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Happy UniDays … are here to stay! 2018-10-24T09:05:50+00:00

Happy UniDays … are here to stay!

A report by

Yao Yuan

Fatema Zahra Somji

Allan Parsons

July 2018
A Students as Co-Creators project
University of Westminster


Executive Summary

Universities often express measures of their diversity and inclusivity in numerical terms, for example, the number of countries represented in the student body. However, as Shaw (2013) notes, recruitment is not the end-point. It is what happens to international students once they have arrived which determines how well integrated they are into the university as a scholarly and socio-cultural community.

The research question of “Happy UniDays … are here to stay”, a Students as Co-Creators project, focuses on international students’ sense of belonging to the University of Westminster. Do they, for example, feel themselves to be active participants in developing and sustaining a vibrant scholarly and social community, given all of the difficulties and travails involved in realising a multicultural plurality?

In order to discover what are international students’ perceptions of their experience at the University of Westminster, the research involved setting up an online questionnaire and conducting a focus group within the University of Westminster. To establish, in a preliminary way, commonalities and differences across London universities several international students at Central Saint Martins were also interviewed.

Secondary research was also conducted into the issue of the globalisation of higher education, particularly the changes in government policies towards higher education that have occurred since the 2008 financial crisis and its political fallout, with its implications for public services and education in the UK.

The students interviewed raised a set of inter-related issues that can be thematised around the following headings: language; the learning experience; support services; mature students; Chinese students versus the rest; technologies; psychological adjustment; you’re on your own; pre-arrival; welcome on arrival; security at halls of residence; and one-year postgraduate courses.

The research points to the need to address four potential gaps between prior practice/expectations and actuality which international students may experience: the ‘language gap’, the ‘pedagogic gap’, the ‘service gap’ and the ‘technology gap’.

From the international students’ perspectives, three areas stand out as requiring attention:

1. Methods of communication and pedagogic strategies in the classroom in some disciplines could be reconsidered to accommodate the actual language skills of the international students.

2. Support services for international students addressing situations arising in daily life, rather than specifically in the classroom, could be improved.

3. Ways to get the more mature students to be closer to each other, so that they can share experiences and learn more from each other, need to be considered.

One key insight from the research, which has the status of being at a very preliminary stage in terms of a potentially more fully-developed study, is that any sense of belonging is in very large part determined by actions at the course level, i.e. at small or local scale, while students do not necessarily feel a sense of belonging to a larger university-wide community.


International students; Internationally mobile students; Student experience; Belonging; Multiculturalism; Diversity; Inclusivity; Plurality; Witnessing


1. Introduction: Internationally mobile students

International students, or ‘internationally mobile students’ in the terminology adopted by UNESCO, the OECD and EUROSTAT since 2015, are a significant feature of the higher education landscape in the early 21st century. The definition that these statistical bodies have adopted is as follows:

“An internationally mobile student is an individual who has physically crossed an international border between two countries with the objective to participate in educational activities in a destination country, where the destination country is different from his or her country of origin.” (Migration Data Portal, 2018)

The figures show a doubling of internationally mobile student numbers in the 21st century, from 2 million in 2000 to over 4.1 million in 2013, the latter figure being approximately 2% of all tertiary students (Migration Data Portal, 2018). Over half of all internationally mobile students are enrolled in six main destination countries of which the UK is one, the others being the USA, Australia, France, Germany and Russia. Prominent among sending countries are China, India and several Central Asian countries.

According to the Institute of International Education (2018), the UK hosted 496,690 international students in 2016 and 501,045 in 2017, an increase of 0.9%. International students account for 21.1% of the total UK higher education student population. The leading countries of origin in 2017 were China (97,850 students), USA (28,125) Malaysia (18,400), Germany (18,205) and India (18,015).

As the figures clearly show, Chinese students are by far the largest group, and this is borne out by our experience at the University of Westminster. This numerical dominance leads to its own particular problematics, as will be discussed below in section 5.5.

This expansion in the number of international students occurs at a time when universities are facing a renewed demand to justify their existence and assert their value to society, in the context of the post-2008 period during which governments continue to move away from the ‘higher education as public good’ approach . As Tsiligiris (2012) comments,

“Higher education has been placed at the centre of public debate as a result of the 2008 financial collapse and the ongoing economic crisis. The main thrust of this debate centres around a rejustification of the role of higher education and a redefinition of its funding relationship with government.”

