Outside looking in: the student experience from an international perspective

Quality. Research. Success. Hugh Martin, Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, shares the international perspective on the student experience in the UK. Hugh considers why they feel the grass is greener on the Western side.

‘How hast thou purchased this experience?’ – Don Adriano de Armado, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 3 Scene 1

At a recent AHUA Blog Editorial Meeting, we talked about what readers in the UK might want from an international blog.

One theme that came up, from different angles, was a focus on students:

  • how to bring international aspirations into the lives of UK students
  • how international students perceive the British education system
  • how Brexit, COVID-19, climate change, and other external factors affect students at home and abroad.

What this leads to is a wider question about what is meant by ‘the student experience.’ This is a term that’s become so prevalent in UK higher education now that it’s bandied about, often with little thought given to quite how amorphous it is.

That question is for a broader debate elsewhere, but here’s a brief international perspective on the experience of students. How does their experience internationally compare with the experience of their peers in the UK? And importantly how do they perceive their peers’ experience?

The international perspective

Many of us who have been lucky enough to travel overseas with/for our institutions have spoken to students in the countries we’ve visited. Often that conversation is one of hope and eagerness. There is a desire in international students (and their families) to get to the kind of university we came from, to benefit from the width of experiences our students enjoy.

Such discussions can be an uncomfortable exercise. At best, they are about expectation management. At worst, they are akin to neo-imperialism – proudly flying the flag of the university we represent, retailing a narrative to the locals about how great it is, and why they should put in their visa applications now.

In an entirely unscientific exercise, I asked students at my university for words they commonly associate with British universities. With the caveat that this was a very small sample, below is a word cloud from what they told me.

(Don’t be upset if your university doesn’t appear. The place names that pop up below are mostly those in the UAE or our partners.)

Word cloud of words used to describe British universities. Summary follows in text.

The words that are shouting out are:

  • quality
  • English
  • research
  • success
  • visa (perhaps unsurprisingly)

Students inside the UK are understandably venting their frustrations on social media about the pandemic impact: remote learning; online exams; tuition and accommodation fees; lack of contact; rents; social isolation; and so on.

Meanwhile, students outside the UK still hold its higher education system in high esteem. Either because of, or perhaps in spite of, colonial history, there is still a real cachet for British education, and its watchword is still quality.

Reviewing the international perspective

But how much of what international students think of UK HE is actually true?

Are the words in the cloud a representation of what it’s really like? Or a jumbled mixture of post-colonial nostalgia seen through rose-tinted glasses?

There’s no doubt that the student experience, as it’s generally understood by colleagues in the UK, is significantly different in international universities, and that includes branch campuses and transnational education partners.

Attempts by the latter are often made to replicate the ‘home’ campus, as far as local cultural and other mores allow. However, the experience simply isn’t the same, as explained in my blog post on international perspective on branch campuses.

In universities modelled on Western structures (by which I mean, broadly speaking, the UK, USA/Canada, Europe, South Africa, and Australia/NZ), students experience a wide range of clubs, societies, activities, and sports. They also enjoy choices, representation, privileges and rights.

Each is formed and often enshrined in policies, committees, unions, associations, and governance. These are not necessarily found, or indeed expected, in the education systems of other countries using different models.

There can be many reasons for this. They range from the age and maturity of the university sector to the political, religious, legal, social and other frameworks in which that sector is located. This is merely a statement of fact, rather than an opinion about the rights and wrongs of what’s available, or what should be available, to students wherever they study.

But of course, difference isn’t always equal. Playing fields are not level. Students have a right to their expectations. At least, there should be a fundamental principle that their experience should strive to be the best it can be, both outside and within the classroom.

Students within the Western model have many opportunities. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that outside students looking in display a mixture of envy, ambition, and a sometimes misplaced belief that the grass is always greener.

Rethinking the international student experience

At a time when global mobility is in question – for everyone, not just students – we need to rethink the idea that the full student experience can only really be achieved by, and in, the Western model.

The ongoing pandemic – not to mention environmental sustainability, and the financial and climatic cost of international travel – show us that we can’t continue as we have been. We cannot assume, glibly or commercially, that international student traffic is mostly one-way: inwards, not outwards.

Just as we can, do, and should have a sector where universities of all specialisms (and none) exist and thrive, the student experience should be equally valuable wherever students find themselves.

Sure, we need to do better in international universities. We need to learn from the campuses, the facilities, the prospects, the traditions, and the gloriously colourful histories of students and their lives at universities in the West. Above all, we need to listen to students – they know what they want, and they want their voices heard.

The ability of students to be involved positively in the governance, structures, curricula, and administration of their institutions is more than well proven, especially in UK universities.

The student experience – in all its diverse forms – means more than paying lip-service to a theory. It’s time for academic hierarchies, privileges, and prejudices to be replaced by an experience that partners with students to help them develop into life-ready graduates, no matter where they study.

Hugh Martin is the Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, AHUA’s first international member. You can follow Hugh on Twitter and send Hugh an email. You can also read about Hugh’s life in lockdown.