only [are] written assignments [proving] challenging, but [so are] spoken interactions with tutors, lecturers and classmates, especially where participation was graded,” she says. In credit-bearing group assignments, “interactions with local students proved difficult and could compromise the ultimate grade”, she adds.

A 2018 study by researchers at the University of York echoed this concern. Researchers found that, on average, international students knew half as many English words as home students did, even though they all had apparently strong IELTS scores of between 6.5 and 7.5 (the UK government’s student visa requirement is 5.5; the IELTS scale runs from one to nine). The study also found that international students read and processed information in English at half the speed of native speakers and were less able to summarise in writing what they had read. 

Kaktiņš warns that the pandemic-enforced switch to online learning could exacerbate these issues. “For students new to Western academia, an exclusively online environment can be challenging as they try to adapt to new and more sophisticated English language demands…as well as trying to understand and internalise the expectations of their lecturers and their university,” she says. And she believes that the sector should seize the “rare opportunity” to revitalise and reset international education “specifically based on quality assurance”, noting that Teqsa recently recommended that international education “should be considered first and foremost on its own (pedagogical and other) merits, and not in and of itself based on profitability/income”.

That view is echoed by Peter Brady, a UK-based higher education consultant who wrote the 2020 book Internationalisation of Post-1992 UK Universities: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He believes that UK universities – and politicians – have begun to recognise that more stringent language standards are needed. “They understand that you can’t just take the money and let everyone in – it’s not worth the impact on your university.”

But, for him, the issue goes beyond students’ language ability. A more enlightened approach also involves ensuring that a diverse spread of countries is represented within particular cohorts, so that international students “don’t get stuck in national silos and everyone gets the benefit of interacting with them”.

Indeed, students can be specifically prepared to interact in multicultural groups. For instance, Brady has been involved with classes to prepare Asian students, in particular, to go beyond the rote learning they are familiar with and acquire “independent learning skills – which was in some ways a more difficult challenge [for them] than [acquiring] language skills”.

But a balance of nationalities is something that less selective universities struggle to achieve, Brady concedes. “Those institutions that are less attractive to international students tend to have fewer options so they end up with very large waves of students [from particular nations], usually from China and often on business studies courses.” And those students often interact only with each other. “So, unfortunately, what we have found is that having international students on campus by itself does not internationalise the UK students.”

Bart Rientes, professor of learning analytics at the UK’s Open University, has done extensive research on students’ social networks. “Most international students really like the experience of being in the UK,” he says. But most would like much more interaction with locals, particularly UK students. Those international students who were identified as lacking that local connection were more likely to report feeling discriminated against or having experienced racism, and this often related to their English language abilities, he adds.

Universities themselves don’t help, given that most “tend to group international students in international halls rather than mixing them with local students”, he adds. Yet Rientes’ research “continuously showed” that new friendship networks can be created by putting students into diverse groups to work on authentic, complex assignments for substantial periods. While in a brief group assignment it can be difficult to overcome a range of cultural barriers and understandings, “if you let them work on authentic assignment for, let’s say, a couple of weeks, encourage that and give feedback, in both real classrooms and an experimental setting, we found that they actually do even better than more homogeneous groups,” Rientes says.

students with oxygen mask
Getty montage

There are even more issues to contend with when there are no native speakers of the language of instruction. A case in point is the Netherlands, where debate has raged in recent years over the extent to which English should be used as the language of instruction, as is common at the internationalised postgraduate level. A bill introduced into the Dutch parliament in 2019, following a major review, proposes to extend the existing duty to promote the Dutch language to all students, not just locals. Its passage was paused because of Covid, but it looks set to be resurrected soon.

Apart from the impact of English use on Dutch culture, there is also a question about its pedagogical consequences given that even Dutch academics and home students might  have less-than-perfect fluency. “If you have a lot of international students and you’re teaching not in the language of the country, there are questions over whether it will affect the quality of the national student population in a negative way,” concedes Martin Paul, president of Maastricht University, where more than half of students are non-Dutch.

However, the reality does not bear out that concern, he adds: “We have actually found that in the so-called international classroom, the average grades of the national students also increase with that of the international students,” mainly because “international students who have made the move to come here are incredibly motivated”.

