How the student voice is shaping policy and innovation

28 June 2021
Posted by Study Group

How the student voice is shaping policy and innovation

The following exchange is an extract from a discussion led by James Pitman and Ruth Arnold as part of the week-long annual International Education conference, hosted by the UK Council of International Student Affairs (UKCISA).

James Pitman is the Managing Director (UK/EU) for Study Group, Vice-Chair Independent HE and member of the British Council Education Advisory Group chaired by Sir Steve Smith.

Ruth Arnold is Senior Advisor (External Relations) at Study Group, a member of the UPP Student Futures Commission working group on International Students and co-founder of the #WeAreInternational campaign (now part of UKCISA).

Ruth Arnold in discussion with James Pitman about how the student voice is shaping policy and innovation

Ruth Arnold: Can I begin by asking you for your impressions, James, of how the international student voice is changing the nature of international education, including in relation to COVID-19, and which changes you envisage continuing once COVID-19 restrictions begin to be eased?

James Pitman: Successful international education provision has always paid close attention to the changing needs and desires of international students. This happens at many stages of what we call ‘the student journey’ but is perhaps most important of all in the relationship between a student and their teacher. When you meet international graduates across the world, these are often relationships that they remember with deep affection and respect for the influence they had on their lives and careers.

Having said that, one thing that differentiates an organisation like Study Group, for example, compared to universities, is the extensive presence we have in our students’ home countries.

But through COVID-19 the whole pattern of education changed dramatically. It was not just a rapid shift to online education that was a challenge, but that many students were studying in quite an isolated way in another time zone.

International students needed teaching and welfare support in a rapidly changing environment that matched their new needs, and we needed to work closely with them in new ways to deliver that. While we continued to provide academic English language training and study skills for example to the same high standard, we needed to do that differently. It was not the what that changed but the how. We moved from listening and then designing how we provided teaching and especially support to genuine co production driven by need.

The immediate evidence of the success of these measures showed in student attainment, progression, and satisfaction ratings, which were remarkable in the circumstances - despite all the problems students faced due to COVID-19. In some cases, these even exceed previous levels. We are very proud of that, and it is a huge tribute to our staff and students - and the quality of the relationships between them.

Ruth Arnold: Yes, I would very much agree with that. I was really struck by the ways students co-designed innovation, which they knew would work for them.

The examples that come to my mind are from China. When on 23 January Wuhan entered lockdown and in March COVID-19 was categorised as a global pandemic, many Chinese students found themselves suddenly working online at home in a different time zone.

A key element within Study Group’s response, beyond a rapid pivot to teaching and support online, was an exceptionally close and trusting connection between the team based in China and Chinese students (either just beginning their programmes or having returned to China from their overseas Study Centres).

They were in constant communication and the students honestly highlighted with our staff where new forms of support and models of delivery were needed to respond to the challenges they were facing - especially isolation.

I was impressed to learn there were numerous different Study Group WeChat groups and numerous personal interactions, and through these staff and students together identified opportunities - using channels already known to students - to create new opportunities for social interaction, new models of delivery, in-country employability, and psychological support.

James Pitman: That is right. Those ‘listen and respond’ innovations in many ways rethought the whole idea of a Study Centre. Because of feedback from our students, we worked with familiar channels and providers such as Airbnb, WeChat, WeWork and FESCO.

Ruth Arnold: I agree that the innovations that came out of this intense period were genuinely impressive. Others across the sector have their own examples of doing things differently for the benefit of students at this extraordinary time but in that specific context we saw:

• Co-working spaces through WeWork, which addressed isolation and supported social networks.

• Student-led network-building activities via Airbnb in Chengdu, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

• Partnering FESCO (Foreign Enterprise Service Corporation) on internship, volunteering, and employment opportunities to gain work experience and boost employment prospects. FESCO works with over 40,000 companies.

• Access to dedicated mental health talks and support with psychologists.

• A weekly webinar hosted by a British tutor to strengthen language and cultural education. Some of these really have the potential to develop after the pandemic.

James Pitman: One interesting and perhaps obvious lesson for me is that students consider the whole learning experience and do not separate the academic and welfare elements as can sometimes be the case for providers. They begin with their own experience.

So, we saw that during COVID-19, our student-led innovation blended pastoral and academic delivery in ways that had very rich benefits including:

• Addressing isolation.

