What should we be learning from the international student experience?

The story of internationalisation of UK Higher Education is an undoubted success. There has been a significant growth in international students coming to the UK and the 2030 target of 600,000 has already been achieved and the work on the international education strategy 2.0 is being conducted by the International Higher Education Commission, Chaired by the rt hon. Chris Skidmore MP. Transnational education (TNE) has been expanding as has the flow of students to spend study time from overseas in the UK and visa versa. This growth in participation and movement gives us the chance to diversify the educational experience and, where this works well, students have the chance to learn from others whose background and experience can provide different perspectives and a source of insight and inspiration.

Research has always operated on an international stage as knowledge development occurs through global communities and research-led teaching has tended to introduce students to developments from around the world. Equally, developments in educational practice, including decolonisation of curricula, have helped challenge and ‘decentre’ singular national perspectives where they have previously existed. Through these changes in who is doing the learning and what is being learned, internationalisation has led to improvements in quality for all.

In addition to these sources of intrinsic value, there are extrinsic forms of value. These include the ‘soft power’ of many graduates from UK HE who go on to play significant leadership roles in government, business and other organisations around the world and as Nick Hillman, CEO of HEPI, shows over a quarter of the world’s countries are headed by someone educated in the UK . International students contribute through the fees they pay and also through their entrepreneurship to the economy of the UK.

Given these many successes, a key question for the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, and for the whole UK HE community is: What should we be learning from the international student experience? In dialogue with international students from six universities we were told about a range of experiences in UK HE and the welcome they received in the UK more generally.

What are international students expecting and what do they experience?

International students are stepping outside their comfort zone and paying significant sums and their expectations are reasonable and appropriately high. In particular, they expect engaged staff, up to date and research-led curricula and a diverse student population. In addition, they are looking forward to an education that will help them develop the advanced skills, such as critical thinking, analysis and creativity, needed in productive careers. Many are hoping for the placements and experiential learning which can help them exercise and practise advanced skills and knowledge which is part of the promise of many universities.

The students who participated in our consultation were appreciative of staff and their enthusiasm and of relevant learning materials and careers support. However, for some there had been expectations set by recruitment agents and universities themselves that paid work would be more available than it is. While many had found work, it had tended to be in low wage occupations and did not reflect their knowledge and skills sufficiently, particularly at postgraduate level.

The students were also expecting to make connections and build relationships at personal, educational and career levels. They found Students’ Unions, clubs and societies were excellent for personal connections, a feeling of belonging and support. For some there was a risk of spending too much time in societies with membership predominantly from one nation and all found it beneficial to interact in multi-national groupings. Most found classroom interaction to be well managed and there was an effort to mix students in educational activities. In some universities and courses, however, there were fewer opportunities for this if a particular cohort was drawn from a small number of countries. In general, the students found that they had less chance to build connections that would help in their future careers than they had expected.

The primary area where students’ expectations were confounded was with the welcome to the UK. Arrival and pre-arrival in the UK were often less than smooth experiences. Visas were costly, guarantees needed to be provided and insurance and travel add to costs considerably. Similarly, NHS costs are high and the students’ perception was that very few of them used any NHS services. Some that had found the system difficult to navigate and not as welcoming as intended. It is also worth noting that concerns over cost are likely to be heightened for future intakes of international students given the significant increases to visa fees and the health surcharge by Government. Similarly, dealing with banks and accommodation was not straightforward. Increasingly, universities are helping with these matters and Students’ Unions are developing welcome packs on how to navigate UK systems in advance and on arrival.

The lack of good employment opportunities was significant. It is a popular misconception that all international students come from affluent backgrounds. In fact, like UK students, many need to work to fund their studies and living costs. Universities are seeking to help, but this is an area where more needs to be done. This also has, for some, implications for the classroom culture. Some of the students in our consultation reported having less technology than other students and this symbolising their otherness. Along with internationalising curricula there is also a need for staff to understand the background of international students and its economic diversity.

Some lessons from the international student experience

  • International students were willing and able to play a dynamic role in student representation and university governance, and indeed many are already playing this role. We should encourage this and it is also clear that international students do not want a separate voice – the intrinsic values in education were the same for them as for UK students.
  • Curricula have become more international and decolonised, but there is space for further development and cross-cultural understanding in education practice and engagement
  • Academic and professional staff would benefit from greater insight into the diversity of the international student body and their economic diversity in particular. This can help challenge assumptions and ensure an inclusive approach to the classroom culture.
  • Connections need to be fostered both within the classroom and the lab and with employers, businesses and organisations through visits, projects and placements.
  • Student societies are crucial to fostering belonging and enjoyment and Students’ Unions and Universities can encourage more collaboration between societies with a view to enabling greater cross-cultural engagement.
  • As universities, we cannot replace government agencies, the NHS and private accommodation providers, but we can help these organisations to understand how they are perceived, develop a dialogue at a national level and, crucially, work in partnership with Students’ Unions and external agencies to improve welcome and ongoing experience.

