Universities must keep abreast of their students’ concerns. Surveys have proven to be a valuable method to better understand the sentiments of prospective students and have also highlighted a degree of variation among the concerns of international students.
Of the almost 500,000 international students studying in UK higher-education institutions, nearly a quarter are Chinese. While student numbers from China have been steadily growing, the pandemic has prompted many among this important cohort to reassess their original study plans. Recent British Council surveys conducted in April and June of prospective students in China highlighted a high degree of uncertainty. The first survey found that 39 percent of those who had already applied for UK courses with a September start were unsure about whether to stick to their plans. A total of 22 percent of respondents said they were likely to cancel, while 27 percent said they would not withdraw their applications. This was in in stark contrast to identical surveys conducted in India and Pakistan, where half of respondents who had applied to study overseas reported they were “not at all likely” to change their plans.
Variations also were evident in the most significant types of concerns. The first survey found, for example, that 57 percent of Indian and 61 percent of Pakistani students reported they were “very concerned” about finances compared to 40 percent of Chinese students. In contrast, 79 percent of Chinese respondents reported they were “very concerned” about health and wellbeing (compared with 67 percent among Indian students and 46 percent among Pakistani students). Research by academics at the University of Manchester discovered anxiety among Chinese students over whether it would be safe to travel to the UK.
These findings reinforce how important it is for universities, and the wider education sector, to not only do whatever possible to ensure all students feel safe and secure as campuses reopen in the autumn but also in communicating these plans. UUK have been supporting the sector in these efforts through its recent publication of guidance for universities on supporting students through any periods of self-isolation alongside a framework of principles for universities to consider as they begin to emerge from lockdown.
While restrictions relating to Covid-19 may continue for some time or be lifted and then reimposed in response to further national or localized outbreaks, universities have had to make appropriate changes on campuses to ensure health, safety and wellbeing of all students and staff. For example, many universities are planning to provide all students with free face coverings, make hand sanitizer readily available and carry out stringent cleaning of university buildings. Some universities, such as the University of Exeter, will be providing special services just for international students, including collection from the airport and free accommodation and support in specially designated halls of residence for any students who need to self-isolate for two weeks (if still required by the government). Exeter is also aiming to have every student tested both for antigens and antibodies on arrival.
Some of the new challenges facing universities as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic are less obvious. The surveys have also highlighted serious concerns among Chinese international students that go beyond health and wellbeing. The British Council survey found that 87 percent said they were “very concerned” about personal safety as a result of several reports of harassment and racial intimidation, particularly online, following the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020. Similar concerns were reported in another survey of current and prospective Chinese students and their parents, conducted by the Association of British Chinese Professors, which found that, when asked about their main concerns about studying in the UK, three in four reported “concerns about discrimination and hate speech against Chinese people”.
While most of the reported incidents have taken place outside universities themselves, it has been encouraging to see that universities have been swift to act, ensuring that any incidents are reported to the police and issuing statements of solidarity with their Chinese students. Vigilance within universities, however, remains essential and more will need to be done to demonstrate that universities will not tolerate hostility toward Chinese or any other students on the grounds of their ethnicity.
The UK’s higher-education sector unquestionably faces a daunting year ahead. While the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to set back our International Education Strategy targets many years, the initiatives supported by this strategy, such as the Graduate Route, will ensure the UK remains an open and welcoming destination for international students. Meanwhile, proactive messaging such as the recent letter of welcome to international students around the world from the education ministers throughout the UK, combined with ongoing efforts from universities as they prepare to reopen, should help to provide further reassurances and boost confidence in the many merits of pursuing an international education in the UK.