Although there is a well-established literature on the international student experience (Schartner & Young, 2020), we know relatively little about what ‘being an international student’ has been like in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, while students’ voices have remained largely absent (Lipura, 2021). Emerging research (Fischer, 2021) suggests that the pandemic has made international students especially vulnerable and that efforts to curb the spread of the virus have hit this group disproportionally hard.
A recent online survey of 343 international students, who undertook degree programmes at UK universities in 2020–21, found largely negative effects of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their academic, psychological and sociocultural adaptation.
Data from this study revealed that the pandemic adversely affected international students’ sense of wellbeing, with more than half (57 per cent) experiencing anxiety and 41 per cent expressing concern about their mental health. Students worried most about the health of loved ones, travel restrictions, their future job prospects and their academic performance, and there was a clear association between students’ sense of wellbeing and their academic and sociocultural experiences:
‘It was really scary experience and unsettling, being away from home and the feeling that life is about to end.’
(PhD student, Saudi Arabia)
Academic and social life
Loneliness was a common experience among international students during the pandemic, with many struggling to make friends and reporting a feeling of ‘missing out on having real relationships with other students’. Restrictions on social mixing were compounded by separation from loved ones in students’ countries of origin and resulted in a feeling of social isolation for many. This had a profound impact on students’ overall wellbeing and satisfaction with life, and negatively affected both their academic and sociocultural adaptation:
‘There is little sense of being a student … I just face to a cold laptop every day and every time. So lonely and so helpless.’
(MA student, China)
Social contact with people in the local community was especially difficult for international students to instigate and maintain, with nearly sixty per cent reporting that they ‘never or rarely’ interact with British people. A perceived sense of segregation from the host community has been a key concern for international students for some time (see Schartner, 2015), but the pandemic has likely exacerbated this.
Host university support
Host university support during the pandemic was crucial in promoting international students’ overall sense of wellbeing and satisfaction with life, and in supporting their academic adaptation. Particularly effective aspects of host universities’ Covid-19 response, as experienced by the students, included clear and regular communication, safety measures to limit the spread of the virus, practical support such as grocery vouchers, and academic concessions:
‘The professors and staff are very approachable when students are in need, and they always deal with the problems efficiently.’
(MA student, Taiwan)
There was also a sense, however, that being an international student during a global pandemic was not the enriching study abroad experience students had hoped for, with many viewing it as ‘not worth the money’:
‘The experience of studying abroad this time is not particularly meaningful and valuable.’
(MA student, China)
Conclusion: Implications for host universities
Although there is increasing evidence that the pandemic has exacerbated some of the challenges international students face, it is also important to remember that many students coped extraordinarily well and showed a great deal of resilience, as the following quote exemplifies:
‘It’s frustrating, but I have managed to do my best, make friends, go out and have fun.’
(MA student, Colombia)
The pandemic is also a stark reminder that many of the challenges faced by international students were likely shared by their domestic counterparts. It is therefore timely to re-evaluate student support structures in order to make them not only ‘pandemic proof’ but also more inclusive. As Internationalisation at Home and equality, diversity and inclusion agendas gain momentum, the pandemic provides a unique opportunity to develop more holistic and integrated approaches to student welfare, which can in turn help to break down the home–international dichotomy that pervades much of UK higher education.
Fischer, K. (2021, March). The stranded: The pandemic hasn’t just disrupted international students’ college experience. It has marooned them all over the world. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-stranded
Lipura, S. J. D. (2021). Adding an international student’s voice to the pandemic discourse as thinkers, not subjects: Reflections on power, stillness and humanness. Journal of International Students, 11(1), 251–256. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v11i1.2564
Schartner, A. (2015). ‘You cannot talk with all of the strangers in a pub’: A longitudinal case study of international postgraduate students’ social ties at a British university. Higher Education, 69, 225–241. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-014-9771-8
Schartner, A., & Young, T. J. (2020). Intercultural transitions in higher education. International student adjustment and adaptation. Edinburgh University Press.