What happens when the president of the world’s leading superpower makes inflammatory comments about immigrants and wins an election based largely on a racist and nationalist platform? As we’ve seen over the past two years, his followers feel emboldened and righteous in their discrimination against immigrants, despite their hopes, ambitions and rich personal histories.
Similarly in the UK, after the referendum to leave the EU, some voters felt free to vent their racist views. International students have also been feeling unwelcome due to high tuition fees, tight immigration laws and the introduction of charges to use the NHS.
This has profound implications for the higher education sector, where international students bring numerous social, cultural and financial benefits to their host institutions and country. In the US for example, in 2017-18, there were 1,094,792 international students who contributed US$39 billion to the economy, supporting 455,622 American jobs – equal to three jobs per seven international students.
Yet prejudice against international students is on the rise in the US and the UK. A recent US study found that this prejudice was predicted by support for Trump. Its author suggests that students who champion Trump’s vision of America might see international students through a racist lens, viewing them as unwelcome “others”.
A small study of just 389 home students, it can’t be used to generalise attitudes of all Trump supporters, but it can provide a window on what might be happening on university campuses across the the country where there are international students. And it serves as an important reminder for other countries, such as the UK, to consider how political debate can have an impact on international students.
Dealing with change
Regardless of the political context of the country they choose to study in, international students typically experience many changes, including moving to a new country and city with different educational, social care and health systems. They also face separation from family and friends and the need to make new friends and establish relationships with staff and the local community.
They encounter different cultures and languages, experience new expectations and realities and have to deal with issues such as housing, finances and health care. Most international students not only adapt well to these changes, they thrive. But for some, the challenges can have a negative impact on their well-being – particularly in places which are less than welcoming to international students.
There is a large body of research, including our own highlighting the fact that for international students, mixing with home students can be challenging – even without a political climate that discriminates against them as immigrants. We, and other researchers, have found that most visiting students don’t have much interaction with home students, which can explain why they are often perceived as “other”.
How well students are able to develop academic relationships and social friendships has an impact on their ability to cope with the complex demands of higher education. Some are more at risk in terms of isolation and stress, which can seriously affect their education and well-being. These consequences also come at a cost to the university and the wider community beyond, where positive experiences between different cultures can contribute to more tolerant, inclusive societies.
It is also important to remember that international students choose to go abroad to learn about other cultures, an experience that can also benefit home students. It can lead to a better understanding and appreciation of the world, an ability to think critically and consider different perspectives in their studies. When there is so much to gain, failure to integrate international students is a wasted opportunity for host communities and visiting students alike.
Role of university staff
Academic staff can be one of the most important support networks for international students. In their new environment – cut off from friends and family ties – they often see staff as the most familiar and trusted people, especially before they’ve had a chance to make new friends.
So how can universities encourage and nurture meaningful integration, especially in environments which can be hostile towards immigrants? Our studies have documented the positive impact of authentic group-work activities. By mixing up students’ normal groupings, teachers can influence the academic and social learning of both international and home students.
In the same way, using culturally relevant learning materials, such as books by authors from different countries, exploring topics like international human rights, and using case studies that include international contexts, can encourage students to share their own diverse range of perspectives in inclusive ways.
The responsibility of a university is not limited to just providing a good learning environment – it must provide a good social environment too. Our award-winning research into social transitions of international doctoral students in the UK found that participants wanted staff to see them as more than just students – to see them as human beings first. Mixing socially and sharing cultural events provides an enjoyable social setting for students and staff to get together, helps to break down stereotypes and enhances understanding of different cultures.
In a climate of rising intolerance across the world, it is more important than ever that universities step up and lead by example when it comes to being inclusive.