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What international students want versus what they need

International student welfare is a challenge for both universities and accommodation providers says Luke Nolan, CEO of Student.com

Posted by Hannah Oakman | July 28, 2016 | International

Whether it’s for a year abroad or an entire degree, studying abroad is an exciting opportunity for international students – and one that can also be quite stressful. It’s up to those working in higher education to make sure they are taking care of these students’ welfare and individual needs. With 436,880 international university students accounting for 20% of the total student population in the UK[1], they remain a key part of the higher education ecosystem. Their needs, however, do not always coincide with what they’d prefer, and so the challenge is doing what is best for the students while taking their preferences into account.

One of the most important factors in any student experience is accommodation; this becomes especially important for international students. Making a home where they feel safe in an unfamiliar country is paramount for their mental and physical well-being.

International students can easily become isolated; however, through their accommodation they can create their own support system, which is an essential part of their social and academic success. Shared and diverse accommodation may hold the key to an international student’s development and welfare.

While students may want to remain in relative safety by recreating their home culture, this is not always ideal for their development

Tackling students’ accommodation preferences can be daunting, and what we’ve found in our own data has shown that different nationalities want different things out of their accommodation: for instance, Spanish students often want ensuite rooms in flat shares, while Chinese students often request studio flats.

Student accommodation has long been the first port of call for university friendships, and students in unfamiliar lands should capitalise on this. While students may request studios, and there are benefits to having your own space and privacy, this may not be what they actually need during their first year in a new country. Some institutions, like the University of Kent, are exploring how to steer students towards shared accommodation for their own welfare. While it may not be necessary to rule out studio flats, students could be encouraged to live with their peers - if not in shared accommodation, then in a building with some kind of common space, in which they can meet other residents.

A recent report found that international students interact with their new country’s culture in one of four ways: they can totally assimilate to the new culture; they can integrate within the new country whilst keeping aspects of their own; they can stay solely within their own traditional culture; or they can become socially isolated from both their old and new culture.[2]

While students may want to remain in relative safety by recreating their home culture, this is not always ideal for their development. One of the benefits of studying abroad is being able to immerse yourself in a new culture and broaden your understanding of the world. A recent study found that 74% of teachers believe that travel has a positive impact on a student’s personal development[3]. Universities can often struggle to help international students integrate with the wider university – by sharing accommodation with students from other cultures, whether domestic or international, students can begin to broaden their cultural understanding.

In terms of cultural grouping, data shows another interesting trend: broadly, Indian students often prefer to stay with people within their own culture, while German students prefer a mix of nationalities. Although international students should be encouraged to not cluster in one culture, creating isolated social groups, it can also have a negative effect if there is no one around them that they can relate to. This may be why culture- or country-based university societies are so popular, as students can find comfort in connecting with people with similar experiences. It’s up to those working in higher education to find the right balance of new experiences and comfort. This is where encouraging a mix of nationalities in any accommodation can benefit all involved. Mixing international students will not only benefit them, but also domestic students, giving them a better understanding of cultures and widening their world view, making fully integrating international students into university life beneficial to the entire university ecosystem.

Providing housing for international students requires careful consideration of multiple factors – university accommodation is their ‘home away from home,’ and is often a foundation of their international experience. There are strong arguments for pushing them towards culturally diverse, shared accommodation, but it’s important to find the balance of treating international students as adults and setting them up for success. The key is for institutions to make their advisory clear and easily accessible before students arrive in a new country. At the same time, they must accept that some students will choose to live separately, and so there need to be other systems of support in place to look after students’ needs. The student experience is complex, the international student experience even more so, and those providing housing, providing homes, must adapt with equally complex, flexible advisory.

Luke Nolan is co-founder and CEO of Student.com, a leading marketplace for international student accommodation


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