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Study says family crucial to mobile students

Family relationships play a crucial role on the international student experience and universities should become more aware of its impact on retention and academic resilience, a new report warns.

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The report recommends HEIs offer specific pastoral care

“Whether family is 2000 miles away or in the same city, they still influence the student – and this is not recognised,” lead author Jacqueline Stevenson told The PIE News.

“In the stories international students told us…family features so significantly in their lives”

“Problematically this means that those tasked with supporting the retention and success of international students may be doing so with an insufficient awareness of the risks to their social and academic resilience,” it reads.

Conducted at Sheffield Hallam University and funded by UKCISA, the study analysed 230 survey responses and 21 in-depth interviews.

According to Stevenson, universities tend to treat students as independent adults without considering the student’s personal situation.

But the family’s emotional, financial and moral support is paramount for international students, Stevenson explained.

And when that support is missing, or when expectations are too much, students can experience a distress that institutions may not always fully understand.

“In the stories international students told us… family features so significantly in their lives – in a very emotional way,” she said.

The report sets out specific recommendations which will be then tested and disseminated across the sector – and will be made available also on the UKCISA website.

Most importantly, universities need to offer a more comprehensive – and personal – pastoral support, according to Stevenson. All institutions need to recognise the fragility and vulnerability of some international students, she said.

“Some international students for example reported finding it really difficult trying to explain to the financial services that they were struggling to pay their fees,” she told The PIE.

“They didn’t think universities often understood the complexity of their lives, how many family members were involved trying to support them, or that they were struggling with sick and elderly parents who were thousands of miles away. They were often being dealt with just via email.”

Among its other recommendations, beyond being aware of students’ family circumstances, commitments and expectations, the report said universities should endeavour to integrate international students in their local community.

This would allow to foster a sense of belonging and counteract the typical element of ‘transience’ of the international student experience.

Finally, institutions and governmental organisations should consider a more thorough data collection around the reasons why students drop out of university– this may create opportunities to build institutional support around family circumstances.

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