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Issues and Challenges of UK International Education in 2020

Higher education institutions (HEIs) encounter different challenges in different countries. Knowing how different countries react to adversity will be helpful especially to those whose institutions are experiencing similar challenges in their respective markets. My article this week aims to provide useful information and insight that would help educational institutions in addressing similar concerns.

What international education brings

HEIs do more than provide education to their students. They need to ensure the safety and well-being of their students through appropriate policies and practices, and that includes international students. 

However, international education research shows that many issues continue to make it difficult for international students to adjust.

International students that come into the UK for higher education represent a significant economic benefit to the government. This takes the form of income taxes, national insurance payments of employees and employers, and the mitigation of skills shortages in key industries. In the 2016-2017 cohort study, this economic benefit totaled £3.2 billion (approximately CAD$ 5.5 billion).

Aside from bringing in tax revenues and mitigating skill gaps, international students play an important part in boosting the local economies of their host countries through the tuition fees and rentals they pay as well as the money they spend locally. International students also entice friends and family to visit the UK, which also brings in revenue. 

Fortunately, the UK has always been a favored destination by international students, especially students from China and India, which send the bulk of international students to the UK. In 2018, the UK had 485,765 students of which 267,525 were new. Of these new students, 86,485 came from China and 17,760 came from India, representing 32% and 7% of all new international students globally, respectively. 

International Students in UK

Source: https://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/briefings/international-student-migration-to-the-uk/ 


The total number of international students for that year represents about 19% of all students in the UK. This is mostly due to the “perceived quality of instruction” in studying in HEIs in the US, UK, and Australia by students from Asia, which comprise 57% of all international students in 2018. 

The ratings drop

However, the UK has suffered a drop in popularity among international students starting 2012 even as Australia, Canada, and China experienced strong growth. Non-European countries have been overtaking the UK, Germany, and France since 2011 in international student recruitment.

MSM Research Total Number of International Students in UK

One reason for this in the case of the UK is overly restricting the granting of student visas since the 2008 economic crisis, Also, the UK has limited the number of years that foreign students can stay to just five years. 


The number of Indian students that went to the UK for higher ed studies, for example, dropped by about 50%. Precisely 485,645 international students were in the UK for 2018/19, an increase of about 5% from 2012/13. In comparison, Australia saw a 73% increase in the same period.


That said, the UK is still one of the top destinations for incoming international students, but that is just one side of the equation. Recruitment is hard, but retention is even harder. Higher education institutions often have to provide support to students to help them transition from school to college, and the challenge is even harder when it comes to international students.

What surveys said

As one might easily imagine, acclimatizing new international students involves many factors. A review of literature on international education research showed that international students in the UK face more challenges to adjusting than other groups such as immigrants because they also have to perform academically. Among these are language barriers, cultural differences, inclusiveness, and academic adjustments.

That makes it more difficult to address these issues, and failure can lead to student attrition. The review cited articles as far back as 1975, but interestingly, there was nothing more recent than 2016, which spoke of student engagement.

There is a clear need to address the issues unique to international students in the UK to attract more students and encourage them to finish their studies. In 2013, a survey of 500 students across 105 UK educational institutions indicated that at least 20% of them felt socially “isolated” and 57% of them felt “unwelcome.” About 40% of international students tended to spend most of their time with other students from their home country.

A similar study showed that more than half of international students felt that the UK government was “not welcoming.” Moreover, students from Pakistan, Nigeria, and India indicated they would not advise friends to study in the UK.

Challenges ahead

While it behooves the UK government to ease up on visa restrictions to attract more international students, that is not enough to create a supportive and inclusive environment. It is often up to the educational institutions to put policies and practices in place that would address the academic, social, and personal issues that a student might experience when they study in the UK.

A small exploratory study carried out in a UK university pointed out that international students often “are  required  to  adjust  to  an  unfamiliar  culture,  economy,  education,  family,  government  and  society  without  the  benefit  of  the  many  years  of  gradual  socialization…” Only five out of the 18 participants reported some success in adjusting to life in the UK following an initial sense of euphoria doused by the subsequent cold water of culture shock and the realities of an alien environment. 

Stages of Adjustment for International Students

Adjustment Process of International Students to UK

To address issues of acclimatizing new international students in the UK, it is important to identify them first. A cross-section of many studies made on this topic identifies three broad issues:


Most international students that enter the UK have to satisfy certain academic requirements for acceptance to a higher education institution. However, the challenge is not the content of the academic exercise, but the context. Teaching methods are largely specific to a country, and often tied to cultural norms.

