How have international UK university students been affected by the COVID pandemic?

Author: Farah Hanif, Researchers and Contributors: Kim Jisoo, Sanjana Misquitta, Khadija Mussa & Gregor Gough

At the inception of 2020, the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in over 3 million deaths worldwide and countries went into lockdown to minimise repercussions. This meant that borders were closed, travel was suspended, and working from home became a norm. The real world came to a standstill whilst the virtual world took on a life of its own. Alongside the issues that the whole population has had to face, such as periods of isolation and the loss of loved ones, students are continuing to deal with further issues. We have lost an important stage of social development, been the victim of last-minute changes, and often had a less-than-standard quality of learning and some of these have had implications for mental health and well-being. Whilst this pandemic has had severe implications for students in general, the effect was amplified for the international students who have suffered in silence despite constituting a significant proportion of the student population. According to the 2018/2019 Higher Education Statistics Agency there are currently 485,645 international students pursuing their degree in the UK and, despite COVID, this number continues to rise.  

This article will shed light on the experiences of the international student community in the UK by giving them a voice, focusing on the experiences of the international students based in the UK, specifically at Royal Holloway, University of London.  

We collected views based on informal chats with a number of international students and had a focus group discussion with the Diversity, Inclusion and Acceptance ambassadors of the School of Business and Management. Below are some of the things we found to be the most pertinent issues affecting the international student population. 

The British university experience: unmet expectations 

Overall, the students felt that the British education experience was compromised. This was attributable to reliance on online teaching. These students conveyed that their expectations of British education was a collaborative approach to learning which encouraged staff-student interaction, fostered critical thinking and offered an opportunity for practical application of theoretical concepts. However, the move to online learning has affected this specific collaborative aspect of learning. A South Korean Accounting & Finance student indicated that other countries’ teaching staff were “more competent with technology than the professors in the UK”. A Jordanian Liberal Arts student said that not visiting art galleries or meeting curators made the course “really difficult, upset and depressing.” Third-year students can compare their in-person experience with the current online one – a Singaporean Computer Science student noticed a “huge difference between online and offline education”. He mentioned that “online education is pretty much standardised around the entire world,” which shows that the move to online teaching further diluted the UK style. A recommendation to tackle this issue could be the use of the breakout rooms feature on Teams and Zoom. Management students are seeing this being used, but the further use of this in other subjects could combat the perception of a one-way communication in teaching. Some courses offered opportunities for case study analysis, group discussions and critical thinking, expected of the British University educational experience. However, this approach was patchy and not standardised across different modules which contributed to a varied student experience across modules.  

Incurring additional costs  

The disruptions and restrictions owing to COVID-19 had severe financial implications, especially for international students. Many students entered rental contracts with deposits already paid and potentially expensive exit clauses. Some students left in such a hurry that carrying all their belongings was impossible and the cost of collecting, storing, and transporting is considerable. There have also been incidents in which the UK government has changed restrictions at the last minute, hence students have faced cancellation fees or wasted money on travel tickets. For example, during Christmas 2020, the government changed restrictions almost daily; consequently, students who had made plans to return after the holidays faced financial losses. Student feedback indicated that students spent the most money on storage and accommodation. An Italian Business student made payments of £600 to store and deliver her belongings, a Singaporean Computer Science student and a South Korean Mathematics student paid £2,854 and £1,200 respectively and potentially another £300 to get belongings delivered. Based on this, we can deduce that international students can pay an excess of up to 20% of their tuition fees in terms of additional fees! Despite this, many students have been able to get refunds or support from their universities and friends in the UK. Overall, the uncertainty has been unnerving. Additionally, the UK government has frequently made groups of ‘red list countries’, from which all travel is banned unless one undergoes quarantine for ten days at a hotel approved by the government costing at least £1750. This is compulsory, regardless of whether the person has access to alternative accommodation. This is simply unaffordable for most students and adds to the already mounting financial and non-financial costs imposed on them. Universities can help students by offering flexibility/leniency on student halls contracts, and offer guidance to students facing severe financial issues. An example of contract leniency at Royal Holloway was their offer to waive the third term payment in the first year because most students were not on campus. The main challenge all students (international & home) faced was a lack of flexibility/support from private landlords requiring them to pay for unused/vacant accommodation. 

