Which Way UK: Supporting your family

Support networks are available
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The Independent Online

Many mature students feel happier, and work better, if their partners and children are not hundreds or even thousands of miles away from them. British institutions understand this well, and the support they offer their international students extends to their families, wherever possible.

Most places will have a dedicated member of staff in their international department or faculty whose job it is to ease the path of international students and their families in finding accommodation, healthcare, and schooling. What many strongly advise, however, is that a student contemplating bringing family should first come to the UK on their own - say, a month before term begins - to make the preliminary arrangements, so that they can start their course undistracted.

Institutions will be able to help with finding accommodation by providing names of recommended private landlords in the area, and can advise on the small print of housing contracts. They may refer students to Unipol, a nationwide register of student accommodation (available online). Some institutions may also be able to offer their own family accommodation, at competitive rates. Exeter University, for instance, with 10 per cent international students, has 16 flats on campus, with one to three bedrooms, as well as a number of studio flats suitable for those who come with a spouse.

Universities and colleges will also advise on signing up with local GPs, and explain how the system works. John Gregg, international student adviser at South Bank University, which has around 2,500 international students, says that many students arrive with misconceptions about the state of the health service. "Some think they will have to wait years for simple treatment, or hours and hours in doctors' surgeries. Sometimes they worry they will need to take out private health insurance - which is seldom the case."

School and nursery places can be arranged through support staff, who will have links with local education authorities, and some institutions run their own day nurseries on campus. Local schools welcome the children of visiting students, and children who arrive speaking no English invariably pick it up very quickly - which can be a great benefit to their parents.

For more language learning, spouses may be referred to local language schools or further education colleges (where courses are free) and some institutions lay it on themselves. Exeter University, for example, provides three hours of free language tuition a week for spouses, and Leeds Metropolitan University is planning something similar.

"Spouses can feel very isolated," says Karen Griffiths, Leeds Metropolitan international student adviser. "Our language sessions will encourage conversation, and give people an opportunity to relax and get to know each other."

Universities and colleges with a sizeable international student body run varied and stimulating social programmes for these students, and family members are always welcome to join in. Events could range from visits to Paris and Amsterdam, and day trips to Oxford and Cambridge, to "international evenings" in a local pub, or evenings on campus where international students and their families cook dinner together. Many institutions have good links with cultural or faith groups in the local community, who are keen to include visiting students in their activities.

Families can bring a few surprises, too. At Leeds Metropolitan recently, a Chinese student gave birth a full eight weeks early, but the international office rose to the occasion, arranging accommodation for the pair with a host family, even going so far as to produce generous donations - in the shape of nappies and Babygros - from a host of well-wishers.

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