Cherwell investigates: Oxford’s international students

In a recent article for Cherwell, Cheriel Neo condemned “the everyday experience of inhospitality and apathy that international students face” in Oxford. The comments reopened debate about the treatment of international students in the university. The issues revolve around questions of access, diversity and transparency in the admissions system, whilst an increasing number of Oxford students are calling for changes in the ways in which Oxford University treats students from overseas.

The issue is relevant beyond Oxford; there is an important national context which must also be considered. With recent concerns over immigration in Britain, more constraints are being imposed amongst international students, with last year’s ban on London Metropolitan University enrolling international students and the threat of expulsion from the country for current students the most emotive example of the often precarious situation which international students endure. This week C+ takes a closer look at the difficulties international students face in Oxford, speaking to students about their experiences.

According to official terminology, the term ‘international’ refers to students applying from countries outside of the EU. These students, hailing from over 140 different countries pay separate degree fees depending on their course, and complete separate immigration applications before the university places can be officially confirmed.

Close to 40% of Oxford’s student body – a total of 8,400 students – is comprised by students from overseas, although this figure includes students from the European Union. Among undergraduates, 16% come from overseas, with the figure rising to 62% for graduates. As a point of comparison, the UK national average for international students is 13% at undergraduate level and 46% for graduate students.

Amongst EU countries, the best represented in Oxford were Italy, France, Germany and Ireland. Outside of the EU, the US dominates the international student population, with 1,486 students, followed closely by Chinese students, of whom there are currently 908. 41% of Oxford University’s staff are citizens of foreign countries.

A spokesperson for Oxford University highlighted the importance of this diversity commenting, “Oxford’s university community is truly international with students coming from 138 countries. Many nationalities have their own societies which organise social events for students and staff and the collegiate system means that students have access to support from a close community of students and academics from the UK and around the world.”

However, many students have criticised the University’s treatment of international students. A student from New Zealand studying at Christ Church, told C+ that “Being an international student is a huge drag on your parents’ finances. Not only do you pay international fees, but you don’t get any access to student loans, college/university bursaries or any college safety net. Even things home students take for granted, such as a grant to stay in college for academic purposes over the vacation, is barred from you, as part of it comes from home office funds.”

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Commenting on the issue of cultural adaptation, he added that “international students tend to be on the extremes of getting involved in University life. Many internationals  are virtual recluses, staying in their rooms working insane hours and never being seen outside.

“I think it can often be quite a culture shock for people who come from more conservative cultures, and I don’t think they really often get the help they need to find their feet. Making up for this is the fact that there are a lot of student societies who often fill that space. Singapore, Hong Kong, Russia, Malaysia are examples of student societies where everyone of that nationality tends to know each other in the University.”

A spokesperson for the University, however, insisted that there are provisions in place for international students. “There are a range of scholarships available for international students, such as the Clarendon Scholarships which offer over 130 new scholarships each year to talented students from around the world. We are constantly fundraising for new scholarships to support international students. For example, the Ertegun Scholarships were recently established for the most talented students in the humanities.

“The University has a Student Information and Advisory Service which can help international students by providing information about visa conditions and important legal obligations, help with extending visas, advice about travelling outside the UK, and the rules about working when on a student visa.”

A graduate student who wished to remain anonymous insisted that even this support is often still not enough. “As a white American, I’m not eligible for many university-wide scholarships. I didn’t apply for Rhodes or the Fulbright as I didn’t think I was a realistic candidate; at the moment, I think and hope most of the funding for my MPhil research is going to come from outside sources, for example museums who might be interested in my findings.”

However there is often an impression that international students form an “invisible minority” in college life. Ng Li Ki, President of the Oxford University Malaysia and Singapore Students Association (OUMSSA) spoke to C+ about this issue. “It’s not a feeling, it’s definitely the case [that this minority exists]. Most of these tend to be East Asian international students – European internationals and Americans tend to integrate fairly seamlessly. There might be a further explanation in that international students tend to do science/engineering subjects, which demand far more in terms of contact time, and therefore they have less time for socializing.

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“It bothers me. Even people who integrate successfully often do so at the expense of playing down their nationality. The weight of stereotypes being thrown around, language barriers, etcetera present formidable obstacles. National student societies help internationals cope, and once a sphere is formed, there are people who stop trying to straddle both their friends from home, and the possibility of new friendships here.”

A considerable proportion of the undergraduate international student population at Oxford is comprised of visiting students, many of whom also pay considerable premiums for an Oxford experience, although many students come here for one term only.

Such is the case with the Stanford in Oxford programme, which gives Stanford students the opportunity to spend a term or more at one of three Oxford colleges, Magdalen, Corpus Christi and Brasenose. All Stanford exchange students live in “Stanford House” on the High Street. Some students have criticised the fact that, in exchange, only six Oxford students have the chance to spend a mere three weeks in Stanford.

According to the Stanford In Oxford Programme, “Stanford pay fees for their students to come here and these are passed onto the relevant college.”

One student, who wished to remain anonymous, commented, “They’re clearly disguising a money-making scheme under the pretence of a genuine academic exchange. It makes me wonder to what extent these – no doubt bright – international students’ academic needs are truly satiated by their time in Oxford if the main purpose of their being here is to the economic benefit of the University.”

A recent internal report by the University of Oxford voiced concerns that high fee-paying “associate members” may be threatening the academic reputation of the University. A spokesperson for the University told C+ that, “Visiting students contribute diversity to student bodies in colleges and the wider university, enhancing the educational experience which they provide. Visiting students gain admission to the University on the basis of academic merit, their academic experience is broadly equivalent to that received by matriculated students, and they are integrated into each college’s undergraduate community.”

Despite the difficulties they face, international students are a growing demographic in British universities. Whilst undergraduate applications by UK students fell by 7.4% across the country, the number of students applying from outside the EU increased by 2.3% in the 2012-13 cycle.