The dilemma of student fees 

There has been considerable debate around the refund/reduction of student fees owing to the continuous disruptions of government regulations in terms of COVID travel limitations and there have been multiple petitions and organisations such as Students United Against Fees being set up to push for fee compensation. Foreign undergraduates pay considerably more – approximately three times the fees for a home/British student –  going up to £38,000 for some medical degrees. Our discussions revealed that RHUL students felt that the quality of online education and the lack of access to campus facilities did not justify the fees and that they should be refunded at least partially. A South Korean maths student pointed out lecturers were “incompetent” with remote working software and had “bad setups” (such as unclear microphones and background noise) which contributed to distractions, “Moodle was not organised” and expressed a desire for more interactive sessions. However, a South Korean Accounting and Finance student recognises that “the school probably had to purchase lots of assets such as computers, tablets, and software to meet the demand of online learning” and doesn’t feel a refund of fees is necessary. This view was shared by other Management students, who acknowledged the challenges of implementing remote learning strategies and were appreciative of some of the courses that effectively transitioned to online learning. Some students valued the availability of pre-recorded material in particular. 

How time zones affected study 

The majority of international students come from Asia who are typically 5 to 9 hours ahead of the UK. However, the international students had to follow timetables based on working hours in the UK. Consequently, our study participants suggested that the time differences adversely affected their studies. This was particularly challenging for overseas students that had group work. A South Korean Mathematics student said the “time difference of 9 hours affected his sleeping pattern and daily schedule” and that university hours for him were from 6 pm to 12 am, making it challenging to stay focused. A Singaporean Computer Science student echoed these concerns, but was appreciative of an initiative of the university – “the 23-hour examination”, which gives students a day to submit an essay to cater for such situations. Additionally, international students who came from countries extremely hard hit by the pandemic, such as India, felt that universities did not fully consider the hardships they have had to go through during assignment submissions. A Management student from India opened up about how members of her family were in hospital struggling to have access to beds and oxygen, while grappling with her impending deadlines. However, she felt that the application process for extensions did not sufficiently take into consideration the current situation, and this showed a lack of empathy. Our recommendation here would be to reconsider the policies dealing with unforeseen contingencies for international students and offer faster, more supportive responses during critical times. 

The aim of this article was to highlight the challenges faced by the international students owing to the Covid pandemic. The views expressed are indicative of the extent to which international students have suffered due to the pandemic itself as well as the way it was handled. Despite these challenges, we appreciate the effort made by the university in doing the best they could to achieve a smooth transition to online learning without compromising on the quality of education/experience. Students did express that there were positive aspects to the learning during the pandemic – pre-recorded content and freedom that comes with home learning gave students flexibility to learn at their own pace. Some application-heavy subjects, such as computer science, were boiled down to pure content-based learning as a result of the pandemic, which many found very helpful. Students also found that lecturers were more accessible through email or Teams than before, as everyone is online and at their laptop during work hours and they really appreciate the speed and efficiency with which remote learning software has been implemented. There have been some important learning experiences during this process which made us realise that we students are ‘stronger than we seem, braver than we believe and smarter than we think’.  In a short span of time we have almost become experts at working remotely and communicating effectively online – something that may prove to be invaluable as the world of work may change to a hybrid of a home-office environment. Above all it has taught us resilience and brought to life the meaning of these words, “Never stop fighting until you arrive at your destined place – that is, the unique you. Have an aim in life, continuously acquire knowledge, work hard, and have perseverance to realise the great life.” 

We congratulate those who have graduated this year. For those of us who are still working towards their degrees, especially the students in countries hardest hit by the pandemic, let us remember that:  

‘Tough times don’t last but tough (RHUL students) people do!’