Rethinking international students: reaching unity in diversity

Rethinking international students: reaching unity in diversity

There is no doubt that higher education (HE) has entered an era of change. It is widely believed that international students require special attention and support. However, recent trends, such as the world-wide massification of HE, the growing use of information technologies in teaching and ongoing globalisation of HE result in increasingly diverse student populations. Though traditionally, student populations have been treated as homogenous, they have never been such. In today’s blog post, the third in the summer Forum series, the authors explore why it is so important that universities stop ignoring the diversity of student community. 

Considering all of the above mentioned, it is high time to perceive international students as one of many manifestations of the complex and intersectional diversity matrix instead of thinking of them as a special case. There are several compelling reasons for this:

  • in our current and fast changing world, all students need personalised support to succeed in a university environment;
  • in times of conflict and heightened bias, universities need to foster mutual understanding and respect;
  • working towards diversity is going to make or break a university’s success in obtaining talent globally.

Bridging the Gaps in the Support System

By saying that international students need not be treated as a special case we do not mean that university services should not be trying to accommodate their differences. On the contrary, the university needs to offer not only the products which match the expectations of all its students, but also a matching manual and support system which has a flexible interface (both digital and human).

As Philip G. Altbach notes in Global Perspectives on Higher Education, the students “see themselves as consumers of educational products” which will enable them to enhance their employment opportunities, income and social mobility and are not interested in academic intrinsic values as such, so they expect the university to treat them as clients rather than new initiates who need to adapt to the existing rules.

Changing the university services interfaces so that international students can use them directly is a serious challenge which requires overcoming obstacles co-existing with the traditional approach to international student support: the language barrier and organisational gaps which lead to inconsistent quality of services. Often these gaps are due to the fact that international student support offices are rarely the ‘providers’ of the service, which leads to negative effects as the presence of international students on campus grows:

  • communication errors multiply when there are mediators between the student and the necessary office (eg scholarships, social benefits, etc);
  • separate support track becomes the bottleneck which slows down the process;
  • not mainstreaming the services for internationals has serious consequences of segregating international students.

Turning Ideas into Practice

Aside from outlining the benefits of rethinking how the university supports international (and all) students, it is worth drawing attention to the practical side of implementing the new approach. Since 2013, when the Office of Internationalisation was established, National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow, Russia has been working purposefully to avoid creating a split university. Over the three years HSE moved from a centralised support model for international students to an integrated one.

The main role of the central international students support unit is:

  • to advocate on behalf of international students within the university and ensure that diversity issues are not overlooked;
  • to continuously develop a cross-functional network so as to ensure non-discriminatory inclusion into university environment of all students, including international ones.
  • to organise large-scale support measures, such as the orientation session.

The decentralised network is comprised of offices and administrators who are proficient in the English language, cross-culturally competent, result-driven and involved in provision of student support. They deal with day-to-day issues of the students and corresponding processes, supported by the central office methodologically and in troubleshooting difficult cases which require cooperation of several units. A major recent success is that the support services concerning education process have been redesigned in a way which does not divide students into domestic and international ones.

Road Ahead

Chosen strategy and tactics have proven to be effective for educational support, but to similarly change the rest of the services which require cross-functional cooperation, there are still major challenges to address:

  • reviewing the university strategy and operations concerning student services design and standards, so as to take diversity into account;
  • finding persuasive arguments for different stakeholders at the university to get them on board with the necessary changes;
  • creating a flexible self-learning organisational culture.

While it is not only the road that is unknown, but the landscape itself keeps changing, it is the start of yet another journey upon which the universities should embark. After all, staying a competitive world-class university means embracing the challenge of developing flexible solutions while embedding diversity into both strategy and its implementation. It’s difficult to disagree with John K. Hudzik that the only way for a university to thrive in a knowledge economy is to have the ability to recruit globally to obtain the best talent. In our dynamic world the universities can not only benefit from the best diverse talents, but also nourish the culture of mutual understanding and respect which is highly necessary to overcome the distrust – the core reason for the volatility and conflict in present times.

Yulia Grinkevich is Director of Internationalisation at the Higher School of Economics. Maria Shabanova is Deputy Director of the Academic Integration Centre at the Higher School of Economics.