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The Power of Community, How Local Engagement Can Support International Students’ Skills, Wellbeing and Belonging.

  • 4 May 2023
  • By Fiona Walsh and Sapthi Santharuban

On Tuesday, 16 May 2023, HEPI – in conjunction with Universities UK and Kaplan – will be launching new modelling from London Economics on the economic contribution of international students to the UK. For more details, including how to book a free place, see here.

This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Fiona Walsh, Partnerships and Development Director at Student Hubs and Sapthi Santharuban who is the Hub Programme Manager at Southampton.  

As we approach the King’s Coronation and communities across the country launch their initiatives for ‘The Big Help Out’ campaign to encourage individuals to get involved in volunteering and community support, one group of students who could hugely benefit from these interventions are international students. With many universities seeing increases to their international student populations, plus a report released by UCAS last month which ‘[projects] a 60 per cent increase in international students, signalling the ongoing attraction of UK HE’, universities need to broaden their approach to supporting international students across all facets of the student experience.

At Student Hubs we see the vital role which international students have in our work in communities and with students through our activities. Across our Hub partnerships at UK universities around one fifth of our participants are from international or EU backgrounds. Engaging these students is important in providing opportunities for their connection and belonging with the local area, developing their peer networks with students, and bringing their global perspectives into the work we do with local communities. We want to reflect on how community engagement can be a transformative activity through which to approach international students’ skills, wellbeing and belonging in their university towns and cities.

The current state of play

In the past three months there have been several key reports and findings which acknowledge that more could be done to support international students’ experience of UK higher education. In mid-February AGCAS released a report funded by the UPP Foundation which highlights challenges faced by international graduates to secure work after leaving university in the UK. In their HEPI article about the report Elaine Boyes, Executive Director at AGCAS and Anne Marie Graham, Chief Executive at UKCISA called for:

A need for further collaboration with international student support teams and other departments to improve the student experience of seeking support and ensure up to date information is provided to students.

In January this year the final evaluation report by LSE Consulting was released from a call for evidence from the Office for Students on partnerships to improve international integration and experience. As well as evaluating institutions’ approach to responding to Covid-19 and harassment and sexual misconduct, the report focuses on the accessibility and effectiveness of wellbeing and support services for international students, finding that:

More efforts should be made at the university level to support and enhance partnerships and cooperation between the academic community and the (broad) students’ community.

The report outlines three top social life support service priorities for international students including:

  • organising student meetups to become familiar with the city;
  • offering opportunities to engage with local communities; and
  • establishing student-led support networks.

Volunteering and social action provides an opportunity to meet all three of these needs and supports international students to do good for their local community, as well as learn more about the new area they live in.

Engaging international students at the University of Southampton

To take a case study from one of our Hubs, so far this year at the University of Southampton, our Southampton Hub has a third of its student volunteer cohort as international students volunteering on long-term programmes and taking part in one-off volunteering events in the local community. It is evident from their engagement with Hub projects that international students have a lot to offer to local organisations and the young people that they work with whilst being keen to try experiences and develop new skills.

Earlier this year international students put themselves forward to share and teach local young people at a Saturday Branch Up activity day for 7 to 11 year olds about Chinese culture and calligraphy, Malaysian traditions, and Turkish sign language. This allows us to create a fantastic space for young people to ask questions and build a strong rapport with our student volunteers and learn more about their backgrounds and cultures. In providing young people with a safe space to be curious, share and learn from each other’s experiences, our international students bring a refreshing energy to our local offer for schools and young people as a charity.

This is especially important to us as we have seen that many international students are keen to engage in activities that allow them to meet new people and learn about culture in Britain. When asked about their experience of volunteering, one student who has volunteered on three different programmes shares:

Volunteering provides the opportunities for me to build connections and relationships with other volunteers and the local community. By working together towards a common goal, I can develop a sense of camaraderie and build meaningful relationships with others. Moreover, completing the tasks of the projects and knowing the surrounding area better help[s] me feel more connected to the place I live and foster a sense of pride and ownership in the community.

We have seen that volunteering has had a positive impact on our students’ university experiences too, with 97% of international student volunteers from our Southampton Hub agreeing that volunteering has both enhanced their university experience and improved their wellbeing, and 90% agreeing that they feel a sense of belonging in their community. One student says that by volunteering on Branch Up, she:

Gained a sense of achievement by helping others and [spent] a wonderful time with [the] kids. Also, it helped [her] meet more people sharing [the] same interests.

Many of our international volunteers rank their personal values as one of their key motivations for applying for our volunteering opportunities while studying at the University of Southampton. Some of our international volunteers have engaged with multiple volunteering projects across the year, immersing themselves wholeheartedly in social action and wanting to make a genuine difference in the community.

We need a more joined up approach for international students

We know from our work and experience that more could be done to support the integration of international students into their UK life at their higher education institutions. Civic engagement, volunteering and social action offer an invaluable opportunity for international students to thrive in their university life, whilst building the key skills, experiences, and local knowledge which may help them to remain in the UK as part of their graduate visas and careers.

What international students need is a holistic approach to support both in their academic and extracurricular lives at UK higher education institutions. Strong partnerships and supported interventions are a missed opportunity in a time when providers need them most. As we look to the Big Help Out in May and universities reflect on their civic engagement and institutional strategies this summer, building in more robust provision for international students which supports them to thrive in their local areas needs to be a key part of how we move forward as a sector.

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  1. Emma says:

    Extremally thoughtful article. Thank you for taking the time to post such an informative article.

  2. Nicky Garsten says:

    What interesting research. Great to see attention being paid to students’ connections to their cities. Dr Valentine Seymour and I are investigating the importance of parks to student experience; specifically looking at Greenwich Park

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