2. Internationally mobile students at the University of Westminster

The University of Westminster presents itself as being very diverse, attracting international students from 170 countries. For example, on the International page the claim is made that, “We’re the most internationally diverse university in the UK”, based on the figures presented in Hotcourses Diversity Index. While this is a quantitative measure of diversity, and by implication a quantitative measure of ‘inclusivity’, it is the more qualitative and experiential aspects of what it means to be part of the University of Westminster that are of interest to us here in this research report.

As Claire Shaw (2013) notes, “While many UK universities pride themselves on their international reach, recruitment is not the end point. Are universities doing their best at integrating international students once they’ve arrived?”

Our concern is to discover the issues that international students experience and have identified as diverting their attention and energies away from their studies, the whole point of their being here, and to suggest ways to address those issues. We recognise that student integration and student wellbeing is as important as disciplinary study and learning in the overall student experience.

3. The research question

The question that this research opens up and begins to explore, but is far from resolving, concerns how integrated do international students feel themselves to be in the scholarly and socio-cultural community that constitutes the University of Westminster. The practical implications of this question concern whether more needs to be done to ensure that all international students feel a sense of belonging to and participating in the University .

From our initial informal discussions with international students, it is clear that their experiences at the University of Westminster are uneven: some students feel very integrated, while others are not engaged, depending on their courses and personal circumstances.

The project aims, firstly, to investigate the social experience of the international students and, secondly, to investigate the educational experience of international students, international students being defined as all non-UK students, not just those from non-EU countries.

4. Research methods

The research involved setting up an online questionnaire, conducting a focus group within the University of Westminster and interviewing international students at Central Saint Martins to establish, in a preliminary way, commonalities and differences across London universities. Gift tokens were used as a means of incentivising students to respond to our requests for information. Since the research did not begin until late May, by which time many international students had returned home or moved out of the halls of residence, we received very few questionnaire responses. Our data relies mainly on the interviews and focus group material. This is a shortcoming of the research which we readily acknowledge. If we were to try something similar again, it would be best to start a little earlier in the year and to conduct the research over a few more weeks.

We also conducted secondary research into the issue of the globalisation of higher education, including changes in government policies towards higher education that have occurred since the 2008 financial crisis, a crisis that has become politicised, and how universities are addressing issues relating to the integration of international students into higher education institutions that historically have been largely set up to cater for domestic or ‘home’ students.

We used NVivo software to assist us with our qualitative data analysis of the primary and secondary data and information.

5. Research results: Issues raised by Westminster’s international students

5.1 Language

One prominent issue mentioned by most of the students in the focus group and in the interviews was that of language, for example, the different British accents, specific dialects or idiolects, academic and technical language and language articulation, notably speed of delivery. While many international students may be used to hearing English spoken, they are unfamiliar with the variations in British English and regional accents, particularly London accents. The issues overlap and are not all limited to the classroom situation and constitute a kind of ‘language gap’.

Lectures may be difficult to understand fully for several reasons, such as the particular technical or academic terms used, the speed of delivery and the cultural assumptions in the examples used to illustrate theoretical points. An example of this last point was given by one of the interviewees. He described a situation where interview transcripts were distributed for analysis in which the interviewees spoke in patois and slang. International students struggled to understand the nuances of what was being said, putting them at a disadvantage. This poses a challenge for inclusive pedagogies where choice of examples may be constrained because of the subject matter being examined. Examples and evidence that is open to interpretation from many different perspectives, and which does not rely wholly on decoding using specific narrow cultural assumptions, in as far as this is possible, may bring the best responses.

The international students interviewed acknowledged that lecturers are usually very helpful in explaining what they meant to those students who were having difficulties. This is not always the case, however, and there are some courses where there seems to be little sympathy or empathy for the situation of the international students in trying to follow lectures. For example, some lecturers and seminar leaders have assumed that because international students are using their mobile phones in the lecture or seminar situation that their attention has drifted, whereas they are online using dictionaries to try to find the meaning of some of the words being used in the course of the lecture.

More time may be needed in those classes with a high preponderance of international students to allows for processing the information given in class. This strengthens the case for making lectures available on Panopto for repeated scrutiny and playback.

