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Universities told to enhance support as UK battles its bad PR

The UK’s universities must work to build the trust of international students by being honest about the uncertainty they face in the current political climate, while ramping up student support efforts to combat the country’s “unwelcoming” image, higher education leaders were urged in a stern wake-up call in London yesterday.

"We absolutely cannot afford to be complacent," Janet Beer, incoming Universities UK president and University of Liverpool vice chancellor, said at the UUKi event. Photo: The PIE News.

“We as a sector have to be on the front foot, to be proactive”

“It’s very clear to international students that the UK has become less welcoming, to say the least,” NUS international students’ officer Mostafa Rajaai said at an event on enhancing the international student experience, organised by Universities UK International.

“If you’re a student on the ground, it feels like an institution’s being dishonest with you when it says ‘Nothing has happened’”

In the two years he has held the role, ever-tightening visa regulations and anti-immigrant rhetoric have been two major issues incoming students face even before they arrive at university, he said.

Speaking about the “isolating feeling you get when you have to jump through so many hoops just to get here”, Rajaai called on universities to act as a “safe haven” for students.

“Being honest with international students could be the first step towards that,” he said.

Universities were right to respond quickly to last year’s Brexit vote by reassuring international and EU students that they are still welcome in the UK, but said some had risked alienating students by projecting an image that “nothing has changed, everything’s exactly as it was”.

“If you’re a student on the ground and you go to the city centre, you see how people treat you differently, you see how immigration is tightening, it feels like an institution’s being dishonest with you when it says ‘Nothing has happened’,” he related.

“I think a better approach would have been: ‘We understand things are getting difficult… but we’re going to do more.’”

Universities must also create structures for students to have their voices heard and reevaluate whether they are offering enough support to international students, he said.

“You don’t see the same amount of money that’s spent on recruiting international students being spent on student support,” he challenged.

Some successful initiatives to support international students put forward during a panel discussion at the event were a move to introduce mental health services in students’ own languages and providing events that are open to both international and domestic students to help student populations integrate.

“It’s our obligation to provide inductions where international students mingle with home students,” commented Chris Shelley, director of student services at King’s College London, which also opens up spaces for both domestic and international students who are unable to go home and may feel isolated during Christmas holidays.

“You don’t see the same amount of money that’s spent on recruiting international students being spent on student support”

UK higher education institutions are becoming ever more aware of the need to provide robust support services for international students amid what many feel is an increasingly hostile political environment, speakers at the event acknowledged.

“There’s still a perception that the UK is not as welcome and as desirable a destination for international students – as many surveys have told us,” noted Max Lu, vice chancellor at the University of Surrey.

“We’re forever vulnerable to political shifts,” Lu told delegates. “We as a sector have to be on the front foot, to be proactive, to think about how we’re going to demonstrate and deliver value to international students.”

Incoming Universities UK president and University of Liverpool vice chancellor Janet Beer also underlined that “we absolutely cannot afford to be complacent” about the impact of external changes on international students.

Universities must deliver a “consistent message that [students] are valued, they are safe, they are at the heart of our campuses and we are privileged to have them”, she said.

And during this time of political upheaval following the recent general election and with Brexit negotiations looming, universities must continue in their lobbying role, she said.

“We need to remind politicians that the wider UK public welcomes international students,” she urged.

“International students are a gift to the UK’s soft power and to our future soft power,” she said, adding that universities “should be enduringly grateful” for the contribution students make to their campuses.

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