Are we doing enough to ensure that international students have the best possible experience?
International students have long made a significant contribution to the UK HE sector, and it is vital that UK institutions remain attractive to them if they are to continue to compete in the global market. This is increasingly challenging. International students are charged higher fees and are more likely to be postgraduate or professional students who are making sacrifices to be here. They may also have to deal with linguistic and cultural barriers, have different expectations than their domestic counterparts and fear having to repay fees to sponsors if they do not pass their course.
International students have long made a significant contribution to the UK HE sector
Given these factors, it is unsurprising that feedback from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator shows that international students, and particularly those from beyond the EU, are disproportionately likely to complain to their university and to escalate unresolved grievances to the OIA. We also know that Visa issues under the Tier 4 system are a significant cause of disputes and that the uncertainty associated with Brexit may make prospective students think twice about applying in the first place.
Ensuring that students from other countries feel welcome and believe that studying here will be both enjoyable and beneficial to their future endeavours remains essential. It requires action at government, sector and institution level so that every aspect of the experience from marketing and obtaining a visa through to admissions, studying, graduating and being an alumnus is covered. Fostering a greater appreciation by domestic students of the value of being part of a diverse global community will also be beneficial to both domestic and international students.
Are the potential effects of Brexit for our European students any clearer now?
Based on announcements to date, the situation for students and prospective students from EU countries up to 31 December 2020 is now much clearer, but the situation beyond that is still uncertain. In December 2017, the government reached an agreement with the European Commission on the steps they would take to recognise the rights of EU nationals already resident in the UK before Brexit takes place. In February 2018, it was announced that the EU’s current laws on free movement of people would continue to apply during the post-Brexit implementation period which is scheduled to end on 31 December 2020. Under the terms agreed with the European Commission, the rights of EU citizens and their families living in the UK will not change until 1 January 2021, so EU citizens who take up residence in the UK before that date can have an expectation that they will be able to continue living here lawfully.
EU citizens and their family members who commence their residence in the UK before 1 January 2021 will be eligible for “settled status” on completion of 5 years’ residence in the UK. Before accruing 5 years’ residence they will need to apply to the Home Office for confirmation of their “pre-settled status”, so that they can demonstrate that they are resident here lawfully.
The status for EU students arriving in the UK after 31 December 2020 remains uncertain
The process which will be in place for those applications is currently being trialled with employees and students of certain universities in the North West and employees of NHS trusts in the same region. The wider launch of the scheme is expected to take place towards the end of 2018, and EU nationals and their family members will have until 30 June 2021 to submit their applications for settled status or pre-settled status.
However, it is still important to note that all agreements to date are subject to the caveat that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, so if no agreement can be reached on the UK’s future relationship with the EU and the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019 without a deal then the agreements reached so far might not be honoured.
The status for EU students arriving in the UK after 31 December 2020 remains uncertain though. The government have commissioned research into the UK’s immigration system, with a view to designing a new post-Brexit immigration system. It is possible that as part of that new system EU citizens coming to the UK to study will need a visa to do so, possibly in line with the existing Tier 4 regime for non-EU citizen students. However, it is hard to imagine that the HE sector would allow such restrictions to be put in place without a fight.
With tuition fees continuing to rise, how might students’ expectations change?
Whilst we know that rising tuition fees have not had the depressive effect on total student numbers that might have been expected, it is apparent that what students want from their higher education providers is changing. This is unsurprising given the high profile emphasis placed on choice and value for money by the Competition and Markets Authority and Office for Students and we expect this to continue.
Higher education is now increasingly viewed as a significant investment of both time and money to be weighed against other options rather than simply a rite of passage
Higher education is now increasingly viewed as a significant investment of both time and money to be weighed against other options rather than simply a rite of passage. Priorities for students entering higher education now are likely to include:
- measurable service delivery – contact time, feedback, group sizes
- adequate consumer protection (eg in the event of strikes)
- access to higher levels of support
- courses linked directly to current and future employment opportunities (ie vocational options at prestigious institutions).
Finally, how would you sum up the best ‘student experience’?
Recent student experience surveys rate institutions using categories including academic experience, security, welfare, accommodation and societal experience, which illustrates well the breadth of factors that are believed to contribute to the quality of student life. What is deemed to constitute a strong student experience will of course differ widely according to individual preferences and circumstances but in general terms the following features are likely to be valued by most students:
- Delivery of what was promised and expected
- Responsiveness and evidence of service customisation to the particular needs of individuals
- Tolerance and safety
- Access to facilities 24/7
- Access to technology
- Staff-student ratio
- Belief that the qualification obtained has genuine long-term value.
We would expect that those students most satisfied with their higher education experience will be able to point to a strong mixture of tangible features such as high quality and accessible facilities and intangible ones such as feeling welcome and secure in an environment which is responsive to their particular needs.
Kris Robbetts and Tom Brett Young are senior associates at leading education law firm VWV. For further information, please visit: www.vwv.co.uk