International students 

The government and the Office for Students have identified international students as a group that may be particularly vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic.

International students may be more likely to experience precarious living situations, isolation or financial hardship as a result of the pandemic and working remotely in different time zones presents a particular set of challenges for teaching and assessment.

These case studies describe some of the ideas and practices that universities and colleges have put in place to respond quickly to the need to support international students during this time.

These interventions have been developed at pace and have not yet been evaluated for effectiveness. Their inclusion is not intended to stipulate particular approaches or endorse the actions of specific institutions. They are offered in the spirit of sharing practice that others may find useful and applicable to their own contexts.

Bangor University’s International Student Support Office has put in place a range of measures to ensure that international students remaining in Bangor feel part of the university community.

Measures include:

  • a weekly bulletin sent by email to all international students, including tips on working from home and maintaining physical and mental health
  • a weekly Instagram task on the university’s international student account which encourages students to interact via social media
  • regular updates on Facebook and Wechat (for Chinese students).

Staff are available to provide advice and support via email and one-to-one video chat appointments. The university has also organised weekly group sessions which include information on topics such as immigration issues during lockdown, financial advice and part-time working.

The university has a hardship fund available to international students to help with financial difficulties related to accommodation, travel costs, health costs and living costs. The university is also working closely with the University Housing Office to assist students facing problems in the private rented sector.

The university’s students' union is also working with student-led international and cultural societies during this time, as these are seen as an important element of ensuring students feel supported and part of a community.

Coventry University Group has quickly adapted its delivery of student support services so that students can access services remotely. The university’s website includes a page of frequently asked questions for both prospective and current international students. These are regularly updated to reflect the latest information from the Home Office.

Remote drop-in sessions are being offered to students, with members of staff who speak a wide range of languages, including Cantonese and Mandarin. The International Student Support Team has been hosting a number of webinars with students and academic faculties to address queries and concerns related to the pandemic, such as visas and remote learning.

Working closely with the students’ union advice centre, advisers from the university’s international student support team contact each international student who requests emergency funding. The team are available for all overseas students who require advice, and keep in regular contact with international students who are under 18 to ensure that they are aware of the resources available to them. These include the health and wellbeing information and advice provided via Connections Matter, an online platform offering targeted resources developed in response to coronavirus, as well as social events run through Coventry University Students’ Union ‘lockdown lounge’ resource.

These activities are complemented by the specialist staff from Student Services who provide a range of wellbeing support including confidential counselling and disability advice. The Student Services team has also liaised with student accommodation providers to support international students in accommodation, including mental health and welfare visits.

Weekly virtual drop-in sessions also take place for pre-sessional English students to address any concerns or questions they might have, and there is a dedicated inbox for international student welfare enquiries.

More widely across the university, there is out-of-hours support from staff who have had mental health first aid training, and a clear escalation process for any more serious issues that may arise.

The university has a group dedicated to developing support for students who experience bereavement due to the pandemic. It has drawn upon expertise of staff in developing a series of short webinars delivered by the chaplains, offering coping strategies for bereaved students. The university has actively engaged with Chinese communities to develop spirituality and faith offerings for Chinese students.

De Montfort University has set up an international hardship fund in response to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on international and EU students who are not eligible for a maintenance loan from Student Finance England. As the current situation remains unchanged for the short term, students can reapply for support from the hardship fund.

The hardship fund is advertised to students with accessible information on how to apply, eligibility and criteria. Eligible students include those:

  • currently working in the UK but having to care for a family member because of coronavirus guidelines
  • currently working in the UK but whose employer has recently closed because of coronavirus guidelines
  • whose country of origin has experienced a significant currency devaluation because of coronavirus.

An international student who applied for the hardship fund after their part-time job ended because of the pandemic, leaving them with no income, said:

‘It was really easy to apply and the response from the finance team was quick. As well as the funding, the university also cancelled all the fees for my accommodation. And because we can’t go to the university or the library anymore, I couldn’t use the software programme needed for my course. I spoke to my tutors and the faculty sent me a brand new laptop. I feel really cared for and safe. I know that the university is taking care of us.’

A team of staff volunteers have taken part in a calling campaign within university–managed, partner and private halls of residence, to help the university ascertain where students are and what support they need. This has reached over 360 international students in university-managed accommodation and 575 in partner and privately managed halls.