These lessons can support the work of the UKSCQA in providing a forum for collaboration across the UK on quality and international student experience and maintaining the UK HE sector’s reputation overseas.


Nic Beech, Chair UKSCQA and Commissioner in the International Higher Education Commission

Diana Beech, CEO London Higher and Commissioner in the International Higher Education Commission

Jess Strenk, Head of External Affairs at Middlesex University

Emily Dixon, Programmes, Communications and Research Officer at London Higher


How AI is catalysing good pedagogical practice in higher education

The delivery of teaching and assessment in higher education has faced significant challenges over the last three years which have affected all those involved in the quality arrangements associated with the delivery of teaching, assessment, and the student experience. This blog is the first in a series which looks at how the UK sector leads on quality in higher education. For this first blog, Professor Clare Peddie, Vice Principal (Education) at the University of St Andrews and Deputy Chair of the UKSCQA, looks at the sector’s response to current challenges associated with the introduction of generative AI tools such as Chat GPT.

When looking at responses to generative AI tools I see a lot of knee-jerk reactions, from initial concerns in the media around the risks to the academic integrity of assessments to the rapid introduction of new online detection tools, as well as the return to in-person pen-and-paper examinations and changes to academic misconduct policies. Now, because of the many webinars, roundtables, and evidence-gathering conversations, thinking is developing around how we can respond positively and in a measured way. In the same way that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated pedagogical advances in digital education, generative AI tools are, in my view, accelerators of the prevalence and quality of good pedagogical practice. These new tools will stimulate changes in pedagogy that we have been advancing throughout higher education over many years but will now quickly receive more prominence in our practice.

Developments in education which will be accelerated by the introduction of Generative AI include:

  • the incorporation of experiential, personalised, and reflective learning practices;
  • the advancement of activities designed to improve the metaskills of our graduates;
  • developments to incorporate more authentic assessment, i.e., assessment aimed at the application of knowledge to real-life or work-based problems generating meaningful and worthwhile educational experiences; and
  • the incorporation of project, group, and interdisciplinary activities.

In some institutions, including my own, the essay has been the mainstay of assessment in some of our more traditional disciplines. It would not be unusual for modules to be continuously assessed by essays and an examination asking further essay questions. Prior to Chat GPT, many educators and pedagogical researchers were already questioning the authenticity and the transferability of the skills graduates gain from these types of assignments. Now, we can predict that changes to the curriculum may involve greater involvement of the academic tutor in the development of students’ critical thinking skills, and discussion of the plans for the preparation and submission of an assignment.

Before the final summative submission, the tutor or lecturer may, for example, supervise the:

  • development of a novel research question or reflective assignment;
  • preparation of an outline plan;
  • justification for selection of the resources that will be consulted; and/ or
  • development of the argument and formative assessment of a draft document.

These measures will help preserve the academic integrity of the process while also supporting the educational purpose of assessment.
Some of our more innovative curriculum developments already in place will be largely unaffected by generative AI. For example, the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIPs) which are innovative interdisciplinary research-based projects that enable students from different year cohorts and academic staff to collaborate on long-term real-world issues which are part of the curriculum in number of institutions, including my own, and are largely immune to these risks to academic integrity.

Intensive personal supervision of the learning and assessment process may mean that the workload for academics will increase but, arguably, that the quality of the learning experience will be significantly improved. Consequently, curricula may have to change by substantially reducing the number of assessments. Again, many of us will recognise our tendency in the sector to ‘over-assess’, and we know that multiple assignments with feedback on which students have little time to reflect and learn from are less meaningful to a successful education. So, this is another way in which AI could further catalyse good pedagogical practice.

Like the digital transition catalysed by COVID, the transition to a new way of teaching will be pedagogically demanding. We find ourselves challenged, once again, to develop the support and guidance to help educators adapt, find the space in our commitments for curriculum development, and put in place the agile mechanisms by which assessment and teaching methodologies can be easily adapted. The question for me is not what we need to do to respond appropriately to the introduction of AI but how we resource that change and support the wellbeing of all those at the sharp end of curriculum delivery.

By Professor Clare Peddie, Vice Principal (Education) at the University of St Andrews and Deputy Chair of the UKSCQA.

Joint Statement by the UK funding and regulatory bodies

The UK higher education sector

UK higher education consists of over 450 institutions across the four nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. While each nation controls its own policies and systems for quality and regulation, and has its own funding/regulatory oversight body, we share underpinning principles which give rise to a common approach on the expectations for quality and standards for all UK higher education courses. These principles are:

  • Delivering a high-quality academic experience
  • Providing excellent learning and teaching
  • Supporting student participation in quality
  • Encouraging student engagement
  • Maintaining high quality academic standards
  • Promoting international recognition

The bodies that oversee higher education in the four nations of the UK are developing a joint statement setting out how quality and standards are regulated in UK higher education, including for courses delivered outside the UK.