In those cases where there is a high use of use of technical academic language, to form what might be called disciplinary dialects and idiolects, language is experienced as a barrier to knowledge by some international students.

Issues surrounding language affect international students’ perceived ability to ask questions during and after lectures. This very much depends on the culture fostered by the lecturer, indicating whether he or she is open to what might be perceived as the disruption in the flow of transmitting necessary content. International students, partly for cultural reasons in some cases, find it difficult to formulate questions in the moment because of their doubts about whether they have understood what is being said and anxiety about their own ability to phrase the question correctly or coherently. They also admitted that they were reluctant to say “I don’t understand”, because of how it might be interpreted, i.e. as their own failing rather than an aspect of the communication process.

In some instances, some international students perceive the issues around language as a kind of English language imperialism which, they feel, sometimes leads lecturers to skew questions to home students who are perhaps more aware of the cultural connotations implicit in certain phrases and terms and are therefore more capable of understanding the implications of what is being asked. A certain amount of de-colonisation of the curriculum and its expressed content may be a prerequisite

It was noted by several students that outside the classroom on the streets and shops of London, people are generally very friendly but they are often incomprehensible due to the speed at which they talk, their accent and their use of slang and non-standard word forms.

All in all, the students interviewed suggested that time was needed to adjust to these unfamiliar interaction styles and they had consciously to develop a strategy to remain engaged in lecture and seminar situations. For the Chinese students, this involved a degree of collaboration and mutual assistance among their peer group outside the classroom.

5.2 The learning experience

Pedagogic styles differ across the globe and the expectations of international students prior to arrival about how teaching is practised in a British university vary greatly.

What the international students interviewed noticed most was the emphasis on the learner, and indeed the ‘autonomous’ learner, rather than on the teacher. Student were expected to do research to answer a question, rather than finding the answer in the teacher’s statements or content. This differed from the style which many international students had previously experienced. Many, if not most, international students were more used to teacher-centric pedagogies. The students felt that this learner-centred pedagogic approach, while ultimately beneficial to their learning, may be presuming too much in the first instance, and that some sort of gradual introduction to this approach, or at least explanation of it, may be needed.

Teaching styles may need to take this into account, making explicit the pedagogic approach being adopted, while making some adjustment to accommodate the diversity of students in any particular classroom and close the ‘pedagogic gap’. The first question may be to establish just who is in the classroom, enacting a kind of practical audit of which and how many nationalities and/or cultures are present in the room and how they might interact.

Indeed, as recognised by the international students themselves, this could be turned into an advantage if teachers recognised that, in a sense, ‘the whole world is in your classroom’ and that this presents an opportunity to make the most of that diversity and/or plurality and for students to learn from each other. This requires skill and intuition on the part of the teacher, to address the particular mix in the classroom or studio setting and to shape and inclusive environment.

This last point resonates with a comment made by Ammigan and Jones (2018), citing Lee and Rice (2007), who say that, “International students are an important source of diversity at institutions of higher education as they bring with them new perspectives and help cultivate intercultural awareness and engagement among campus and community members”.

Raising awareness on the part of teachers and professional support staff of the different kinds of pedagogies to which students have been subjected prior to coming to Westminster, so that they can re-shape their strategies and ease students’ transitions, may be necessary.

There was a feeling among the international students that teachers may need to practice their empathy more effectively, to recognise what kinds of help international students, sometimes inchoately, are asking for. There was also a feeling among some international students that particular teachers’ pedagogic styles were unhelpful, if not inappropriate, because assuming an audience of home students through their range of cultural reference points.

5.3 Support services

The students interviewed expressed a need for drop-in services that are not emergency services. They felt that, as currently organised within the university, using some of the support services requires a huge amount of persistence, involving a process of being referred from one person to another, making the character of the service culture seem, if not hostile, then at least not easily accessible. Overall, students felt that support services had the feel of being rationed, with appointments for everything and deferral being the norm until, in the end, the students resolve their problems themselves .

The service culture, the international students thought, is too reactive. It is as if the expectation is that students will have no need for support except in exceptional circumstances and that students who have turned up are ‘unknowns’ or ‘strangers’, even though they have been through an interview and selection process and have been chosen and should therefore be ‘known quantities’ to some extent.