The university works with students' union colleagues and external partners to provide the support required. The 181 international students who indicated that they had not returned home based on money worries or estrangement or because they were self-isolating also received a follow-up call from Student Health and Wellbeing. Any student with academic worries also received a follow-up call.

The International Office has worked flexibly to support the repatriation of students by booking flights and liaising with the insurers on students’ behalf. Every inbound exchange or study abroad student at Newcastle was contacted by email to offer support and pertinent advice, including guidance on whether they should return home.

The International Office continues to stay in touch with those who are still abroad through a weekly check-in. The university’s communications throughout have included guidance on university policy, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Public Health England guidelines, insurance and checks on wellbeing. 

A buddy scheme has been developed which provides support to international students remaining in the UK via a weekly phone call from a staff volunteer to check in on how the student is doing during the pandemic.

Launched in 2013, Nottingham Trent University’s two award-winning Global Lounges have become a key student service. These are multi-functional hubs where students can internationalise their learning. Students can participate in international activities on campus to learn about world cultures and share their own, while meeting other students from around the globe. They can also learn about opportunities to explore the world, such as international study and work placements.

The current situation has highlighted the need for and importance of the Global Lounges. As soon as campus closures were announced, the Global Lounge team worked quickly to launch the Virtual Global Lounge (VGL). This is a platform designed to bring students together in a virtual community to combat loneliness, by connecting students online and providing social support through promoting mental and social wellbeing and inclusivity.

The VGL also includes important information and content from across the university as a way to signpost students to relevant professional services that can provide guidance and support. It has been developed in collaboration with other key services such as student support (for both UK and international students), health and wellbeing, faith and chaplaincy, employability, accommodation, study abroad and the library. Each of these services has a ‘channel’ on the VGL where it can share important information with students and directly connect with them.

The university is also offering specialised online support for the international students who are due to progress from its pathway provider Nottingham Trent International College. It hosts twice-weekly virtual drop-in sessions and daily live chats so that students can discuss any questions about their future university studies. A communication plan has been developed in collaboration with marketing staff that guides students through their transition from the college to the university. This includes pre-recorded social media content, profiles of former students from the college, and online chats with current students. A schedule of interactive live webinars is being developed, to keep students from the college engaged with the university during the lockdown.

As the VGL is developed, a flexible and innovative approach is employed, to help prepare for the ‘new normal’ following the crisis.

The university’s priority has been to engage and reassure students who might be vulnerable to the effects of the global pandemic. It has been in regular contact with all international students enrolled in the university through welfare check emails, a weekly newsletter, and direct phone calls to students who flag up issues. The specialist team of international experience advisers is available on Skype every day from 1000 to 1600 to support students with any enquiry they have.

The university is also working hard to keep students connected during the pandemic, in order to reduce social isolation. This work has included launching a virtual conversation club, a virtual buddies scheme and a virtual SHUFest.

The university’s emergency fund offers grants for laptops to ensure that international students have the means to access online resources remotely.

International students who have travelled back home and have limited access to online learning are contacted by their academic advisers or module leaders, to receive individual support and to ensure that recorded lectures and seminars can be accessed.

The requirement for students to submit evidence for two-week extensions has also been waived for all assignments.

Teesside University's Faith and Reflection Team is providing support for international students and others remaining on campus. This includes:

  • a student prayer group
  • an informal online chat session which provides an opportunity for students to talk with a member of the team
  • videos from the university’s local Imam and Muslim faith adviser offering thoughts and advice on Ramadan during the coronavirus pandemic
  • the university’s popular pasta social and Globe chats events being moved online. These are social events designed to bring together home and international students, and moving them online has allowed students to continue to develop and maintain friendships.

Many of Teesside University’s international students rely on part-time jobs to support them during their studies. As part-time work has been drastically reduced during the lockdown period, the university has rapidly developed a new strand of its hardship fund. With a significantly streamlined application and approval process, international students are able to access a living costs award to help them through this period within a few days of application. The university also holds food vouchers for major local supermarkets, which allow students instant access to necessities while their applications are being processed.

