How to create ‘happy’ international students

Many Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) see international students as ‘cash-cows’ for the large amount of tuition fee income they bring in, but despite their positive impact these students are often left to struggle without support and to survive and succeed to graduation by their own means. This struggle occurs because international students frequently face endless difficulties from their different learning environments, their intercultural experiences, their language challenges and their affective, cognitive and behavioural adaptations.

Studying abroad can thus be risky for the student, and failing to manage and mitigate this risk also has costs for the HEI. International students must be integrated within the host country if true inclusivity of the classroom is to be achieved and the benefits of diversity, which we all know and appreciate, can be realised.

Providing international students with a programme of academic courses to enhance their study skills, (writing techniques, critiquing the literature, group work, researching skills, exam preparation and report writing) as well as their social skills (pastoral activities), is crucial to this process of integration and adaptation. The need for the former is obvious and common to all students, but the networking skills the latter provides are also important as they allow the student to feel a sense of belonging, and if they are happy outside the classroom it will transfer to the inside where they will learn alongside their peers.

One way to deliver this programme is via a longitudinal induction course linked to CPD and to the programme’s objectives via the use of case study analysis and teamwork. Using this approach to prepare students to research and synthesise information, so that they can answer the questions and provide recommendations to the group, is an excellent way of improving their confidence and teaching them a new set of skills. It also encourages the students to learn more ‘deeply’ and apply the principles to practice, taking on board the thoughts of their peers. In addition, technology can be used to create a virtual learning environment. Discussion forums are a particularly dynamic way of interacting with each other and sharing ideas via e-networking.

There are stress factors when learning in a new environment and social media is another mechanism that can be used to positively enhance group discussion and debate, which can alleviate feelings of isolation. LinkedIn, for example, seems to be more popular with mature students whereas WhatsApp and Snapchat are more popular with younger students, but social media overall seems to be an engaging way of stimulating learning and improving confidence for the students who use it.

Another way to help alleviate isolation is by appropriately managing student expectations, whereby students and staff know what is expected of them and the rules of etiquette throughout their programme of study. For example, universities tend to demand students sign their code of conduct, but international students frequently do not understand these ‘contracts’ because the rules are not explained in real terms and the language can be confusing. A classic illustration is the way many international students fail to use Harvard referencing correctly, and then do not really understand the seriousness of these implications and the consequences. In the worst cases, this can create an almost Kafkaesque scenario for the students, where they are formally sanctioned and unable to progress in their programmes, and yet cannot understand what their points of recourse are or why they should be used.

Lastly, to create a schema that consistently delivers for international students across all these areas, HEIs must construct formal and pre-planned timetables that act as ‘dripping-taps’ over the duration of students’ first semester or even first year of study, ensuring that they are kept engaged and have the opportunity to ask questions and build networks and relationships with their peers.

Adapting can be tricky, especially if the student is new to the UK. However, with personal tutors, mentors and university support mechanisms, this transition can be smoother, and international students can be treated as they deserve to be treated; as valued members of the HE community.

By Dr Yvonne Moogan, Associate Professor of Online Business Education at Leeds University Business School