The suggestion from students is that support services could be more proactive in approaching the students and asking them about their particular situations, anticipating needs rather than waiting for stress or a crisis to prompt interaction. Rather than the students having to approach support services, and encountering what is perceived as an appointment system that deliberately incorporates long delays, it is possible that support services could come to the student, or to groups of students, as the students are to some extent already known to the institution. A balance between data protection and providing adequate care could be struck.

This suggests a different, or rather a more explicit, service contract agreement with the international students, pointing to what might be called a ‘service gap’. Given the high cost of international student fees, there is a certain expectation of service quality. Cost is a key determinant for international students in choosing a university, and the issue of value for money is pertinent for international students, as their experience prompts them to ask what the premium on international students buys? If part of the answer is that they are more ‘costly’ to educate because they need additional support, that support may need to be more prominently advertised and value for money more explicitly demonstrated.

The question of whether international students are subsidising other categories of students or aspects of the university’s infrastructure becomes an issue, as does the question of whether the premium relates to the university as brand, such that the student is purchasing a higher status in the marketplace by having a degree from what is considered a marquee brand in their home country.

All of these issues perhaps have to be made more explicit, in the sense of what is it exactly that international students, and indeed other categories of student, are paying for. Value for money is becoming an issue for all students, not just international ones.

5.4 Mature students

Mature students may possibly have, in some respects, greater resilience and autonomy. Nevertheless, when they are studying abroad they are separated from their spouses, children, families and familiar support networks, so therefore are still in need of support. The students interviewed expressed the feeling that the organisation of courses was aimed at a younger generation. Mature students have more in common with each other than with younger students. Given that they are relatively few, compared to younger age groups, course and module level responses to their situation may be insufficient in this case. It may be that the university as a whole has some responsibility for introducing groups of mature students to each other and bringing them together. The specificity of their experience needs to be recognised and their perspectives validated, acknowledging the lives, histories and cultures from which they have emerged and into which they will return, in the majority of cases.

5.5 Chinese students versus the rest

As noted by students in the focus group conducted on 11 June 2018, the numerical predominance of Chinese students can lead to a division between that group, who tend to stick together, and international students from other countries, who may not be able to find fellow countrymen or women.

Pre-sessional workshops could play a role to break up Chinese groups and integrate them more effectively. One of the Chinese students interviewed highlighted the importance of welcome/introductory collaborative exercises at the beginning of the course. Using drawings rather than words for communication could be one technique to get the students within a course to create cross-cultural groups. This might help to integrate Chinese students into wider group formations, breaking the reliance of Chinese students upon each other, and discouraging them from staying in the same group and only speaking Chinese to each other.

The Chinese students expressed appreciation of the value of such ‘enforced’ collaboration in widening their circle of potential future collaborators.

5.6 Technologies

One aspect of orientation and integration about which international students expressed concern was the assumptions made about the level of exposure international students have had to particular forms of digital information and communication technologies. Not all students are coming from situations where consumer technologies have fully penetrated educational practices. There may be a need here for a kind of technology audit, so that international students from ‘developing’ countries are recognised to have specific needs in terms of closing the ‘technology gap’ between their past experience and contemporary British higher education practices.

The broader issue may be to present a kind of technology profile at the point of induction/orientation to establish for international students what is expected of them in adapting to the technological grounding employed in UK higher education. The technology of the book and more recent presentational media, and the educational and pedagogic practices built around them, continue to be displaced, and the learning environment now constitutes a shifting, technology-saturated terrain which may need some explicit explanation.

5.7 Psychological adjustment – ‘everything is new’

As Wang (2016) notes, in adjusting to their new environment, international students have greater need of proper and accessible university services and support than do home students. Our research confirms this hypothesis. The interviewees highlighted their experience of finding that ‘everything is new’ and they had entered a ‘brand new world’. While adjusting over time, our students would appreciate any guidance that is available at this early stage to enable them to orient themselves.

5.8 ‘You’re on your own’

On the basis of their experiences, the interviewed students felt that, to a large extent, they are ‘on their own’. While help is notionally available, when it comes to a crisis, such as being burgled and losing one’s valuables including bank card and Biometric Residence Permit, the burden of addressing the situation falls upon the individual student and their friend network. The situation, it is felt, is similar for students who arrive late because of visa difficulties, meaning that they have missed the orientation sessions, and who therefore find integration with the rest of their year group harder. No one, as it was expressed, looks out for you to make sure you are integrating.