The university’s network of faith advisers and strong links with the local community has helped students access this service, as they are able to direct students who have approached their faith community for support to the service.

The #WeAreTogether campaign is a social media campaign involving students, academics and staff from UK universities and students’ unions. The campaign has been launched to bring all those involved in UK international education together in a positive campaign to highlight the way the sector is rising to the challenge of coronavirus.

The campaign aims to create a positive online community, sharing messages of solidarity, support and gratitude. The international element will provide reassurance and support for international students who may remain on campus far away from home and their families, and will ensure they know where to go for help.

In late February 2020, responding to increased incidents of harassment against the Chinese community, the University of Bristol reaffirmed its proud history of welcoming students and staff from across South East Asia, and stressed that students should not be treated adversely as a result of their personal choices around wearing face masks.

The university encourages students and staff to report any incident of racial harassment and to seek support. A ‘report and support’ service allows any student or member of staff who experiences an incident of prejudice, harassment or hate crime to report incidents anonymously. Alternatively, students can choose to give their name when making a report to receive support from the student wellbeing service.

Staff in student services have been offered training in hate crime awareness. The university hosted a webinar on hate crime and harassment with a panel including the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience, the Director of Stand Against Racism and Hate and the Chief Inspector of Avon and Somerset Police. Staff and students can also contact Stand Against Racism and Hate for advice and support.

The university also provides access to Nilaari, a culturally appropriate counselling service based in Bristol which helps to support black, Asian and minority ethnic students. Students can make a telephone appointment while social distancing restrictions are in place.

The University of Hertfordshire, with support from Hertfordshire Students’ Union, has created a dedicated online space for coronavirus updates. The page is updated several times a week with student tips and stories on adjusting to life in lockdown, a #HertsHeroes series celebrating the staff supporting students who are living on campus, and information and advice on studying from home.

The webpage signposts to frequently asked questions for students, staff, visitors and applicants, official advice and guidance from the UK government, and contact details for services still operating on campus. The question and answer section includes extensive information specific to international students.

For students who are self-isolating or feeling lonely on campus, the university has set up a Facebook group to provide support from its wellbeing team as well as ideas for activities, online games and ‘watch parties’ to stay connected and supported.

The University of Leeds has created a website for the specific purpose of offering advice and guidance for students during the pandemic, which includes online learning resources and the latest information on travel and visas.

In addition, the university has provided a set of FAQs for international applicants and offer-holders, and another for prospective students for its pre-sessional English programme.

As part of an Office for Students Challenge Competition funded project, the University of Nottingham is working with SOAS University of London and the University of Leeds to support the mental health of international students.

The University of Nottingham has recruited two dedicated posts to support international student mental health. These have played a leading role in proactively responding to the impact coronavirus has had on international students at the university.

For example, mindful of the time difference for international students who have returned home, the university has been able to reserve morning online appointments with a dedicated mental health adviser for international students.

The postholders have also worked closely with the university and students’ union welfare teams during the creation of the institution’s mental health coronavirus webpages, to ensure that international students’ needs are addressed. 

The university has been able to draw on the experiences of its Malaysia and Ningbo campuses to inform its responses for international students. For example, the UK and Ningbo welfare services have worked closely to ensure an online video call offer is possible in mainland China. 

As the university has adapted to teaching online, it has placed emphasis on supporting all students while studying from home. This has included disseminating information and guidance on adapting to remote learning and providing advice on which technology to use when working from home.

All students were invited to complete a self-assessment about their home arrangements during the Easter holidays. The university and its colleges are now analysing the feedback, and expect to provide further information soon about support that might be made available for those students who have raised concerns about their studying circumstances.

The international student support team at the University of Sheffield has been hosting ‘Global Hangouts’. These sessions, held three times weekly, aim to mitigate the isolating effects of lockdown by providing students with a space to come together, chat, share ideas and connect with fellow students from different countries. The hangout sessions are also a platform to share resources and take part in more structured activities such as quizzes. The students’ union International Student Officer regularly participates in the hangouts, to provide solidarity and updates on the students’ union’s ongoing work and available services.

