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UK: 81% of overseas students “happy” with 2020 experience

The majority of international students at UK higher education institutions are happy they commenced studies in 2020, a study has suggested, while England’s Office for Students has noted the “impressive speed” with which the nation’s universities and colleges shifted to online teaching.

English higher education institutions shifted to online teaching with "impressive speed" the OfS said. Photo: Unsplash

The latest survey found that 92% were willing to quarantine rather than defer their studies

According to IDP Connect and Universities UK International research, 81% of international students in the UK rated their happiness on a scale of one-to-10 as six or above, which they emphasised was higher than competing destinations Canada or Australia.

“In spring this year, universities and colleges shifted to online teaching with impressive speed”

The OfS also released its annual review , in which the organisation’s chair, Sir Michael Barber, paid tribute to the hard work institutions in England have shown in adapting their practices in response to the pandemic.

However, the public body did flag up concerns for international students in particular: OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said OfS has “been particularly concerned about the impact of the pandemic on certain groups of students”, including international students.

The paper highlighted that reports of harassment and hate crimes directed towards students have continued in 2020.

The overall satisfaction rate score recorded – across 783 current international students in Canada, Australia, the UK, US and New Zealand – was rated at 6.4 out of 10, with those in the US most satisfied but the sample size small.

Overall satisfaction was highest in the US with an average 7.5 of 10, compared to the UK’s 7.1. However, the lower number of responses – with 41 responses from students in the US – made the statistic negligible.

While some 30% of 182 current international students in the UK questioned said they had not any special non-academic assistance or support this year, it was a better ratio than the 52% of the 326 students in Canada and 40% of the 222 in Australia saying the same.

Students in Canada and Australia rated their happiness level on average as 6.2 and 6, respectively.

“The findings from IDP show the large majority of international students who chose, despite the pandemic, to start their studies in the UK in 2020, are happy with their decision – and happier than students who chose other competing destinations,” said Vivienne Stern, director of UUKi.

“This is testament to swift action from the UK government, and the fantastic work of universities and the whole of the UK higher education sector in welcoming and supporting international students throughout this period.”

A higher percentage of students in the UK also reported flexibility on start dates, support for physical and mental health, and providing overall support when quarantining, the research showed.

A higher percentage of students in the UK also reported flexibility on start dates

“In spring this year, universities and colleges shifted to online teaching with impressive speed. I have been told that in some cases more progress was made in a month than in the previous five years,” the OfS’s Barber said, as it released its 2020 review.

But the report sounded alarm bells that “rising ‘anti-Asian-looking’ sentiment has affected international students”.

In a supporting international students briefing note, released in May when campuses were closed, the OfS warned that international students may be returning to or entering “higher education at a time of increased harassment and hate crimes”.

“Interventions may be required to mitigate against the possibility of rising numbers of incidents as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” it said.

Student-facing paper The Tab recently reported an anonymous Queen’s University Belfast international student opened up about the racism they faced on the campus in Northern Ireland, while other publications have found similar issues in Belfast.

The Independent also published news about overseas students struggling to pay their tuition fees during the coronavirus pandemic as a result of financial hardship in the UK.

The Universities minister Michelle Donelan said in April there was “no place in our society – including within higher education – for harassment, discrimination or racism”, in a letter addressed to international students.

Looking ahead, the OfS also said it will produce more content for international students on its Discover Uni platform that it runs with other UK higher education funding and regulatory bodies.

However, CEO of IDP Connect, Simon Emmett, said the findings of the IDP/ UUKi research will be encouraging to “future international students who can see that the UK is not only open to international students but also welcoming and supportive”.

“The UK sector should be commended for how it worked together to share pragmatic, practical and advice with students and families amid extremely challenging circumstances,” he said.

“The UK sector should be commended for how it worked together to share pragmatic, practical and advice”

While earlier instalments of the research in June found that 77% of those surveyed were willing to quarantine, the latest survey, carried out in October, found that 92% were willing to quarantine rather than defer.

Chinese students were the most likely to say that they’d not be willing to quarantine, with 25% indicating they would rather defer, the report’s wider findings – released in November – showed.

The OfS will also release a review of digital teaching and learning in early 2021, which will “set out how we can learn the lessons from this shift and ensure digital provision becomes a significant contributor”, Barber added.

“The pandemic forced a radical shift to online delivery; the disruptions and challenges involved will only be truly worthwhile if they lead to opportunities seized,” he said.

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