5.9 Pre-Arrival

The possibility of using We-Chat (for Chinese students) or WhatsApp (for other countries) to establish groups before beginning the course, that is, “ways you can connect students together in advance – by email, apps, Skype, Q&A sessions, or social media” (Burge, 2016), should be given serious consideration.

Some students highlighted the value of celebrity vlogs on YouTube which orient students from particular countries to life in the UK. This enables them to find out about small-scale everyday practices, such as, for example, how to navigate the public transport system in London.

5.10 Welcome on arrival and early days

The importance of weighting integration efforts towards the period when international students are settling in should not be underestimated, the students noted. This is a point which is raised in previous studies of the international student experience, such as that conducted by Burge (2016), who notes that students expressed the need for more support at that point in time.

To make students feel welcome Burge suggests meeting them at the airport, providing ‘welcome bags’ with a basic toiletry kit, a few snacks, maps, drink bottle, vouchers for food outlets, and information about the local area, and help them to make new friends. Burge also recommends ensuring that part of the programming involves some form of peer support, for example, one-to-one buddy programs, such as employed by Kingston University (Stokes, 2017) or one-to-more ambassadors or student leaders who host activities or door-knock in the early days of their arrival to make sure they have settled in to their new home.

5.11 Security at halls of residence

The point raised above in section 5.8, concerning burglary, highlights the issue that in some of the halls of residence security may not be as high as it could be, or as is claimed. This is not the case across the board but may only be the case for particular halls.

5.12 One-year postgraduate courses

The students felt that those international students who are on one-year MA courses receive the worst deal in terms of student experience, as any improvements they suggest may not be fully implemented until the following year, and there is no guarantee that they will be implemented at all. The quality of their experience varies greatly, depending on which course they are enrolled, emphasising the importance of the course-level care and attention provided.

6. Concluding Comments and Suggestions

The research points to the need to address four the potential gaps which international students may experience between prior experience and expectation and the actuality of attending the University of Westminster, for example, the ‘language gap’, the ‘pedagogic gap’, the ‘service gap’ and the ‘technology gap’.

From the interviews, we gathered that the majority of efforts to integrate students and to create a sense of community and integration, when they are made at all, generally take place at the course level. This may be, in fact, the crucial point at which to make interventions if the results of the research of Ammigan and Jones (2018) are to be believed, i.e. that satisfaction with the learning experience has the most impact on international students’ overall university experience in the UK.

There is little doubt that the student experience of support services could be improved at the University of Westminster, even though, according to Ammigan and Jones, student services has the least impact on the students’ overall university experience.

From the international student perspective, three areas stand out as needing attention:

1. Methods of communication and pedagogic strategies in the classroom in some disciplines could be reconsidered, for example, on some postgraduate courses delivered at the Harrow campus, to accommodate the actual language skills of the international students. This might mean a move away from a ‘content transmission’ model towards a more student-centred approach to pedagogy, thereby providing the support in the classroom, including mutual student support, rather than having such support separated from the teaching in domains such as ‘research support’.

2. Support services for international students addressing situations arising in daily life, rather than specifically in the classroom, could be improved. This is to recognise that the institutional support required extends to the ‘whole person’, so to speak, rather than only dealing with those aspects of the person deemed to be ‘the student’.

3. The remaining question concerns ways to get the more mature students to be closer to each other, so that they can share experiences and learn more from each other.

This could be as part of a more general approach to the ways in which cultural differences are raised and explored or, in the terminology of Kelly Oliver, “witnessed”. As Marjorie Jolles (2005) explains in a review of Oliver’s Witnessing: Beyond Recognition,

“Witnessing is a practice dedicated to the project of reconceiving the other as a subject, which requires a more rigorous, open encounter with difference than mere recognition as it is understood in contemporary discourses (particularly discourses of multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion).”

Witnessing takes difference as that which is most valuable between self and other, opening up the self to “the adventure of otherness”. In this way, the enterprise university’s official commitments to diversity and inclusion may be realised. This could enable it to overcome its actual indifference to difference, to reinforce its openness to becoming different (Petersen and Davies, 2010), in the course of its having, at the same time, to respond to the pressures arising from having to operate within neoliberalism as the dominant governmental rationality (Brown, 2003; Brown and Hamburger, 2018).


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