• Sustaining academic attainment.

• Demonstrating responsiveness to student needs at a time of unprecedented stress and uncertainty.

• Providing a model for rethinking the nature of the classroom and peer support structures.

• The whole of Higher and International Education would accept we have learnt lessons over this period which we do not want to lose. While by their nature reactive and introduced at pace, the impact of co-production with international students themselves has been transformative for students but also to our organisation. And we do know it works.

We probably will not keep all the innovations we introduced to mitigate against COVID-19 travel restrictions of course, but the spirit of being willing to listen and to trial new approaches in how we deliver education, support and assessment will doubtless remain.

Ruth Arnold: I understand qualitative feedback reveals the impact on student learning, confidence, achievement, and enjoyment has been very high. As a former international student, myself I know there is an important shift that happens when you move from being a passive recipient of your education to an active participant.

It takes courage to make that change but I have the impression listening more actively to students and seeking new ways to deliver an education that truly meet their needs are a progressive shift and one I hope will last. My sense is that it will be that students are finding and using their voices.

In China, we saw how students-initiated support for one another and informed innovation in delivery without a lengthy development phase, in the process they created new templates for what a classroom is, where and how support is designed and how innovation is achieved. I am excited that these are lessons that Study Group has incorporated into its culture, and which offer a model for active partnership with students in the future - and I believe that is also true across the sector.

In conclusion, I would like to draw on your long experience of engaging with international education policy James, from the early struggles to reintroduce post Study work visas to shaping the International Education Strategy and your new role as a member of the British Council Education Advisory Group chaired by Sir Steve Smith.

How do you see the international student voice shaping UK government policy in the immediate and longer-term?

James Pitman: International students must be at the heart of our UK International Education Strategy and if they are not, anything we say and do will be undermined. And of course, all good teaches and universities will constantly consider the specific needs of their students.

Fortunately, government seeks to recognise this and UKCISA is of course playing a key role through the advocacy of leaders like Anne Marie-Graham and Yinbo Yu, but also directly as the UKCISA #WeAreInternational ambassadors contribute to working groups and share the direct experience and concerns of students. That is a vital contribution.

National representative bodies also have a vital role to play. The National Indian Students and Alumni Union led by Sanam Arora is an increasingly influential voice and draws on supporters such as Lord Bilimoria who remains of course a powerful ally of international education through UKCISA and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Students, as well as in his role at the CBI.

An early test issue for students will of course, be in relating to vaccination and quarantine requirements. It is tremendous news that the government has confirmed all international students are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine just as any other UK resident.

But we do still need to resolve the issue of quarantine. The current arrangements are prohibitively expensive for many international students and do not offer the kind of supportive welcome we want to offer to young people arriving to study from overseas. We are urgently requesting that universities and student accommodation providers be able to meet this need locally and we are hopeful government will pay close attention to the voice of students on this matter.

Ruth Arnold: I certainly hope this will be possible and I know the National Indian Students Association and many other bodies are lobbying in public and behind the scenes for a student-friendly solution.

I have also very much appreciated the prominence of the international student voice on various reviews and Commissions currently taking place. The one I know best is the UPP Student Futures Commission chaired by Mary Curnock Cook looking at building a positive student experience in UK higher education after COVID-19.

It is great there is a dedicated working group considering the needs of international students led by Professor Mary Stuart, VC of Lincoln University and co-chaired by an international student Amina Akugri.

That group is 50/50 international students and experienced education professionals and that in itself has changed the focus of its priorities, including not only arrivals, visas, and finances but also real concern about issues such as employment. For example, what is the value of university careers guidance if it is structured around a Western employment model with an emphasis on interviews if that is not the case in your home culture?

And how will we make sure international students are able to access post study work opportunities if it is not obvious to employers how to employ them without contravening visa legislation?

On these kinds of areas, international students are increasingly at the table and help to draft the reports on the policies that affect them. My view is that we should absolutely embrace that in the spirit of there being ‘nothing about us without us’ and to help us all make better decisions together.

The UKCISA Annual Conference is taking place virtually for the first time between 28 June – 2 July 2021 and will include keynote addresses from the President of the CBI Lord Karan Bilimoria and the UK International Education Champion Sir Steve Smith. Further details on the agenda and how to register are available here. 

Blog archive

See all articles

Discover more about Study Group