The report states that solving the issues highlighted is essential to ensure recruitment of “the best international students from a diverse range of countries and socio-economic backgrounds”EDWIN BAHRAMI BALANI

The Graduate Union, now part of the amalgamated ‘Cambridge SU’, published a report on June 18th exploring the issues influencing the “experience, satisfaction, success and participation” of international students in university life. 

The report, prepared by former GU president Alessandro Ceccearelli, was informed by past surveys as well as a focus group discussion of members of staff and international student representatives at the beginning of the year. 

International students make up a significant  percentage of the University of Cambridge, accounting for 42% of the University’s student population, around 65% of postgraduate students and 35% of academic staff. 

Returning to Cambridge

Despite the centrality of the international community to the University, the GU report found that international students and staff continue to face difficulties surrounding their experiences of teaching, accommodation, fees, language barriers, immigration and discrimination. 

The report highlights solving these pertinent issues is important for the university to be able to recruit “the best international students from a diverse range of countries and socio-economic backgrounds”.  

Here, Varsity speaks to international students on their views of the report's conclusions. 

Fees

It is no secret that studying as an international student at the University of Cambridge comes with a hefty price tag. International students at Cambridge currently pay approximately three times higher tuition fees for their degree compared to domestic students. 

For the academic year commencing in 2020, international undergraduates will face tuition fees ranging from £21,168 to £55,272 per year for those studying veterinary medicine and medicine. 

Joan Pang, a second-year undergraduate from Hong Kong, while not thinking higher fees are “desirable” recognises that a “country and their universities have a right to prioritise their home students.” 

Despite Joan's reconciliation with paying higher fees she still finds that the amount she is paying for each hour “is always in the back of my mind”. This made the strikes and industrial action this year “quite aggravating.” 

A Canadian postgraduate felt the unjustness of international students’ disproportionately higher fees was highlighted by recent UCU industrial action and the Covid-19 pandemic because the amount of money they had lost “due to lost teaching time, access to opportunities and access to facilities was disproportionately higher” than UK students.  

The same Canadian postgraduate also endured distracting and burdensome financial issues during the beginning of Michaelmas term when they struggled to physically pay their tuition fees. They described how their “fees were so high” and they “struggled to both move money from my Canadian bank account into my UK bank account” and then “to pay the college bill as they only accepted certain forms of payment.” 

A first-year undergraduate from Hong Kong similarly finds the higher international fees an “additional source of stress when it comes to academics and studying”. They often feel it’s not “right to take a night off” because of their perception that it is “a waste of the exorbitant amount” they are paying for their education. 

The International Students’ Campaign (iSC) committee within Cambridge SU reaffirmed the social implications of higher fees for international students who may go to “fewer events, rent cheaper rooms or eat less” in order to “save living costs”. 

Erin Tan, a first-year undergraduate from Singapore, feels the “extremely large difference” between international and home student fees is an “impediment to international students who want the quality of a Cambridge education (especially if education in their home country is of a lower standard) but aren’t able to afford these prohibitively high costs.” 

Erin is thankful that she has a scholarship from Singapore which pays for her college and tuition fees because she recognises that “without this scholarship I would not have been able to afford going to Cambridge.” 

The iSC committee asserted that “not all international students are from very well-off backgrounds and tuition fees can be a huge expenditure” especially considering that “very few (international students) are eligible for scholarships and bursaries.” 

In their comment to Varsity, the iSC committee continued to warn of the effects of Covid-19 in exacerbating existing financial difficulties faced by international students: “with the current pandemic, increasing travel costs and the possibility that international students will have to pay extra rent to stay in Cambridge during the holidays” may “also cause extra expenditures.” 

A University spokesperson in a statement to Varsity commented: “fees for international students are designed to cover the cost of the course and be in line with similar courses at the same levels of excellence across our international peer group in higher education, while home student fees are subsidised by the UK government.” 

The differentiation in fee rates between international and home postgraduates was attributed to the fact that “the UK government for some postgraduate courses, mainly research courses, does allocate funding to universities and financial support to students via research councils and other public institutions” while financial support is not provided for international students. 

