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Are international students commodities?

Many international students choose to study at Sussex amid claims of world-class teaching, but are they given the support they require?

Many international students choose to study at Sussex amid claims of world-class teaching, but are they given the support they require? (Photo: University of Sussex)

“The great affair is to move,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, writer and author of Treasure Island.
Hundreds of overseas students here at the University of Sussex have embraced these words, leaving familiar surroundings to come to study at this university.

But this trek can be a challenge.After traveling to England,  each international student sits down and realizes something profound – that they will be studying in England for the foreseeable future. This realization can be daunting.
International students, after all, do not have it easy. Chris Marlin, the Pro-Vice Chancellor responsible for the university’s international agenda and recruitment acknowledges this and insists “we want to support them as much as possible.”
However, criticisms of the support that international students receive from the university, and also accusations that in light of their higher tuition fees – currently at £10,475 per year; over three times more than that of Home and EU students – they face commodification by management, are something that we are all perhaps a little too used to hearing.

Nevertheless, Marlin claims “we endeavor to meet and recognize the particular needs of international students, who are not targeted in the way that people often make out.”

“The university offers a comprehensive range of support services to international students,” says Sara Dyer, Head of International Student Support.  “One of the main roles of the International and Study Abroad Office (ISAO) is to assist international students through the various procedures that they may face … many of these are additional to those faced by home students (such as applying for a visa and police registration); others are made more complex by the different circumstances of many overseas students (such as University financial regulations and access to medical treatment through the NHS).

“We run an extensive induction programme which includes a range of talks on life in the UK and also offer a meet and greet service at London airports.

“We provide an immigration advising service and, in addition to our regular advice service, have specialist advisers for students from Asia.

“We offer a programme of trips and events throughout the year and work closely with other departments (for example, Careers & Employability, with whom we arrange coffee mornings and talks targeted at international students; for example, this week, there is a talk on post study work options for international students). We collaborate with the International Students’ Society to hold events such as the international students’ food evening which is taking place next week, and we provide assistance and funding for events such as a Diwali celebration, Chinese new year and a Christmas day lunch on campus for those students who are unable to travel home for the holiday.”

But despite the fact that Dyer is confident with the service provided by ISAO, some international students have maintained that these services are hard to catch wind of, with events passing by unknown or being learned of too late.
Dyer finds fault in this claim. “We send out very regular email updates about our events and services, and I am surprised by the suggestion that international students have to be pro-active to find out about our services.”

That being the case, it is disputable that many international students find the services and events of interest. One student said that she point-blank refused to attend many of the international students’ welcome events because she resented being ‘clumped’ together with her fellow overseas students.

“This was an issue for me,” she says. “I came to study in the UK to experience British culture. It’s not that I do not want to meet people of different nationalities, it’s just that these specific, targeted events made me feel marginalized, whereas I wanted to integrate into the wider community on campus.”

A further issue, as Lita Wallis, the Students’ Union Education Officer explains, is that: “a disproportionate amount of International Students run into problems with academic misconduct. This is for various reasons, and usually through no fault of their own. International recruitment agents have to be very careful that students who they bring in from other countries have an adequate level of written English for their course. However, occasionally, this is misjudged meaning that people panic or commit offences without realising.

“Different cultures have different learning styles. In some countries students are tested only in exam conditions, and are encouraged to memorize large chunks of texts. This means that people often come here without being trained in British modes of referencing, and end up committing plagiarism, which can lead to high amounts of anxiety and stress, and forces some students to withdraw from the University.”

Possessing sufficient language skills is arguably the most obvious and primary hurdle for many – having to learn and live in a new environment to a degree of English never before experienced. Despite the fact that the university claims to use rigorous examination procedures to ensure language proficiency, there are claims to the contrary, with concerns that the international recruitment officers Lita refers to, who work across the globe enrolling students at Sussex – and who receive generous commissions of over £2000 per student – may doctor examination results to secure their bonuses, which may explain why some students are allegedly recruited without sufficient language skills.

