No way to treat a guest

International students, including 30,000 Chinese, bring £20bn into Britain each year, yet some universities are failing to give them the level of care that they need. Kevin Massy reports
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The Independent Online

When Qing Yang had her purse snatched on the way home from a lecture in north London, she expected a little understanding from the staff at her university residence.

After all, she was a foreign student struggling to find her feet in her first term at a new university, in a strange capital city 5,000 miles from her native Shanghai. Instead, she received a bill demanding £30 for her stolen room key, which the accommodation manager refused to waive until repeated intervention by her academic department eventually prevailed. "Thirty pounds," says Qing, still furious about the incident. "Thirty pounds for a key!"

Her anger is understandable. In China that is the equivalent of nearly twice the average weekly wage. But the point was more than administrative intransigence. As a Chinese student paying twice as much as her European classmates, Qing expected some kind of network in place to help after her traumatic episode. In the end it was an independent victim support charity that phoned to provide emotional support, and even offered to pay for her missing key.

Qing - or Yvonne, as she prefers to be called in English - is one of more than 30,000 Chinese students in higher education in the UK, according to figures from the higher education statistics agency. She found her postgraduate place at the City University business school (Cass) through resources at the British Council in Shanghai after being dissatisfied with a shortlist of UK universities supplied to her by a private academic "agent".

Qing says her choice to study in the UK was motivated by practical rather than academic reasons. "It is easier for us to apply for a Masters degree in the UK," she says. "If you want to apply for a Masters degree in China, it is quite difficult and we must prepare for at least six months or one year [for the entrance exam], but here we don't need to take the exam." She adds: "People in China say that if you get a Masters degree from America, you must be very smart, and if you get a Masters degree from the UK you must be very wealthy. In China, master's students are smart but they don't have a lot of money."

Qing's friend, Xiaozhi (or Gigi) Luo is studying for an MSc in insurance management having just finished an MBA at Cardiff University. She too admits that she selected the UK for the convenience of its master's programmes. "The first reason I chose the UK is that time is short - it's only a one-year course," she says. "Also, before I came here I was working for a company and so I didn't have much time to prepare for lots of exams." Including accommodation, living expenses and tuition fees Xiaozhi says she spent over £17,000 in one year on her MBA, and that she expects this year's costs to be even higher.

The figures will be music to the ears of the British Council, who recently called for increased UK investment in international students, projecting massive growth in an industry it says is worth over £20bn a year. Chinese students like Qing and Xiaozhi are examples of the efficacy of the council's ongoing global marketing campaign, which its website hails as "a great success in promoting the benefits of a UK education". It congratulates UK universities and colleges for what it describes as their "key role [in] significantly increasing their own investment and effort in this area".

However, the reality is not as rosy as the British Council PR might suggest. Once these highly lucrative students arrive, many find that the celebrated "investment and effort" from universities has been exhausted on the recruitment campaigns with little left over for the challenges of life in the UK.

"It is quite different from the Chinese universities," says Qin Zhao, another insurance management student at Cass. "In China the university will arrange accommodation for all of the students, but here you have to apply for it by yourself and try to find a private flat. It's a big difference. You must be independent - everything you must do by yourself."

Clive Saville, former head of UKCOSA, the council for international education in the UK, says that while some institutions have "ratcheted up their services," to respond to the growing numbers of overseas - and especially Chinese - students, others have made no improvements in their provisions.

"Universities want the students and they want the money, but they're really quite slow to realise that when they are charging such high fees they really have to put some of that money back into extra support for the [international] students. And that they can't assume that they cost the same as home students," he says.

Apart from those international students with inadequate English language ability taken on by "greedy" institutions, Mr Saville says that even those with very good technical English struggle with the challenges of day-to-day life in the UK.

"They're a long way from home," he says, "And you have to take on board there is all the difference in the world between doing a piece of work in English and actually having to live your life in English."

Without the measures in place to cater to their considerable needs, many Chinese students are left to the care of their university's student-run society for support and guidance.

Mark Chan, president of the Chinese Student Society (ChiSoc) at Bath University and a first-year architecture undergraduate, says that apart from free English language lessons he is not aware of any support structures in place to help the university's 300-plus Chinese students with cultural, linguistic or logistical problems. "I think ChiSoc here is a society for such a purpose," he says. "[We] have been planning things that we will do during the summer and at the beginning of the next academic year in order to welcome freshers, as we believe that it is most important to help them settle in as soon as possible."

However, while Mr Chan describes the Chinese society as a large community and a quick way to meet other people, he says that such heavy reliance on a Chinese community may have negative effects. "Friendships with other Chinese students are essential and will definitely help one settle in, but it is equally important to mix with non-Chinese students as not all Chinese students share the same interests as each other," he says.

Mr Saville at UKCOSA agrees that concentration of Chinese students can lead to a limited educational experience. "What is notable is that they are very heavily concentrated in areas like business and finance and admin and economics. This means that some courses get almost ghetto-ised, and I really wonder whether people don't ever say, 'Well, hey, I didn't come here to be educated alongside a bunch of other Chinese speakers.'"

He also recognises that integration with the local community is "astonishingly difficult" for international undergraduates, who, he says, get a rough ride alongside their more integrated British counterparts. Wai-Chi (Sabrina) To, a biochemistry student at Bath University, bears this out from her experience. "After I came to university, I found my housemates always down [at the] pub, clubbing whenever they're free," she says. "They like drinking a lot - I didn't expect to drink that often."

She says: "There could be more orienteering events for all students, including Chinese and English, so that they can communicate more and fulfil their experiences between different cultures."

Despite the apparent lack of general provision, some universities are taking their responsibilities towards their growing Chinese populations seriously. Enzo Raimo, head of international student recruitment at Nottingham University, says that his university has a different approach to many others around the country. "At Nottingham we've set up within the international office a specialised team called international student support officers."

After the recruitment office has succeeded in bringing overseas students to Nottingham, these officers take responsibility for the students and their families. "By looking after them, it's everything from welcome and orientation through visa renewals and coordinating family visits, right through to a re-orientation programme," he says.

The numbers of students taking advantage of the service on a daily basis proves its value. "We're in the same office, and despite the fact that there are six members of staff dealing with international students, there is a queue," says Mr Raimo. To cope with the demand, the university last year appointed an officer who specialises in students from China.

Whether new to the international student market or not, the message to British institutions is clear. With enough Chinese students in UK higher education to fill a large university, institutions need to start channelling some of their "aggression" into providing adequate support and resources for this increasingly important group. As Qing Yang will tell them, this is the real key to retaining their lucrative international assets.