A regular attendee said:

‘I was self-isolating and definitely lacking social connections. Then the very first day at global hangouts, I discovered how friendly everybody is and how all are given an opportunity to speak. It’s not only about talking serious issues but discussing what we have been doing or new ideas we should try. From then on, I was a regular attendee. Now, it’s just like a family – I feel welcomed and cheerful every time I join them.’

Resources

The following comments are from international students from Brunei, Germany, Nigeria, United States of America, and Vietnam.

‘As a student who didn’t get recorded lectures prior to this, moving to online learning was quite challenging as I am used to having to physically attend lectures. We’ve made use of video conferencing, pre-recorded lectures and handouts/presentation slides with notes attached for the last few weeks of the semester. Being a final year student means a greater part of my course requires me to do a lot of personal study, and so the university has been of great help by providing free access to the core textbooks online seeing as we can’t go to the library.’
‘My university has shown tremendous support for online learning so far as providing online resources such as online textbooks which were only available in physical form before the pandemic. This allowed students to overcome certain barriers when attending classes away from campus. However, in terms of teaching experience, the lecturers have shown a lack of incentive to conduct online classes especially for classes with a big cohort, stating their reason to not hold online classes due to their lack of expertise in using video conferencing software. However, lecturers are willing to have one-on-ones with students through Skype for example to go over concerns or queries for any assessments and examinations.'
‘While universities have had to respond quickly to government restrictions in the pandemic, one difficulty I am continuing to have is lack of access to physical books. As a humanities student, there are many resources that are not available online but I need for my studies. Hopefully, when restrictions are eased a little, I can still access physical books without using the library (such as library loan pick up system).’
‘The transition to working from home and accessing resources solely online wasn’t easy and I am still not fully comfortable in working in this new environment. The whole process wasn’t made easier by the university’s struggling VPN network during the first few weeks. Nevertheless, I think my university did a great job in making all resources possible available online and briefing its staff for the situation. My supervisor team has been very aware of difficulties and despite not being able to physically meet, they seem more accessible than ever.’
‘The online/digital offerings for courses has been substantive but falls well below expectation. Learning online, especially in online seminars, is not nearly as interactive or engaging.’
‘I genuinely believe that universities are doing the best they can at the moment according to government guidelines. At the moment, everyone is pushing out new information frequently to keep up with all that is going on. This can lead to information overload, and I would advise everyone not to be afraid to email or call the institution if you need to clarify anything. In addition to this, I think we should all double check the contracts we sign in this period especially in regards to accommodation by making sure there isn’t a clause in it preventing students from getting out of their contracts if we happen not to be able to resume in September.’
‘My university has been quick in responding to the global pandemic by shifting teaching to online. With clear guidance on how to assess and dedicated efforts made by all the teachers, the whole transition was a smooth and pleasant process.’

In April, Michelle Donelan, the Secretary of State for Universities, wrote a letter to international students to provide guidance and links to resources.

The government has published general guidance on visas and immigration issues, including details on how to contact the Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre with queries.

The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) has guidance for international students and a dedicated advice line for queries. Its website also features a number of blog posts on mental health and tips for working remotely.

Universities UK has collated information from different sources to provide an extensive FAQ page for current and future international students.

The Erasmus+ website has an FAQ page about the impact of the pandemic on the programme.

The British Council features guidance for current and prospective international students on its website, as well as free online courses. Following surveys in China, India and Pakistan, it has published information on the impact of coronavirus on overseas study plans in East Asia.  

UCAS provides updates on the impact on international applicants and provides a list of English tests affected by the pandemic, as well as links to a number of international awarding bodies’ websites. The Unibuddy function on the website allows prospective students to chat to those already studying at different UK universities, where current students can be selected by their home country. 

The International English Language Testing System website also has the latest updates on English test suspensions, and the health and safety precautions that will need to be taken on test day. It also has an online test available for students in particular countries who are unable to attend a test centre because of the pandemic.

Student Minds has a section with guidance for international students on its resources page, as well as advice on dealing with xenophobia and links to guidance on reporting hate crime. The True Vision scheme, which is run by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, has a page on its website on Covid-19 related hate crime, including informative videos in several languages.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has released a list of free online courses and other learning resources for students working remotely. Jisc has up-to-date information on access to learning content. 

Published 29 May 2020
Last updated 10 June 2020
10 June 2020
Link added to the British Council section in resources.

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