Skip to main content

‘A rising tide lifts all ships’: supporting our international students

08 Apr 2024 | Professor Mark O'Hara and Dr Anne Rowan Following the recent Westminster Higher Education Forum (WHEF), ‘Next steps for international students in the UK’, Advance HE’s Professor Mark O’Hara and Dr Anne Rowan reflect on key themes and highlights concerning international students in general, and disabled international students in particular.

It was a privilege to be invited to contribute to the Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference, ‘Next steps for international students in the UK’

It was a real fillip to see so many staff and students committed to ensuring a high-quality student experience for our international student population. Making sure we provide a first-class educational and cultural experience is vital if we wish to maintain the UK’s current position near the top of would-be international students’ sought-after destinations. 

International students have the potential to make an extraordinary contribution to the life of their institutions; the horizons and perspectives of their UK-based peers; and indeed the prosperity of the country. UUKi’s International Facts and Figures 2023 highlights that international students made up 23.8% of the total UK student population in 2021-22 (15.1% and 45.4% undergraduate and postgraduate UK student population respectively), and the gross economic contribution of the 2021–22 cohort of international students to the UK was £41.9 billion.

Capturing and responding to our international students’ impressions, suggestions and aspirations – ie via evaluations, surveys, focus groups or forums – is an essential part of working out what ‘first-class’ might involve. What’s more, as one of the speakers at the Forum pointed out, with the possible exception of English language support, international students have much in common with home students. Getting it right for our international students is likely to benefit our home students too.


We know that teaching and learning approaches that are characterised by interactivity and authenticity – eg group discussions, problem-based learning or collaborative projects – tend to be highly engaging. And engaged students tend to be more successful. Similarly, balancing the need for specialist academic support and learner development, alongside a willingness among course teams to mainstream or embed key skills and knowledge for educational success into course design – eg research skills, assessment literacy, time management, academic writing and integrity, digital skills and critical thinking – works much better from a student perspective than working in silos. At the same time, institutions that recognise and pay attention to the affective dimension to the student experience are more likely to foster confident and capable graduates. 

Ensuring that our international students encounter welcoming, affirming and respectful environments through activities such as cultural exchanges, celebrations of diverse traditions, or intercultural competency/sensitivity training for home staff and students, is a good place to start. In addition, putting in networks for emotional support, companionship and belonging alongside specialist training for counselling teams are good ways of heading off potential culture shock, loneliness and/or homesickness. 

Disjointed or disconnected

All very clear then, and yet, ‘there’s many a slip between cup and lip’! Multiple speakers at the Forum attested to the sometimes ‘disjointed’ or ‘disconnected’ nature of the international student experience and the experience of disabled international students in particular offers salutary lessons on the challenges we face in translating fine words into fine practices. 

Anne’s findings and insights from her PhD research, clearly indicated and acknowledged that departments and staff must adopt joined-up approaches when engaging with disabled international students. Furthermore, HEIs may wish to consider developing new methods of supporting disabled international students, holistically and structurally, leveraging inclusive learning and teaching to make positive changes for this student group, particularly when we know that disabled international students are not eligible for any support through the UK’s Disabled Students Allowance. Forum participants were all too conscious of the fact that international disabled students are no more homogenous as a group than their non-disabled peers, but all bring a wide range of experiences, identities and insights that we can benefit from if we remain attuned to the possibilities. 

Anne’s work showed how important tailored systems of support are in helping to position this diversity as an opportunity and benefit not simply a barrier to be overcome. When international students make such an important contribution to the health and viability of our universities, sudden drops or changes in the patterns of international students attending UK institutions could impact the whole sector (PWC, 2024). All the more reason therefore to ensure our institutional ‘pipelines’ have as few leaks as possible in the interests of ‘all’ our students, international and home, disabled and non-disabled.

Inclusive international experience

There is an ever-increasing need to ensure that the international student experience, including the experience of those with disabilities, is as inclusive and beneficial as we can get it by meeting diverse needs and capitalising on the variety of experiences and capabilities. Given that our international students make up 23% plus of the overall student population, ensuring excellent education and support for them is not a minority interest. 

As two former early years’ educators, we both recall a seminal UK educational policy framework entitled, ‘Every child matters’; well, every student matters too! If we get it right for all our international students, we will be doing all our home students a great service at the same time.


Professor Mark O’Hara is a Principal Fellow and Senior Consultant (Education) at Advance HE. He has over 30 years’ experience in higher education and is both a National Teaching Fellow and a winner of the Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE). Mark is currently the Advance HE Co-Chair of the Internationalisation Learning Cohorts (ILC) course on behalf of the British Council.  Mark is also Vice Chair of the European Association of Institutional Research (EAIR). 

Dr Anne Rowan has over 12 years’ professional work experience, developing expertise and knowledge in Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) at both a national and international level. Anne has a PhD in Education focusing on capturing the experiences of disabled international students within UK higher education. Anne has also worked as an International Student Advisor and Race Equity Champion within higher education, promoting and creating an environment of positive engagement with multicultural groups of learners.

Find out more about The Disabled Student Commitment, published by Advance HE on behalf of the Disabled Students' Commission. The purpose of the Commitment is to secure an enhanced and improved experience for disabled students within higher education. 

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.

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.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter