The importance of engaging international students

On International Students' Day, the OfS’s Student Engagement Manager, Ben Hunt, highlights issues faced by international students, and the importance of listening to their voices.

Students discussing work in a university library

This is an edited version of a speech given on 16 November at UKCISA Fest 2022, delivered to an audience of international students and their representatives.

As Student Engagement Manager at the Office for Students, I’m responsible for the OfS’s approach to student engagement. Today I want to offer a snapshot of issues affecting international students, and how these issues intersect with our work.

I’m going to link my remarks to the student lifecycle: from accessing higher education, ‘getting on’ while at university or college, and ‘going on’ afterwards to employment or further study.

The Office for Students is the regulator of higher education in England. We aim to ensure that all students, from all backgrounds, are supported to access, succeed and progress. This includes the thousands of international students in England, and students who study overseas at universities or colleges providing degrees from English providers, on campus or by distance learning.

Starting higher education in the UK

International students coming to study in the UK can face a number of challenges when they first arrive. They may feel unsure about their visa conditions and requirements; they may experience culture shock, isolation, and loneliness. In recent years more international students entering UK higher education have declared a disability, and of these, most relate to mental health. This increase has also occurred amongst home students.

Higher education providers should consider the needs of international students applying to study with them. For international applicants, we have produced a guide and other resources on Discover Uni, an official information, advice and guidance website funded by the four UK regulators and funders.

Getting on

In terms of ‘getting on’, our hope and expectation is that international students will have an enjoyable and enriching experience during their time here. I want, however, to highlight an issue of serious concern – the harassment and sexual misconduct experienced by far too many international students. A 2019 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that one in five victims of racial harassment were international students. The sector has been working to address these issues.

The OfS recently published an independent evaluation of our statement of expectations. The statement sets out recommendations for higher education providers to develop effective policies and procedures to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct. While the evaluation cited examples of good practice, it also found that progress overall has been inconsistent and slow, with a lack of standardised practice to support students and insufficient evaluation of what works.

All students should feel safe during their time in higher education. We will soon be consulting on proposals to introduce a new condition of registration to prevent and tackle harassment and sexual misconduct. Your perspectives and experiences will be important part of this work.

Earlier this year, in partnership with the Department for Education and UKCISA, we issued a call for evidence seeking examples of effective practice in supporting international students’ integration into UK higher education. A report on this call will be published towards the end of this year, together with guidance for universities and colleges on supporting their international students.

As the regulator for higher education, we have put in place quality conditions for the higher education providers we regulate. This includes them having a high-quality academic experience, with the resources to ensure this, and effective student engagement mechanisms. On engagement, there should be, as a minimum, provision for students to contribute to the development of their course – for example, membership of a provider’s committees, responding to surveys, and participation in course development activities.

Going on

Regarding ‘going on’ after higher education, it is important to receive supportive careers advice. Our quality conditions specify there should be appropriate student support. A 2021 study from the Higher Education Policy Institute found that only 52 per cent of international students felt their institution was doing enough to meet their careers needs. International students should have appropriately tailored advice as a part of their experience. 

The importance of partnership and engagement

From getting into higher education, to succeeding in and after it, the international student voice is crucial. As a regulator, we have recognised the need to listen and understand to the voices of students in our student engagement strategy. It is essential for providers to listen to and understand the voices of international students as part of a positive experience. I’ve summarised some of these issues above, and I’m sure you’ll know of many more, but the golden thread throughout is this: to tackle these issues for international students, there must be engagement and partnership with them.

Getting involved

There are several ways you can get involved in the OfS’s work. We have a panel of thirteen students that advises our board on policy development. This group is recruited annually, and the international student voice is vital for it to represent a broad student perspective. When the next recruitment round is launched, in summer 2023, I would encourage you to consider applying.

You can hear about our latest opportunities by signing up to our student spotlight newsletter. We will be engaging students in our consultation on harassment and sexual misconduct and other areas of our work throughout next year. So do keep an eye out – join a workshop, respond, and help to shape our work.

The Office for Students exists to act in the interests of all students. Your views and perspectives are pivotal to the flourishing and success of higher education and so much more. I look forward to hearing your views and perspectives throughout the conference.


Matt Austin

Thanks for an interesting blog outlining our engagement with students and the issues they face, especially given the specific experiences of international students. It seems so important to create ways for students to help inform our regulatory activities, as the intended beneficiaries of our work.

25 Nov 2022 - 10:13AM

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Published 17 November 2022

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