Not only do international students face fees which can be over five times greater than those of home students but the GU report notes that graduate international students must also pay a “Settling in” fee of £350. A University spokesperson described this cost as “not a fee, but a modest addition to the estimated minimum maintenance liability to allow for the additional costs of settling in or travel.” 

International students, unlike home students studying their first degree, must also pay more than £9,000 in College fees per year. 

In addition to higher fees, the GU report notes the burden of international students having to prove in advance to their college and for their visa application, that they can finance their tuition fees, college fee and living expenses for the duration of their course. 

While noting that not all colleges require a proof of saving that covers the whole duration of their course, the iSC Access Officer highlights the requirement of a large deposit in an international students bank account in the months before one’s visa application which might make a family “more financially restricted.” 

She furthers that this “extra bureaucracy” for international students, as “some colleges are not clear on what kinds of documents they want” is “quite confusing and stressful” for international offer holders. 

These financial guarantees were described by a University spokesperson as a “requirement of admission” in order to prevent students from withdrawing mid-way through their degree or having to spend “time researching and applying for funds to support themselves rather than studying.” 

Immigration Issues

The GU report details that international students, on top of higher tuition fees, also encounter costs surrounding their visas. 

The potential stress inducing nature of these extra costs was revealed by the Graduate Union’s 2019 Mental Health Report which found that 30% of international students reported mental health issues revolving around immigration and visa problems. 

International students must also pay an Immigration Health Surcharge, the so-called ‘NHS surcharge’, to be permitted to study in the UK. 

Erin felt during the visa application process that the NHS surcharge was a strain on her mental well being because the surcharge was “quite complicated and troublesome.” 

Since January 2019, the NHS surcharge has been £400 per year although from October the rate is set to increase. 


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The NHS surcharge, which has doubled since its introduction in 2015, combined with visa application fees equals an additional cost of £800 per year for international students, the GU report quantified. 

International students on longer postgraduate courses must pay the NHS surcharge, covering the duration of their course, upfront to the Home Office. The GU report calculated that for a four-year PhD course this cost amounts to £1,880, higher than the expected monthly living cost of £1095 advised by the government.

Despite this, an American masters student was  pleasantly surprised at the relatively inexpensive charge for NHS coverage in comparison to the “astronomically” high health care fees in the US. However, they also stressed they were in Cambridge because of a fellowship which included a stipend that covered their immigration and they could only imagine “that these fees present a burden to those international students paying their own way at Cambridge.” 

The GU report urges the University and Senior Tutors to implement a “mandatory policy for all funding bodies providing scholarships to international students to cover Visa and NHS surcharge fees” as well as lowering international students fees to account for additional burdens of immigrations costs. 

A University spokesperson noted that the “University’s largest funders of international students already either fully cover these costs or make a contribution to them” while other funding bodies will have attention drawn to the GU report’s suggested policy.

Accommodation

Rent charged to international students, like home students, varies depending upon their college. The stresses of disparate rents are only amplified by college’s varying policies on allowing students to stay over vacation breaks, with international students potentially having to find storage space for their belongings. 

Joan feels an improvement must be made in accommodating international students' storage. She suggests there should be greater leniency in leaving items in rooms over the vacation period. 

International student’s concerns around accommodation were brought to the fore at the end of Lent term when the University provoked “wide-spread panic” by urging international students to leave Cambridge with the spread of coronavirus. 

Students at King’s described to Varsity how they were facing immense pressure to leave Cambridge because they were told by the college that by “staying in King’s and thereby in a more extended community, you are not only putting yourself and fellow students, but also staff members of the college... and by extension their families, at risk of infection.”

The “emotionally manipulative” nature of the college’s communication created a fraught dilemma for international students because Foreign Office advice at the time encouraged avoidance of “all but essential international travel.” 

An Italian first-year undergraduate similarly stressed that their college “seems to ignore or be unaware of other issues we might have like the assumption that we’ll be able to pack everything without family to help and find plane tickets home on a one-day notice.” 

