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UKCISA events put international student support in spotlight

A week-long series of events in the UK has heard directly from international students on how they feel – “invited to the Prom, but not invited to dance at the Prom” – and covered practical ways that international students can be supported in the country.

UKCISA Fest was held from November 16-20. Photo: UKCISA

OfS referenced the increase in hate crimes experienced by Asian students with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring

UKCISA Fest, marking International Student Day and International Education Week, included presentations from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education and the HE regulator the Office for Students, both explaining what support international students could expect from them.

The session from OfS was introduced by Khoa Nguyen, an international student from Vietnam and one of UKCISA’s #WeAreInternational campaign spokespeople.

Nguyen summed up the feeling of international students not being core contributors in the comment, “invited to the Prom, but not invited to dance at the Prom”.

“In 2019, the OIA received 2,371 complaints, the highest it has recorded”

Josh Callander and Catherine Read from the Equality and Diversity section of the OfS then set out how the OfS is shaping its offering around the needs of international students.

The pertinence of this was reinforced when Callander referenced the increase in hate crimes experienced by Asian students, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring.

The core aims of the OfS’ international student strategy are to “advance the equality of opportunity for those with one or more protected characteristics [race, religion, sexual orientation]” and “enhancing student success”.

Priorities orbiting this core are: access to student services; inclusion/effective pedagogy; engagement (students as co-creators and partners) and safety (tackling bullying, harassment and hate crime).

In terms of tangibles, Read laid out some of the initiatives, including various competitions and research projects that had been created in her own department, including on diversity, harassment, hate crimes and mental health.

Coronavirus briefings were inevitably a key part in recent OfS activity, and briefing papers on harassment, hate crime and financial hardship were among those issued.

In the briefing paper specific to international students, examples of support included various online information portals that could be used for advice on visas and remote working (for example at the University of Coventry) and a digital ‘global hangout’ venture at the University of Sheffield designed to mitigate the feeling of isolation that students were experiencing.

While the OfS offers student support in various guises, the Office of Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education is there for, as the title of their webinar put it, “when things go wrong”.

The OIA offers recourse for students when their university’s internal processes do not resolve issues to their satisfaction.

Common areas of complaint include academic appeals, teaching provision and facilities, academic misconduct, bullying and harassment, discrimination, poor student experience and financial matters.

In 2019, the OIA received 2,371 complaints, the highest it has recorded, with 21% coming from students in non-EU countries.

OIA student liaison officer, Barry McHale, and provider liaison officer, Gemma Slade, outlined what the organisation could and couldn’t do for students.

For example, it cannot look at admissions outcomes, but it could look at whether a course was advertised correctly, in terms of level of teaching, access to resources etc. The OIA can’t rule on disability discrimination, only a court can, but it can rule on whether a provider has followed good practice on access.

To further illustrate the OIA’s reach and remit, Slade outlined a few case studies.

“We concluded that some of the committee hadn’t investigated the complaint properly”

One example given centred on a student enrolled on an international graduate medicine program that included some placements in the USA. The student complained about information provided in the prospectus and they asked to do their placement in the UK instead. The provider reviewed the case and concluded that there was no intention to mislead. The student wasn’t happy with that outcome and went to the OIA.

“We concluded that some of the committee hadn’t investigated the complaint properly,” said Slade, “and that the program had not been delivered as advertised.”

The upholding of a ‘partially justified’ ruling resulted in the OIA recommending a payment from the university of £20,000 to the student for the “disappointment, distress and inconvenience caused” as well as that the institution review its internal procedures and to look at the accuracy of information it was giving to students.

As McHale noted, “There’s a difference between saying sorry and saying sorry properly.” Sometimes that sorry can come with a price tag.

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