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Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

Sub-Saharan faces in Caucasian spaces: Black African international PhD students’ experiences in the UK

Bettina Teegen, Ph.D. researcher at University of Surrey

In the academic year 2020/2021, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) documented a total of 605,000 international students who were enrolled in UK higher education institutions. Out of these 605,000 international students, 37,320 students were from sub-Saharan Africa (HESA, 2022). And although the number of sub-Saharan students in the UK is steadily growing (Owusu-Kwarteng, 2021), it appears that the UK international student literature has paid little to no attention to this particular student group.

Therefore, my research focuses on the following aspects:

  • To reveal the experiences that Black African international PhD students face within the UK
  • To create an awareness of the challenges Black African international PhD students are facing while studying in the UK.

This study was guided by the framework of acculturation which according to Berry (1980) involves incidents in which a group of individuals with different cultures, norms and habits come into first-hand contact with each other. This contact usually leads to a subsequent change in the cultural pattern of either or both groups. As a result, reviewing the literature on Black African international students, I only found a total of three studies that involved this student group within the UK (Hyams-Ssekasi & Mushibwe, 2014; Hyams-Ssekasi & Caldwell, 2018; Owusu-Kwarteng, 2021). Upon reviewing the literature, the following themes were identified:

  • Depression & anxiety
  • Loneliness & isolation
  • Ostracisation
  • Accentism
  • Financial concerns
  • Homesickness
  • Stereotyping based on skin colour.

In order to contribute to the huge gap in this area of research and to be able to gain a profound understanding of Black African international PhD students’ experiences within the UK higher education system, I utilised qualitative interviews which were completed with 26 students with an average of three hours for each interview.

Out of 26 Black African international PhD students, only three students reported an overall satisfying experience in the UK. They all reported similar topics such as having a supportive supervisor, helpful colleagues within the department, and a supportive academic staff that would help them with applications for additional funding for conferences. However, the large majority of the remaining 23 students reported largely negative experiences which include but are not limited to: hostile supervisors, that led to two students dropping out of their PhD programme; frustration due to a lack of academic support provided by the department; a toxic and competitive work environment; experiencing imposter syndrome as a result of repeatedly not being hired as a graduate teaching assistant; anxiety due to being the only Black student in the department; and experiencing depression as a result of loneliness due to the absence of family and friends. Three students also reported being called the n-word which occurred outside of the university but still negatively impacted their sense of belonging and the state of their mental health.

‘Out of 26 Black African international PhD students, only three students reported an overall satisfying experience in the UK.’

It is important for academic staff, such as counsellors, professors and dissertation supervisors to be aware of the challenges this vulnerable student group face. Students mentioned that it would have been beneficial if supervisors would be more helpful with regards to helping them to locate useful academic resources, making themselves more available with regards to listening to difficulties students faced, and providing more mentoring opportunities rather than displaying a nonchalant attitude towards their struggles. It is, therefore, of utmost importance to develop a high level of intercultural competence in order to ensure that this student group has positive experiences that contribute to their academic success and the successful completion of their doctoral studies.

Bettina Chioma Teegen received the BERA Annual Conference 2023 – Comparative and International Education SIG Best Presentation Award for the paper ‘African international doctoral students in the UK: A study of acculturation’.


Berry, J. W. (1980). Social and cultural change. In H. C. Triandis & R. Brislin (Eds.), The handbook of cross-cultural psychology (pp. 211–279). Allyn & Bacon.

Contreras-Aguirre, H. C., & Gonzalez, E. G. Y. (2016). Experiences of international female students in U.S. graduate programs. College Student Journal, 51(1), 33–46.

Higher Education Statistics Agency [HESA]. (2022). Where do HE students come from?.

Hyams-Ssekasi, D., & Caldwell, E. F. (2018). Rethinking student wellbeing experiences. In K. Bista (Ed.), Global perspectives on international student experiences in higher education (pp. 213–226). Routledge.

Hyams- Ssekasi, D., Mushibwe, C. P., & Caldwell, E. F. (2014). International education in the United Kingdom: The challenges of the golden opportunity for Black-African students. Sage Open, 4(4), 1–13. 

Owusu-Kwarteng, L. (2021). ‘Studying in this England is wahala (trouble)’: Analysing the experiences of West African students in a UK higher education institution. Studies in Higher Education, 46(11), 2405–2416.