John and Sarah Lever admit they first became involved with Host UK just to stop their children squabbling at Christmas. "We just thought they might be better behaved if there were other people in the house," says John, a retired systems programmer from Buntingford in Hertfordshire. It worked.
That, though, is not the only motivation for UK families to get involved with the scheme, which matches international students with a UK family and arranges for them to stay with the hosts.
Many of the visits take place over the Christmas period and, according to Lynette Chappin, a retired teacher from Cardiff, it can save an international student from the prospect of having to spend a lonely Christmas break on the university campus – and provide a glimpse of home life in the UK as well.
Margaret Stevens, who has acted as a host for the past 25 years, agrees.
"Many of them have never stayed in the UK over Christmas before," Stevens says. "They won't realise things like the trains don't run and the shops won't be open."
Back to the Levers, though. The couple have played host to students from a number of different countries over the years.
"You learn things about other countries, their cultures and what's going on in them," John says.
"I sometimes think I know more about what's going on in other countries than those at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office do, when you hear them speaking on the radio or television."
Host, which is celebrating its 25th birthday this year, was founded by the British Council, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Victoria League.
The motivation behind setting it up came from research showing that international students felt they could not easily make contact with ordinary British families.For the first 20 years, it received substantial funding from the British Council – which covered around half the cost of running the charity. It was always anticipated that at some stage it would lose that funding – so it was hardly a surprise that, with the onset of the years of austerity for public-service finance, it went. Now, like most charities, Host struggles to raise enough cash.
"Now we rely very much on university subscriptions, application fees from students (sometimes paid by their universities), donations and any grants we can successfully bid for," the charity says.
Despite this, there are still around 1,600 hosts across the country providing the service – and over the past decade the UK has seen a massive increase in the number of international students who could benefit from such visits.
Yun Che, who studied for a PhD at Loughborough University, and her husband, Chengyu Zhuang, and 10-year-old son, Monty, stayed with Chappin in her Cardiff home over Christmas last year.
"This was a very last-minute arrangement, but it worked perfectly," Chappin says. "The family was lovely, they fitted in so well, spoke excellent English and they enjoyed everything so much. We still keep in touch with them regularly – a little while ago I sent them a little dress for their new baby girl, Melody."
For Monty, the highlight of the four-day visit over Christmas was a visit to the beach on Boxing Day morning. They do not come from a seaside environment in China and, of course, there are no beaches near where they live in Loughborough. "The visit definitely affected my attitude afterwards, as I started enjoying my life in England so much more," Yun told Host after her visit.
"I feel so proud to have made such a good friend."
One of the Levers' last visits was from Subrata Ganguly, a 29-year-old student studying international business management at the University of Bedfordshire.
The Levers like to invite two students to stay at a time – it means the students have each other to talk to and can make for a less formal atmosphere around the home.
When Ganguly visited their home, they also had a Japanese student with them – although he is understood to have now left the country.
The Levers struck up a friendship with Ganguly and have been in touch ever since and plan to visit each other in the near future.
"I am missing my family," Ganguly wrote in his application form to Host. "So I am looking for that type of family who will be just like my parents... I need a friendly and living family where I can share all. Please help me find that family."
He wrote after the visit that the stay had been "the best three days" of the time he had spent in England. He had fallen in love with the village and wanted to marry a local girl and stay there for ever.
After reflecting overnight on what she had gained from the visits, Sarah, a retired teacher, says: "It is definitely a chance to share in our culture [for the students]." On food, she says, "we have had some fantastic meals – Vietnamese came first with Iranian a close second". She is also developing some Spanish recipes for use at home as a result of another visit.
The universities themselves are enthusiastic about the scheme. After all, international students who – for the most part – pay full-cost fees are increasingly their bread and butter.
The feeling has got out – particularly in India – that the UK is not as welcoming to international students as it has been in the past. Witness the debacle at London Metropolitan University, where 2,500 students were suddenly told the university no longer had a licence to teach overseas students as it had not been careful enough with its records to ensure that all their students had bona fide visas. (A High Court judge later mitigated the effect of this by insisting all those who were legitimate students could stay on their courses. but the damage in some quarters abroad had already been done.)
As a result, it does them no harm to be able to promote a scheme like Host, which can only make their international students feel more welcome in their UK environment.
Most of those who volunteer to take part in the Host scheme are couples over the age of 55 – although there are younger families with children still at home and single people.
Stevens says despite the financial squeeze, "we still seem to be dealing with the same number of students".
Many of the Christmas stays will not be fixed up yet as families wait to hear whether their own children will be returning for Christmas. There is always room for more participants, though, so if you're looking to spend Christmas a little differently, then there's still time to volunteer.
Anyone interested can contact host at hostuk.org or by telephone at 020 7 739 6292Reuse content