Moreover, students choose Maastricht because it is international: “They say: ‘I want to have an education that will make me capable of finding a job across Europe and elsewhere,’” Paul says. That requires teaching in English because it is the “lingua franca of science” – although Maastricht still teaches students in Dutch, too.

Importantly, Maastricht also offers free language courses to students and staff, and trains its lecturers specifically in how to teach in an international classroom, including how to bring together a very diverse group and manage group dynamics when some nationalities are typically more outspoken than others. “You cannot just consider internationalisation as a collection of international passports. You also have to make a specific effort,” he says.

Betty Leask, professor emeritus in the School of Education at La Trobe University, in Melbourne, also emphasises the need for instructors to make adjustments for the fact that their classroom is international. In terms of the optimum balance between international and domestic students, she believes that there “isn’t any reason why you can’t go 50-50”. This is because, far from harming group discussions, a good mix of international and Australian students enables the latter to learn about different perspectives, she argues. “It is an enormous benefit to have international students in the classroom. But the teaching and learning takes more effort on the part of the teacher.”

For that reason, she laments that, in Australia, specific training opportunities for academics are scarce. “There is still a myth in the minds of some government and university leaders that you can have the benefits of international students on campus without making any changes to teaching and learning,” she says. “But teaching is a very dynamic process. It’s not the same as buying a packet of washing powder.”

For UNSW’s Ellis, part of the challenge for teachers is to recognise that students’ starting place, in educational terms, is often very different from that of the domestic elites that used to dominate lecture theatres.

Today’s academic staff need to “let go of what they think is the standard they should be entitled to teach and be prepared to park their ego at the door”, she believes. “[International] students are entitled to be there and to have a learning experience that moves them on from where they are to where they want to be.”

Brady also agrees that “well-trained staff” are necessary to reap the pedagogical benefits of internationalisation, adding that staff at the UK’s former polytechnics are often better prepared for the international classroom than those at more selective institutions owing to their experience of teaching domestic students from a wider range of educational backgrounds.

At its best, the international classroom can cast new light on old issues. Xin Xu, a research fellow at the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford, notes that internationalisation can help to diversify curricula and may help to promote emerging initiatives such as the decolonisation agenda.

“If you are trying to decolonise a British history class, students from countries that had once been colonised by Britain can bring in that context in very helpful ways,” she says. “Knowledge doesn’t just flow in one way. Students can also offer their insights and enrich each other and then teach the tutors: there are things even they won’t know.”

However, she concedes that “not everyone has an open attitude towards embracing the multiple cultures. There are sometimes misinterpretations or misunderstandings, which can lead to stereotyping or, worse, racism or prejudice.” To combat this, she says institutions need to do more to project their respect for other cultures, particularly in their marketing to international students – rather than “just treating them as cash cows”.

The OU’s Rientes agrees that universities should talk up the virtues of internationalisation and “sell the opportunity to work with students from different cultures as an opportunity to practise what it is like in the real world – because in real life most people will also work in various international settings”.

Another issue that has some observers worried is academic integrity. UNSW’s Ellis has “never really been able to understand this hostility to international students because, bloody hell, they work hard, even when they’re out of their comfort zones”. But a perception exists that international students are disproportionally inclined to take shortcuts. When it comes to plagiarism, this is sometimes put down to an innocent misunderstanding of Western academic norms. But other offences are not so easily varnished.

One example is the cheating on language tests uncovered by the BBC’s Panorama programme in 2014. In the same year, hundreds of Chinese students at 16 Australian universities were revealed to have used the Chinese-language contract cheating site MyMaster to write their essays and even to sit online exams for them. A 2016 investigation by The Times into more than 100 UK universities found that students from outside the European Union were more than four times as likely to be caught cheating as their classmates from inside the bloc, including the UK. And a 2018 study of about 14,000 students in eight Australian universities found that students who spoke a language other than English at home were significantly more likely to admit to having cheated in assessments.

