Improving access to university counselling services for international students

Blog for members
21 January 2019
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In January and February 2019 we’re focusing on resources to support international students’ wellbeing. The first of our mini series is University of Plymouth’s research ‘reaching out to enhance the wellbeing of international students'.

Having noticed that the number of international students accessing the counselling service at University of Plymouth had dropped to 2.8% in 2014-15, the team wanted to investigate why international students seemed reluctant to use the services provided. What were the barriers and what could be done to overcome them?

The team used surveys, focus groups and a project group to investigate students’ perceptions of counselling and their thoughts about challenges coming to study in the UK. The findings include: 

  • 71% of students surveyed think they should be able to sort their problems out by themselves.
  • When asked what would stop students accessing counselling services if they felt unhappy or distressed, 35% said “I do not think my problems are important enough.”
  • Students who feel better are more likely to be willing to go to their academic tutor, and those who feel worse are more likely to look online for support.

Students for whom it was their first time living overseas were more likely to cite difficulties with language, worries about the counsellor thinking badly of them and not maintaining confidentiality as barriers to seeing a university counsellor. A similar effect was noted for students in their first year of study, which is useful for us all to bear in mind.

Anne Bentley, Manager of Student Wellbeing Services and UKCISA Project Lead, updated us about how the University of Plymouth has used the research findings. She said that:

“The research report highlighted that international students preferred to enhance their wellbeing through social activities with others rather than through formal counselling. It challenged us to think of new and meaningful ways of engaging with international students. It has forced us to do things differently and think outside of our traditional models of service delivery.”

“In partnership with the International Student Advice team, we created Global Buddies, a weekly social group for international students. Global Buddies regularly attracts upwards of twenty attendees per week and is a happy space that provides a great deal of emotional support. Many students have fed back that Global Buddies is what has meant most to them at university and has helped them get through difficult times. It isn’t therapy but it has definitely been perceived by the group attendees as enhancing their social wellbeing.”

Read the full report to explore the findings and practical recommendations at

The research has also been published in the University and College Counselling journal. The publication is only available to BACP University and College Counselling members, but if you get in touch with Anne directly she'll send you a copy. Email

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