Topic briefing

Supporting international students

Published 18 January 2023

The issue

International students are an integral part of the higher education sector in England. Their participation in English higher education benefits them, and the home students they study alongside. International students make a significant contribution to our universities and colleges, culture and economy.

Beginning a new higher education course can be daunting for all students. Many international students face the additional challenge of studying in a new cultural and academic environment. They may also not be studying in their first language. International students may face barriers to feeling part of the university or college community, including understanding and accessing available information and support services, and navigating practical challenges such as housing and finance. Many were profoundly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and the associated restrictions.

There is a growing body of evidence on effective practice in supporting and enhancing international students’ experiences. This includes ‘Working in partnership to improve international student integration and experience’ published by the Office for Students (OfS) in January 2023.

Key facts

  1. In 2020-21, 22.2 per cent of all students in higher education in England were international students. This is around 501,000 people. (Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 'Where do HE students come from?')
  2. International students make up just over half of full-time postgraduate students in England (56.1 per cent of entrants in 2020-21) and just under a fifth of full-time undergraduate students (17.9 per cent of entrants in 2020-21). (HESA, ‘Figure 8 - HE student enrolments by level of study, mode of study and domicile 2020/21.)
  3. In addition, 409,000 students started studying for a higher education qualification from an English university or college while based abroad in 2020-21. (HESA, ‘HE student enrolments based wholly overseas by location and type of provision: Academic years 2016-17 to 2020-21’.)
  4. International students contribute a net economic benefit of £25.9 billion across the UK. (Universities UK International and the Higher Education Policy Institute, ‘The costs and benefits of international higher education students to the UK economy.)
  5. Research by Student Minds (the UK student mental health charity) found that international students responding to their study were much more likely than UK-domiciled respondents to be concerned about issues related to community, relationships and belonging. (Frampton, N, Smith, J and Smithies, D, Student Minds, ‘Understanding student mental health inequalities: International students’, 2022.)

International students were often profoundly affected by the coronavirus pandemic and the associated restrictions. The issues they have faced include not being able to return to their home countries, the loss of part-time work during lockdowns, and having to quarantine on arrival in the UK. In addition, the move to online learning has often meant studying in isolating conditions, with few opportunities for social contact and peer support. (OfS, ‘Coronavirus briefing: Supporting international students’, May 2020; Schartner, A and Wang, Y ‘International Student Experiences during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Exploring the impact on academic, psychological and sociocultural adjustment’, 2022)


International students are students from outside the UK who come to study at institutions in England, or who study with English institutions at local campuses or via distance learning while resident abroad.

Published 18 January 2023

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