Discrimination and harassment

Targeted racism and violence, was found by the GU report, to be a significant feature of international students Cambridge experience. 

Experiences of discrimination were evident in the findings of the 2018 Big Cambridge Survey: 36% of non-EU international students reported being affected by prejudiced attitudes based on their race or ethnicity while 38% reported being affected by prejudiced attitudes based on their nationality. Experiences of prejudice centred on race or ethnicity stood at 30% for EU international students. 

A first-year undergraduate from Italy felt fortunate to not have experienced any discrimination but had heard from other European students who complained about “feeling excluded or treated differently from UK students.” 

Erin describes experiencing “quite a few subtle microaggressions” because of her race, “generally from fellow students and the occasional professor.” 

The report stressed that not only do international students experience prejudice but also harassment, with 18% of non-EU international students having endured racial and nationality-based harassment during their time at Cambridge. 

These racist incidents have only been exacerbated by “political developments such as Brexit and the recent COVID19 pandemic”, the report highlights.  

The GU report explicitly calls for the University’s Covid-19 recovery strategy to consult senior members of the Equality and Diversity section of the University, in order to ensure the adequate inclusion of international student’s concerns. 

Joan told Varsity that in Lent term she experienced individuals asking her if she “had coronavirus because I looked Chinese.” She described how she felt “quite out of place when on the streets”. 

Erin also felt “less safe” in Cambridge during the last weeks of Lent because a few people expressed “aggressive statements” towards her because of her race.

Discrimination is not only found in the “more commonly understood forms”, the GU report notes, but is also evident across departments curricula. 

The report emphasises that courses and reading lists have “historically excluded non-European voices”, with knowledge continually hierarchised  in reference to “British and Western orthodoxies.” 

Attempts to decolonise departments have been accelerated amid recent anti-racist campaigns and protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The English Faculty recently responded to an open letter demanding the department “condemn structural anti-blackness and racism in the Faculty” as well as calling for “more concrete action on decolonising the tripos.” 

However, for the most part, diversity initiatives, the GU report stresses, have failed to bring non-European international voices “into mainstream research, teaching and learning frameworks.” The report recommends that members of the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals and the Student’ Unions’ Advice Service should be involved in “drafting targeted strategies and trainings” to tackle discrimination. 

Language barriers 

International students often have to meet the University’s ‘Language Condition’ of entry for graduate programmes. This additional barrier to entry requires international students to take a “remarkably expensive” test and puts “unnecessary pressure” on less affluent international students, the GU report notes.

Even after passing the English requirement test, international students will often require “additional support in developing their English skills for academic writing and presentation.”

To gain greater proficiency in English, international students must pay to undertake an English elective which in 2019 cost £300. The ‘International Student Experience Report’ found this places an unfair financial burden on international students as English electives may be necessary to ensure they can sufficiently follow “English-medium academic conventions” as these are often “shaped by cultural factors.” 

Alex, a first-year law undergraduate from Dubai, feels that “most international students at Cambridge are very comfortable speaking English” and one would be at a “disadvantage and in the minority” if they were applying from a non-English speaking school or country. In her opinion, this limits the “diversity” of international students because most will come from some sort of English speaking background. 

She furthered that the“rigorous command of English” needed for the Cambridge law degree means “there isn’t any leeway” in English proficiency and as such, she feels if English was someone’s second language it would be “a lot more challenging.” 

Alex also stated that she wasn’t aware of any language support and sees this as part-in-parcel with the “expectation that you can keep up”. 

Erin was required to take an IELTS test as a condition of her offer, which she feels is “quite unfair” because her first language is English and her schooling was conducted in English. 

The Graduate Admissions Office may set In-sessional English courses as a requirement of international students entry if they just failed to meet the language condition of entry. But the GU report touches on how international students must confirm their ability to pay for the course to meet the financial conditions for entry.

In 2019, the full conditional elective cost £790, a further expense for international students outlined in the report. 

