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Supporting the wellbeing of international students in the UK during COVID-19

26 October 2020

Executive Director for the UK and Europe Dr Mark Cunnington reflects on providing support to international students during a pandemic.

International education in the UK has a proud tradition. From medieval times, students and tutors were able to travel, study and teach with qualifications universally recognised across Europe, and the idea of university as a place of international scholarship was established. Over the centuries, British universities and colleges have opened their doors to scholars as varied as the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan and the scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose. 

Today UK universities continue to welcome students from around the world, including the Nobel laureate and campaigner for female education, Malala Yousafzai. Leadership positions are held by highly respected international academics such as Professor Max Lu, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Surrey and Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Laureate, molecular biologist and President of the Royal Society.   

Yet in 2020, international education in the UK demands not only excellent teaching and access to libraries and laboratories for a new generation of talented students, it also requires care for student wellbeing, both physical and mental. As the UK Secretary of State for Education has rightly stressed, those who provide education have a duty to international students to carefully consider the experience and health of those young people who have travelled so far to learn. 

The challenges of COVID-19 have made this a year nobody will forget, and as someone with responsibility for Colleges and International Study Centres in the UK for the leading global pathway provider Study Group, I have been truly proud to see the efforts staff have gone to in order to care for students. 

Many international students are studying with us online from home for now, but those who are here in the UK need our special support and understanding at this time. COVID measures mean that blended and online learning is part of life for all students in the UK. For these students, academic support and wellbeing are a crucial part of British education. This includes ensuring students can access advice and feedback from tutors online, as well as in-person, and addressing any technical problems so students can benefit from group work and study support virtually alongside in-person tuition. 

Ready to listen and support

Staff are also there to advise on staying healthy physically and mentally. As well as the careful planning of safety measures, which ensure physical distancing and the wearing of masks, we know that we need to be ready to listen to and support students who may need to self-isolate or just need to talk. For any student who may need to quarantine, staff are checking to ensure food is available, including around personal or religious dietary requirements. 

Access to healthcare should it be needed is also a real comfort. Many campuses have dedicated health centres for students, but all those who have paid a health surcharge as part of their student visa application are eligible for treatment in our globally respected National Health Service. No charges apply for COVID-19 testing, even if the result is negative, or for any treatment provided in relation to COVID-19 if the result is positive, or up to the point that it is negatively diagnosed.

We understand that advice and support cannot happen in isolation. The UK Council for International Student Affairs, the National Indian Students and Alumni Union and the Chinese Scholars Association are all committed to helping students with any questions they might have. 

Student communities also place a strong emphasis on mental and emotional wellbeing. Student Minds recently launched Student Space, a free service for all university students, which bridges any gaps in mental health support arising from this unprecedented situation. Funded with up to £3million by the UK Office for Students and led by Student Minds, it is designed to work alongside existing mental health services. It provides a range of information, access to dedicated support services (phone or text), details of the support available at each university, and tools to help students manage the challenges of student life. We work with these and many other organisations across the sector to ensure our care for students is outstanding, and time and again students express how much they have appreciated this concern and help at an extraordinary moment. 

Practical support and emotional understanding 

Physical distance need not mean social separation. In fact, in these COVID times we all need friendships more, especially those studying far from family and home. These students are investing in their future, but they still need practical support and emotional understanding. 

I’m truly proud that my academic and professional colleagues are doing all in their power to support international students to help them achieve their educational ambitions, despite the pandemic. International students will continue to find a welcome in the United Kingdom. 

International students in the UK share their experience during COVID-19 

Anita studied the Pre-Masters programme at the University of Surrey International Study Centre. She’s now studying MSc Finance (Accounting and Finance) at the University of Surrey. She shares her experience: 

"The International Study Centre was really helpful during the lockdown period as we would have regular Zoom calls and people checking up on us and helping us in any way we needed. When studying online, the teachers were always 100% available. The teachers and lecturers were very flexible with us, giving us extra support for our assignments."

Fouzia studied the Undergraduate Foundation Programme in Life Sciences – Pathway to Medicine at the University of Aberdeen International Study Centre. She progressed to the MBChB Medicine at the University of Aberdeen and shares:

“One thing I loved about the International Study Centre is its diverse community and the tutors and staffs’ constant help and support. As someone who has moved from home (UAE), I would say that the community felt quite “homely”. The Life Sciences – Pathway to Medicine programme was a boost to prepare me for med school and according to many Year 1 medicine students I know, it is a very good start-up that many wish they’d got the opportunity to attend. I would say that this programme was quite challenging yet interesting at the same time. The constant support from my tutors helped me achieve my goal and progress into the Medicine Degree. Overall, I would say that my experience at the International Study Centre was incredible and I would consider myself lucky to have had the chance to attend this programme.”

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