The power of the international student voice

Blog for students
29 January 2024
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Amidst an uncertain and challenging climate for international students currently residing in and planning to come to the UK, including ongoing developments and changes in government policy, and an approaching general election, the work of UKCISA and our colleagues in the higher education sector to support and uplift international students is as important as ever.  

In November 2023, we were delighted to welcome our sector colleague Catriona McCarthy, Chair of BUILA, to open our annual reception with a speech to our delegates in attendance, which included UKCISA members and supporters, along with a large number of international students. 

We’re excited to share a summary of Catriona’s speech and hope that it serves as an inspiring and hopeful reminder as to the value of international students in the UK, both now and for the year ahead: 

BUILA is a UK-wide membership-led organisation for staff within UK universities, whose job it is to promote internationalisation, and to attract international students to the UK. We work closely and collaboratively with other sector partners including Universities UK International, the British Council and of course with UKCISA, to support our important international education sector, and indeed the brilliant students within it. That collaboration has led to a number of initiatives that will make a genuine difference to the experiences of international students in the UK, and I’d like to share some highlights with you. 

Sector collaboration to create an agent quality framework 

We are currently working on the creation of a new agent quality framework, aimed at developing and assuring best practice among international education agents. Suffice to say, international students are at the very heart of this initiative. One of our primary objectives is to ensure that students using the services of a contracted agent are provided with a high standard of advice and care and to ensure that students themselves are empowered by clear information on the standards they should expect, and indeed what to do if these standards have not been met.  

We’ve also been working with UKCISA and other sector partners to create an employment toolkit for international students to help guide them through the Graduate route and support them in their employability efforts here in the UK. We’ve developed an equivalent guide for employers to help them understand the Graduate route and to emphasise in big, bold letters the many benefits of having a talented, globally minded, and internationally experienced graduate on their team.  

In the lead up to the next general election in the UK, we are all working hard at sector level to ensure that current and potential government decisionmakers are fully attuned to the value of international students, and to the things we need to get right, in order to ensure that the UK remains a welcoming and attractive study destination.  

As you’ll gather, therefore, we collaborate frequently with UKCISA, and I have been lucky enough to see firsthand the outstanding job that UKCISA does in supporting international students and advocating on their behalf. I’d like to say a huge thank you to UKCISA for their unfailing commitment and the incredible work they do. 

To all our students in the audience, you can be absolutely reassured that UKCISA will always have your back – they very much are your collective voice. 

The power of the international student voice 

All of us working in the sector would agree that the student voice is always important in any context, but, as I’ll explain in relation to international students, your voice – a voice backed by such substantial cultural, social and economic capital – is particularly well-earned and really does deserve to be heard.  

As of last year, international students represented 22% of the UK’s overall higher education student population. They make a huge contribution to our economy – in fact, the UK is about £58 million better off because of our international students.  

However, the true value and richness that students bring is not simply financial. International students – it is you being here, you choosing the UK, and you choosing to be part of our universities that has helped make UK higher education what it is today. We have vibrant and diverse university campuses because of you. We can confidently say that your contributions to our universities and the enriched environments that you help create are part of what makes us continually attractive to international students year after year. We simply wouldn’t be what we are as an internationally recognised education destination without your presence.  

And so, I want to thank you all for the enormous differences you make, and to encourage you to hold onto these facts as a reminder of your importance, and so that you always recognise what a deserving and powerful voice you have. 

As universities, we benefit hugely when you use that voice to share positive stories of your experiences in the UK, but we also fully recognise that your stories are not universally positive.  Things are not always perfect and so if students feel let down by us in any way, then we need to hear about it. This is what helps us get better, and your brave voices will ultimately shape the experiences of future international student cohorts. 

A story of bravery 

And it’s on this point around bravery that I’d like to finish and share a short story of a meeting I had with a one-time international student at a UK alumnus event in Kolkata many years ago. It was a story of his bravery and how that still has resonance many decades later. The gentleman I met was advanced in age, but his mind was as bright and sharp as when the memories he shared with me were created.  

He told me how he journeyed to the UK, travelling for weeks by land and sea, and how he even lived through wartime in Britain when he was here. I was truly amazed by his story and remarked how incredibly brave he was. He agreed. He had been brave, but rather than observing his bravery as I had in his perilous sea voyage or his wartime experience in Britain, he explained that leaving his family, his home, and all that he loved and was familiar with, to study in the UK was the bravest thing he had done.  

That’s a message that has remained with me since and I believe that every student who makes the choice to travel to the UK to study with us and to enhance our communities is brilliant and brave in their own way. 

So, again, my last words are to our international students: please stay brilliant and brave, know that you have a voice, you are important, and you are valued by everyone in the education sector and beyond. It’s our absolute privilege to work on your behalf. 

The UK Agent Quality Framework is an initiative developed by a group of education sector organisations, including the British Universities' International Liaison Association(BUILA), the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), Universities UK International(UUKi) and theBritish Council.