Participation of international students 

The GU report also notes a perception that “students from cultures and backgrounds that are very different from British culture gravitate towards socialising with their own nationalities.” 

Alex recognises the subtle exclusion of international students in Cambridge suggesting they are “somehow separated from the wider community.” She feels this is a “product of clashing cultures” which international students often find “more impactful and destabilizing than others.” 

International students “alienation” encourages the breeding of “subtle prejudices” with other students considering them “anti-social, close-minded or just vaguely different.” 

Joan stresses that her college, Emmanuel, has “made an effort to integrate international students but improvements can still be made.” 

Joan feels an issue often overlooked is the “tedious travel arrangements” international students have to make, for example international freshers week dates were only communicated to her in August but she had booked her ticket over a month before.

The GU report urges a critical assessment of social and academic spaces in order to “mitigate barriers they impose” on international students participation. 

While colleges and departments hold a number of induction events for freshers at the beginning of the year, “this type of welcoming support seems to significantly shrink after the initial two or three weeks of courses at Cambridge.” 

Alex feels her college “faltered” in providing sufficient support to help international students fit in. She believes international freshers week was “treated less seriously and as a less legitimate event than regular freshers’ week.” 

While recognising that international freshers week was “still very fun”, Alex was disappointed as she feels her college “missed the opportunity to quell some of the culture shock” of arriving in Cambridge. 

Joan also felt that international FREPs (fresher representatives) and international freshers week were “majorly overshadowed by FREPs and ‘normal’ freshers week.” 

The GU report recommends that there should be “support mechanisms in place for international students throughout the year”. The report continues that the challenges faced by international students “must be anticipated beforehand” and “strategies to address them must be put into place.” 

In comparison to much of the sentiment expressed by undergraduates who spoke to Varsity, an American masters student feels that the graduate community at their college is “very international” and that the college went “out of their way to celebrate and recognise” international graduates. 

Similarly, a Canadian postgraduate found their MCR to be an “international and welcoming crowd.” They furthered that they“appreciated the many initiatives of the student MCR representatives to support international students.” 

Experiences of teaching and supervisions

The GU report found opportunities for postgraduates to teach appears to vary between international and home students, affecting international graduates' satisfaction levels. 

Home postgraduate students were found by the 2018 Big Cambridge Survey to have 44% satisfaction levels in relation to the availability of teaching and supervision opportunities. 

In comparison, international postgraduates had satisfaction rates of only 17%, which is inferred by the GU report as “suggesting that teaching opportunities may not be distributed or allocated fairly amongst domestic and international students.”

Not only do international postgraduates endure difficulties in gaining teaching experience, but there are also discrepancies in home and international student perceptions of support received on work.

The widest disparity between home and international students concerns the fair and transparent marking of their work. 67% of home students felt their work was adequate and impartially marked, while only 50% of international respondents did. 

Similarly, only 47% of international students, compared to 64% of home students, felt there was clarity in marking and assessment criteria. 

Divergent experiences in terms of teaching support were confirmed by the 2018 Big Cambridge Survey’s findings that only 48% of non-EU international students felt supported by their college teaching staff. This figure was higher for EU students at 62% but home students felt the most supported, at a rate of 72%. 


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A first-year EU undergraduate, while not noting any “major” differences in their college’s support for international students, recognised the additional burden of not being schooled in the UK because they had to find “resources and study topics that other students had already covered while trying to keep up work from other classes.” 

However, Joan felt despite being the only Asian international student on her course, the lectures, supervisions and DoS meetings were “always” good. 

The GU report prescribes a number of policies and suggestions for the University to move “towards forging an inclusive global university”. The report emphasises the importance of these efforts during “this time of uncertainty” for international students amid the coronavirus pandemic and a post-Brexit environment. 

iSC Access Officer, Victoria Zhang, highlights that generally the “pandemic definitely has a greater impact on international students” and has found that the University is “trying to be flexible for international students” in regard to the upcoming academic year. She hopes that the University and colleges will “take as many recommendations (from the iSC committee and GU report) as possible.” 

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