“As a result, the majority of students hauled up to misconduct panels for plagiarism are international students,” says Richa Kaul Padte, former Students’ Union Welfare Officer and  international student, “many of whom lose their appeals and are forced to return home in massive amounts of debt without a degree. But in reality, they should have never been accepted onto their courses in the first place – the university’s desire to make money off them is more important than their ability to get a degree.”

Sol Schonfield, the Students’ Union’s Communications Officer, also expresses concerns regarding recruitment agents: “Though in recent years the university has taken steps to improve its provision for international students, the Students’ Union remains concerned about the fact that the university has employees who are flown around the world and paid according to how many international students they recruit.”

“But this is the way some countries work,” insists Chris Marlin. “While the university does not rely on this method to recruit students, it is one avenue used, and it is the way some countries provide access to education.”

Even international students who come to the university fluent in English, without the aid of a recruitment agent and with the ablity to adapt to the style of instruction here still face struggles, such as housing. Perhaps more than any other type of student at the University of Sussex, international students must have living situations that provide for them – not only by means of bed and pillow, but additionally through housemate and friend.

As we have previously seen, it is important to many international students that they are given help integrating into the campus community so that they can get the most from their international experience. As such, for those that are assigned on-campus housing, it is vital that they be placed with some British students to help acclimatize them to their new surroundings. Chris Marlin attests to this: “It is important to ensure that international students are introduced to others and integrated into the community, and it is essential to facilitate their meeting students from other international groups. Similarly, it is important to avoid clumping students from similar countries all together whilst providing opportunities for them to meet each other. Coming to the UK can be very daunting, and it is important to give students the international experience, including integrating with home students too.”

In this vein, the Housing Office disperses international students amongst ones from the UK.  However, many students find themselves sharing their on-campus housing with a disproportionately large number of fellow internationals, and/or scarcity of UK natives. For these students, the challenge to meet new people and feel comfortable here in Brighton has been made one step harder.

Even worse, many international students were assigned to live off campus, in no small part due to the housing crisis at the University of Sussex this year.

“My friend from Pakistan put in to live in Park Village, but was given housing off-campus,” says Anuksha Khargharia, a postgraduate Psychology student from India. “He was even willing to pay more money, but now is living off-campus and he says it is very hard for him to meet new people, and he is very unhappy with his living situation.”
Every student at the university is faced with challenges; the housing crisis affected all first-years, not just ones from overseas. But there can be little doubt that international students left homeless so far away from home were hurt more than any other, and they are definitely faced with other problems that are more unique.

“I admire them enormously,” says Chris Marlin, “and think them very brave.”

Sussex is easily recognized as a particularly international university, with students from more than a hundred different countries and international students comprising approximately one-fifth of the student body. Chris Marlin admits internationalization is something he is working on.

“An important aspect of internationalization is meeting other cultures, and the benefit of having international students here at the university is a two way street – its good for UK students, and helps internationalize the university,” he explains. “But internationalization is not just about bringing lots of foreign students to Sussex; it is about increasing the experience for home students too.”

Of course, the cynics among us would rubbish this assertion; some deem the perceived commodification and targeting of international students to be a very pressing matter and would claim that the so-called ‘internationalization of Sussex’ is simply a euphemism for ‘rolling in the dollars’, with fees for international students set at such a staggering rate.

However, Chris Marlin reiterated that this was not the case.

“Having diversity on campus is beneficial for all concerned; money is not a factor of having international students study here. It makes very little difference to the university whether a particular student is from the UK or from overseas; home students’ fees are subsidized by the government whereas international students’ fees are not. We enroll students on the basis of merit, not money. Regrettably the situation is that the costs of education need to be covered and the university has very little control over that.”

A second-year Business student, who wished to be nameless, remains unconvinced:

“If my experience is anything to go by, the university mustn’t be doing enough to check international students’ English before enrolling them. This is an appalling way to treat people and makes me question management’s priorities; I think it’s obvious that they go out of their way to attract international students in order to make money from them. So I don’t think the university could ever do enough for international stuents, not even if they do their degrees for them!”

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