When a student studies in another country, there is often a mismatch between what they are accustomed to and what is practiced in a foreign country. In the UK, for example, the approach is student-centered, which can be confusing for a student raised in a more traditional teacher-centered pedagogy. The concepts, procedures, and jargon may be different as well, further adding to the sense of disorientation.


The biggest challenge for most international students in non-English countries is the language barrier, because this affects everything they will do in the UK within the academic sphere and without. The irony is many students choose to study in the UK to improve their English but find upon arrival that they do not have a good enough grasp of English to cope. All international students in the UK have to take standardized language proficiency tests, but that is often not enough to ensure a good understanding of accents, idioms, and colloquialisms.


Language plays a big role in socio-cultural integration, but many more factors affect the ability of an international student to acclimatize to his or her new environment. Finding accommodations, riding public transport, adapting to local cuisine, walking down safe neighborhoods, and even just budgeting funds properly are just some of the practical things a new arrival has to learn very quickly. Of course, making friends with local students can largely help with many of these issues, but the trick is to make new friends, which is not easy for many international students. 


While there are no easy solutions to these big challenges facing international students in the UK and anywhere else, in general, HEIs can help them adjust. They can provide incoming students with a country-specific preparatory course that will give them a glimpse of what to expect before they arrive in the UK. In baking parlance, this is tempering, which promotes a smooth transition from the teaching methods in the home country to the host country.

Another intriguing idea that can also help international students transition more easily is a pathway program. In such a program, the local HEI uses the curriculum of the HEI abroad to ensure that the graduate is on the correct path in terms of academic proficiency.

For example, a student in India or Pakistan can enroll in an eligible certificate or diploma course in a local HEI, which has an agreement with an HEI in another country. The pathway program will allow that student to continue studies in the partner HEI abroad armed with realistic academic expectations.

HEIs in the UK have their work cut out for them if they want to regain their former popularity as a top destination for international students. Aside from making changes to their government policies to attract incoming students, they need to make the effort to reach out and support students they already have on board.

The above recommendations represent a significant investment in time and effort, but with the right investment, the returns are worth it in the end. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)

#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As the Vice President of MSM Global, she leads MSM’s extensive back-of-the-house operations, including MSM’s human resources, financial management, information technology, and marketing, communications, and social media activities. 


She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.


Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments. 


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Data Sources:

Coughlan, S. (2013, June 23). Foreign students ‘feeling less welcome in the UK’. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/education-23003987

Ecochard, S., & Fotheringham, J. (2017). Vol 5 | Issue 2 (2017) | pp. 100 – 108 © 2017 Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice 100 International Students’ Unique Challenges – Why Understanding International Transitions to Higher Education Matters. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://jpaap.napier.ac.uk/index.php/JPAAP/article/view/261/pdf

Garner, R. (2014, February 11). Where is the love? Majority of overseas students in UK do not feel. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/where-love-majority-international-students-uk-do-not-feel-welcome-9120007.html

International Student Migration to the UK. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/briefings/international-student-migration-to-the-uk/

Just one cohort of international students who stay in the UK to work pay £3.2 billion in tax – and they aren’t taking jobs from UK citizens. (2019, March 20). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2019/03/21/just-one-cohort-of-international-students-who-stay-in-the-uk-to-work-pay-3-2-billion-in-tax-and-they-arent-taking-jobs-from-uk-citizens/

Migration Advisory Committee. (2018, September). Impact of international students in the UK. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/739089/Impact_intl_students_report_published_v1.1.pdf

Newsome, L. K., & Cooper, P. (2016). International Students’ Cultural and Social Experiences in a British University: “Such a hard life [it] is here”. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1083255.pdf

Tucker, A. (2017, November 14). International Student Retention: Challenges & Solutions. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.qs.com/international-student-retention-challenges-solutions/

Universities UK International. (2020, November). International student behavIours Quarterly Data Release. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/International/Documents/International%20student%20behaviours%2C%20November%202018.pdf

Universities UK. (n.d.). International student recruitment data. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://jpaap.napier.ac.uk/index.php/JPAAP/article/view/261/pdf

Universities UK. (n.d.). International student recruitment data. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/International/Pages/intl-student-recruitment-data.aspx

What is the profile of internationally mobile students?: Education at a Glance 2020: OECD Indicators: OECD iLibrary. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/974729f4-en/index.html?itemId=%2Fcontent%2Fcomponent%2F974729f4-en


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