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New HEPI / HEA research shows over half of undergraduates say international students work harder than British ones

  • 25 June 2015
  • By Nick Hillman

A new survey commissioned by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA) reveals that students believe they benefit in many ways from studying alongside people from other countries. But the benefits are clearer to international students and the survey suggests they also work harder than British ones.

Nick Hillman, Director of the HEPI, said:

‘The battle over student migration has been going on for too long. The Home Office is in one corner trying to reduce the number of international students and pretty much everyone else is in the other corner trying to increase them. We want to break that stalemate by highlighting the educational benefits of having diverse student bodies.

‘Students believe studying alongside people from other countries gives them lifetime benefits. A large majority say it provides them with a better worldview, makes them more aware of cultural sensitivities and helps them develop a global network. Without a healthy number of international students, it is likely that some courses would be uneconomic to run, classroom discussions would be excessively mono-cultural and graduates would have a more limited outlook.

‘Those who fear international students harm the student experience of home students are wrong. In fact, they enhance it. We put that at risk when we fail to recognise the benefits that internationalisation brings to the UK higher education sector.’

Stephanie Marshall, Chief Executive of the HEA, said:

‘An internationally diverse student body has many benefits – educationally, economically and culturally – for the students themselves and for higher education institutions as a whole. This survey shows that students agree that there are many positive impacts on learning from studying alongside international students. The rich mix of cultures, tolerance and understanding that an international experience fosters helps prepare students to contribute as global citizens.

‘Internationalisation is of growing importance to UK HE and it is one of the factors that contributes to the shifting and dynamic environment for learning and teaching in HEIs. As a sector, we need to continue to work to ensure that all students studying in the UK have a high quality, equitable and global learning experience, irrespective of their geographical location or background. Indeed, this was the vision that drove the HEA’s work to develop its Internationalising Higher Education Framework, currently being updated, which sets out the fundamental principles and guidelines for delivering a global and inclusive education to each student, and strategies to support those who teach.’ 

Key findings

  • The vast majority (86%) of undergraduate students in the UK study alongside international students. Only 10% say they do not. A relatively high proportion of students in London and Scotland (both 95%) and a relatively low proportion of students in the West Midlands (74%) say they study alongside people from other countries.
  • A majority of students (54%) think international students work ‘much harder’ or ‘a little harder’ than home students and only 4% think they work ‘less hard’ or ‘much less hard’. One third (33%) think they work the same and 9% say they don’t know.
  • The results vary by residency, with 52% of home students, 67% of EU students and 69% of non-EU international students saying international students work either ‘a little harder’ or ‘much harder’ than UK students.
  • Over three-quarters of respondents say studying alongside people from other countries ‘is useful preparation for working in a global environment’ (33% ‘strongly agree’ and 45% ‘agree’). However, students from other countries were more than twice as likely to ‘strongly agree’ (29% for UK students, 65% for students from the EU and 62% for other students from abroad).
  • Although the number of non-UK students in the survey was small, they were also typically more positive about the other benefits and less negative about the potential disadvantages: for example, only 12% of UK students ‘strongly agree’ that studying alongside international students helps them develop a global network compared to 37% of EU and 47% of non-EU students.
  • One-in-four students think international students need more attention from lecturers (26%) and slow down the class due to language issues (25%) but two-thirds disagree that the presence of international students reduces the quality of the academic discussions (65%).
  • The majority of students (75%) are agnostic about whether their lecturers come from other countries, although twice as many (16%) hope to have some lecturers from abroad as hope they do not have any (8%). Students in the north east are the least favourable towards international staff, with 6% wanting to have some lecturers from abroad and 17% per cent hoping they do not. Those studying in Scotland are notably more favourable, with 22% hoping to have some lecturers from abroad and only 3% wanting none.


  • The UK recruits more international students than any country other than the United States and they comprise one-sixth of the total student body. The new Government has set an ambitious target for further growth. In his first speech as the Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, said: ‘We are committed to increasing education exports from £18 billion in 2012 to £30 billion by 2020.’
  • The Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto promised further crackdowns on student visas and restated an ‘ambition of delivering annual net migration in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands’.
  • The fieldwork was undertaken between 15th and 19th May 2015 by YouthSight, as part of a Student Omnibus survey. The sample size was 1,009 and has been weighted to be representative of the UK’s full-time undergraduate student population.
  • The new HEPI / HEA research builds on an earlier study, published in March 2015 by HEPI and Kaplan International, which concentrated on people applying to higher education in the 2014/15 UCAS application round. Together, the two pieces of research reveal a positive but nuanced picture of the educational benefits that international students bring to the UK.
  • The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. It is a charity that is UK-wide, independent and non-partisan.
  • The Higher Education Academy (HEA) is a national body for learning and teaching in higher education.

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