Ellis, an expert on academic integrity and author of the 2018 study, blames the problem on the vulnerable situation of international students struggling with English, which makes them targets for essay mills. “Their parents have paid a lot for them to be here. The consequences of failure for them are massively different to the consequences of failure for home students: it’s a huge amount of pressure.” Either way, however, it is “not in universities’ interests to let in students whose skills aren’t up to it”, and she notes that institutions have improved their language testing to avoid similar scandals.

However, language struggles have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, she fears, since many international students have been living in their home countries for many months, deprived of the usual immersion in an English-speaking environment. “It is really challenging for some of them that the only time that they’re using their English is when they’re in the classroom. They turn off a Zoom call or the Blackboard Collaborate tool, and then they’re back talking to their family or their flatmates in their native language.”

So what of the future? Will the pandemic lead to a reassessment of the virtues – economic and pedagogical – of internationalisation? And will that reassessment inevitably lead to a rowing back on overseas recruitment?

Allan Goodman, president of the International Institution of Education, believes that, in fact, Covid is only likely to enhance internationalisation in the US – although that means Americans going abroad as much as overseas students coming to the US.

In a surprise move, US secretary of state Antony Blinken spoke at a higher education forum in July to highlight the value of the $39 billion international student market to the US economy. His department has also released a statement encouraging “all Americans to consider pursuing international experiences like studying, interning, teaching, or conducting research abroad”.

According to Goodman, this is “the first time we have had an administration take a coordinated, multi-departmental approach, stating ‘we want to be part of international education, and international students are welcome here’”.

For Goodman, the ideal situation would be to level up the number of US students who study abroad (about 306,000 in 2018-19, according to IIE figures) to the number of international students in the US (nearly 1.1 million in 2019-20). “US students don’t study abroad in the numbers that we would like but they can sit next to someone from India, China or Iraq in their [US] classroom – this forces us all to think of things from a wider perspective, not just from the US or the developed world perspective,” he says.

The UK, too, has its sights set high regarding incoming international students, aiming for 600,000 a year by 2030: a 30 per cent increase on pre-pandemic numbers. Brady thinks there is “arguably a role for government to decide the mix of international students we want in our education system – one that is good for our UK students, as well as for the international students – rather than just letting market forces dictate what it is”. However, such a move would be counter-productive, according to Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

This is because “very large numbers of international students actually make it easier for home students to enrol because they transform the finances of institutions. Without them, some courses wouldn’t run,” he says.

“You want balance. It is naive to think that it is going to be achieved on every course, but if there are courses that are typically dominated by one particular international market, universities just have to be upfront about that,” he says.

LaTrobe’s Leask agrees. “It would be a great shame if universities aren’t teaching students global thinking,” she says. “As we struggle to get back to ‘normal’, I just hope we don’t lose what we learned in the last 15 years – namely, that there is added value for both students and academics in having diverse voices in our classrooms.”

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Reader's comments (7)

Thanks for the article. Here is the link to the University of York study on international and home students' language skills - it's open access:
Who are you kidding? Overseas students are welcome because they pay high fees and in a system that values cash above all else, they will be accepted in large numbers.
Money, money, money.... It always talks. The one universal language.
Money, money, money.... It always talks. The one universal language.
Money, money, money.... It always talks. The one universal language.
From my experience many Universities are now so overcommitted to certain overseas countries students and the money they and their governments bring with them, along with the extra staff the aforesaid governments pay for, whilst ignoring the problems and interference those staff and students create often at the behest of their government, that many potential UK students cannot secure a place. Several courses at one I know well have employed translators for the 100% single overseas country sourced students, though they need to as many students IELTS scores have been from 'professional' test sitters. As to the pedagogical benefit for others I question if there is any, with many arriving early for highly profitable pre-sessionals and at the request of their government (and the embedded 'handlers') they are ensconced in single ethnic ghetto's in halls where they stay for the next 3 years rarely if ever mixing with other ethnicities. And I'm told by the Academic colleagues who teach them it's usually very clear who their government appointed overseers within their student body are in the first week of teaching, such is the reach and power of their government over their lives. As long as it's bringing in the money I suspect most Universities will continue to turn a blind eye to both the IELTS system abuse and all the other problems, no matter how badly it effects potential and actual UK students.
Thank you for this article! I think it can be easy to have a cynical view on international student numbers and forget that we have a duty to the students that are currently enrolled.