Four key hurdles international students face – and what to do about them

How can we make international students’ academic journey a positive one? Katherine Mansfield suggests ways to alleviate their social, academic and language challenges

Katherine Mansfield's avatar
5 Dec 2023
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
A range of international flags, shot from below

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Westminster

You may also like

Don’t forget that international students need careers support too
International students needs careers advice too

International students face multifaceted challenges upon arriving in the UK. They must demonstrate proficiency in English, navigate the academic norms of a new institution, foster connections with domestic and fellow international students and find their own sense of belonging. With the international student community projected to increase by 5 to 6 per cent annually until 2030, institutions need to address these issues in detail.

Research I conducted at the University of Westminster, consisting of an online survey and follow-up interviews, examined four key hurdles international students encounter when arriving at UK higher education institutions. Those were: educational, language and sociocultural difficulties, and discrimination. To better address the unique needs of these students and empower them on their academic journey, here are my tailored recommendations.

Start before arrival

Introduce a “bridge the gap” course designed to assist international students as they transition into UK higher education from diverse educational backgrounds.  This course could cover various topics international students commonly encounter difficulties with, such as adapting to different styles of teaching, understanding the assessment methods and marking criteria, grasping the grading system, acquiring academic writing skills specific to the UK and promoting cultural integration.

Guide the way

To guide international students as they arrive on campus, improve the signage by making it larger and in a range of languages, and increase the visibility of student helpers and members of staff. At the University of Westminster, we had student helpers in brightly coloured t-shirts waiting in the reception area to greet the new intake. This can reduce students’ anxiety about getting lost and create a more welcoming environment.

Provide access to mentorships

Improve student retention and alleviate anxiety by offering international students the opportunity to enrol in a mentoring scheme. During the critical adjustment period, such schemes will help them access academic guidance.

Boost your students’ well-being

Improve the promotion and communication of your institution’s well-being and support services through a variety of channels such as email, international blog and social media, to reach a broader audience. This will help create a campus climate where students feel cared for.      

Organise recurring workshops that address the primary causes of stress and provide strategies on how to effectively manage them. International students often experience high levels of academic stress as they navigate the UK higher education system. It’s important that they acquire the skills for managing stress in a healthy way. 

Flag up English language development support services

Make international students aware of the importance of continuing their English language development throughout their academic journey from the very start, at the offer stage. Encourage them to attend the academic English modules and workshops your institution offers and make sure they know about the available services for continuous improvement. This will help them navigate the challenges international students can face when writing and speaking at a UK higher education institution.

Encourage the academic English department to collaborate with heads of schools and course leads to identify the evolving academic support needs for international students and adapt their workshops accordingly. 

Actively foster their sense of belonging

Course leads, personal tutors and lecturers have a pivotal role in shaping international students’ sense of belonging. Encourage them to create a supportive environment, provide timely assistance and reach out to students who may be at risk of disengagement, particularly during their first semester of study. A student’s sense of belonging can significantly impact their well-being and academic success, and nurturing this feeling is crucial for their overall journey. Proactive members of staff can make all the difference. 

Use communication channels to increase international students’ engagement in university and student union social events. Although international students often struggle to establish social connections in a new environment, these events can significantly contribute to their social integration. Often students study abroad to enhance their language proficiency and forge friendships with domestic students, yet establishing these connections can be challenging. Organise social events outside degree programmes to facilitate interaction. 

Embed EDI into staff training

It’s important to foster a culture of respect and understanding on campus – and enhance the educational experience for all students. Run mandatory staff training sessions on equality, diversity and inclusion, focusing on awareness and prevention of microaggressions and strategies for promoting an inclusive classroom with students from diverse backgrounds.

All UK university students should complete a mandatory equality, diversity and inclusion essentials course, which demonstrates how diversity can be celebrated in the curriculum and in class. It should highlight the role of domestic students in fostering an inclusive classroom atmosphere and be tailored according to the composition of the institution’s student body.  This is vital for creating a welcoming campus environment and preparing students for their academic journey with peers from diverse backgrounds. 

Katherine Mansfield is senior lecturer in academic English at the University of Westminster.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site