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Improving international students’ experiences: a tale of two reports

02 Apr 2024 | Dr Tabetha Newman International students bring a wealth of perspectives and experiences – but recent research reveals they face significant barriers studying here. What can be done to better support them? Jisc consultant, Dr Tabetha Newman, discusses.

In the autumn of 2023, two significant reports were released by Advance HE and Jisc, each offering a unique lens into the experiences of international students studying in the UK. Despite their distinctly different research objectives, methodologies, and questions, a common narrative emerged from the voices of international students. 

A comparison of the reports – Jisc’s ISDX and Advance HE’s Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) – identifies several clear themes about what international students who travel to the UK to study want from their experience – while some are transactional (e.g. learning and the curriculum, assessment and skills) others are cultural, stressing the continued importance of community and human interactions.  

Interaction with staff and group work with peers 

The PTES report identified that “Interaction with other students and lecturers was greatly valued, with seminar groups and group work often mentioned in relation to what had been most enjoyable or interesting in the course.” It goes on to state that whilst group work can be a challenging form of assessment, it provides significant benefit through enabling diverse and internationalised experiences.  

Similarly, the ISDX report found that many international postgraduate taught (PGT) student are over 25 years old and come to the UK with prior experience they hope to share with peers and lecturers. However, several mentioned their surprise and disappointment at the lack of time they had to interact with teaching staff and course peers. They missed opportunities for two-way discussions with lecturers as well as group discussions and information-sharing with peers.  

One participating institution is now embedding group-based assessment into a course with a large international student cohort; outcomes will be shared in a future Jisc ISDX briefing paper.  

 Diversity in class and within the curriculum 

The PTES report states that ‘The diversity of the student cohort was valued by PGTs as increasing their understanding of content from broader perspectives, the development of skills and the forming of broader personal connections.’ It adds that PGTs value internationalised classrooms facilitated by strong teaching and assessment. 

Similarly, in the ISDX report, international students discuss how much they value the inclusion of international examples in the curriculum. Students describe how understanding different cultural approaches and preferences helps them to better understand the subject as a whole. 

Real-world, employment-relevant examples 

The PTES report states that ‘the development of skills towards a career is very important to the experience of many taught postgraduates. Where PGTs had the opportunity to connect with real-world examples and industry, this was greatly valued’ (pp. 14). Their analysis reveals this was so important for non-EU domiciled PGTs that ‘career preparation’ is the highest single item that correlates with overall course satisfaction. 

Again, this is something the ISDX research picks up, with international students reporting they appreciated internationalised curricula which they felt supported employability. Some praised the provision of ‘digital skills training and ‘soft skills’ that supported them to learn useful skills for future employment’ (pp. 60). 

Consideration of differing teaching and assessment styles  

In the PTES report, PGTs ‘commented on the contrast between the teaching and assessment styles they were familiar with from their own education system and those at UK providers, which was regarded as both a challenge and a benefit by some students’. 

The Jisc ISDX report identifies and summarises a number of these differences, including the ‘shocks’ that can occur when transitioning into a UK learning environment. They include: 

  • a lack of understanding of how in the UK we interpret the rules relating to plagiarism, copyright and use of artificial intelligence 
  • high levels of self-directed study  
  • UK grade boundaries and marking schemes (which can lead to grades below students’ prior experience and may lead to family disputes) 

ISDX also describes the ‘digital shocks’ associated with moving to the UK, notably in terms of UK norms around technology-enabled pedagogic practice. Whilst the degree to which online learning should continue to be embedded in UK HE is an ongoing debate, the report warns that ‘while many different views are represented in this debate, they are almost without exception views that not only originate in the UK, but that use the UK’s cultural lens to shape the evolution of technology-enabled learning (TEL) in higher education’

How to respond to findings 

It appears that many international students invest in travelling to the UK with the hope of experiencing learning through active participation with staff and peers. They are looking for skills relevant to future employment and can often benefit from support to transition successfully into UK HE teaching and learning practice. 

The ISDX phase two report provides a number of recommendations to the sector relating to ways to mitigate digital access and pedagogic shocks.  

In February 2024, Advance HE launched an update to the Framework for Internationalising Higher Education, supporting universities across the sector as they bring international dimensions to their provision, whether through an internationalised curriculum, international student mobility or transnational education.

Jisc has released several additional briefing papers in 2024, which focus on specific issues and offer practical advice including how to better engage international students, collect international student voice data, and descriptions of the typical civil digital architecture of countries that are heavily represented in the current UK international student cohort. 


Dr Tabetha Newman has worked as a Jisc consultant for a decade, focusing on research and survey design relating to student and staff digital competencies and experience. 

For more information on the PTES and ISDX projects, please contact Jonathan Neves at Advance HE, and Elizabeth Newall at Jisc.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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