The statement was produced for the benefit of organisations which engage with UK higher education around the world, including quality assurance agencies and regulators in countries where UK higher education institutions offer transnational education (TNE) provision.

UKSCQA UK-wide statement May 2023

QAA publish new guiding principles for effective external examining

External Examining Principles

Working alongside Universities UK (UUK), GuildHE and an expert advisory group, QAA undertook a review of external examining practice in UK higher education. As a result, QAA have developed a set of principles for effective external examining. These have been agreed by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assurance (UKSCQA) and are appended to the Statement of Intent on Degree Classifications. They are available on the QAA website.

In developing the principles, QAA gathered views from a range of stakeholders including academic staff, quality professionals, students and external examiners themselves through a survey and a series of roundtable discussion events. The survey, which was carried out between December 2021 and January 2022, received responses from 44 higher education institutions. Over 170 individuals engaged with the roundtable events held during December 2021 and January 2022. QAA also engaged with students and student representatives through their Student Strategic Advisory Committee and with professional, statutory and regulatory body (PSRB) representatives during a workshop held as part of their regular PSRB Forum. QAA are grateful to the expert Advisory Group members for their time and expertise in supporting this work.

The External Examining System

The external examining system has been a key mechanism for upholding academic standards in UK higher education for almost 200 years, ensuring comparability across different institutions. Within a system where autonomous institutions develop their own curricula, the UK higher education sector enables a vast range of courses to be offered which are linked to institutional research specialisms, local and industry needs, and student demand.

External examiners perform an essential function in supporting this diversity of subjects, acting as constructively critical peers. For example, they support course teams to ensure that students are assessed fairly and transparently by offering independent advice and support on modes of assessment and learning outcomes.

External examiners form a pan-sector network across UK institutions, offering a wealth of intelligence about academic standards and the quality of provision. The principles are aimed at supporting the two main stakeholders in the system: individuals performing the role, and the institutions that appoint them. They reiterate the value of appointing external examiners to work alongside UK institutions, providing confidence for students and the public that the degrees being awarded are a reliable and consistent reflection of graduate attainment.

Further advice to support institutions and externals in implementing these principles and reviewing their own external examining policies and practices is under development and will be made available in Autumn 2022.

UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment launches consultation on review of Quality Code

The UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) has published a consultation on the review of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. It encourages responses to the review from across the sector.

The growing number and diversity of higher education providers means that the UK Quality Code is of wider interest than ever before. Proposals for change to the existing Code are made in the context of regulatory change across the UK and reflect the entire higher education sector.

The consultation on the review to the UK Quality Code seeks feedback on a proposed set of simplified expectations that will give clear guidance to the higher education sector on maintaining standards and ensuring the quality of the academic experience for students.

Providers of all types are being encouraged to engage with the consultation and have their say on the future shape of the Code via an online survey. Responses to the consultation should be submitted by midnight on Wednesday 13 December 2017.

Professor Andrew Wathey, Chair of the UKSCQA, said:

"These proposals streamline the UK Quality Code and strengthen its focus on student success, maintaining the Code’s UK-wide character while accommodating regulatory developments in the four nations. The co-ownership of the Code, between sector bodies and funding bodies, makes it important that change is informed by the fullest possible range of stakeholders’ views."

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) is coordinating responses to the consultation on behalf of all members of the UKSCQA.

Douglas Blackstock, the QAA’s Chief Executive, said:

“The UK Quality Code is renowned internationally as a leading and comprehensive framework for quality and standards. In this latest evolution, focussed clearly on outcomes for students, we are setting the agenda that will keep higher education across all nations of the UK ahead of our international competition.”

UKSCQA partners welcome the publication of the consultation and the opportunity for the higher education sector to respond to its development.

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of UUK, said:

"The UK Quality Code is an essential tool that gives universities, students, employers, funders and regulators - across the UK and internationally - confidence in the high quality of UK higher education. This consultation represents an important opportunity to refresh the Code, including its clarity and focus on academic standards and student outcomes, and to ensure it continues to support the work and success of the sector."

Gordon McKenzie, Chief Executive of GuildHE, said:

"The UK Quality Code has long been the glue underpinning the UK higher education system, giving confidence to students and employers and providing assurance of the comparability of quality and standards across the four nations of the UK. The Code was developed by and for the sector by the QAA, in the spirit of co-regulation, and the consultation will ensure that the Code remains fit for purpose for the future."

Notes to editors:

  1. The UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment provides sector-led oversight of higher education quality assessment arrangements that continue to be shared across the UK, including the UK Quality Code. The committee was set up in 2016 with members drawn from publicly funded universities and colleges and from those providers designated for student support by the Secretary of State in England. Student interests are represented by both the National Union of Students and individual student members. Membership is also drawn from the four UK higher education funding bodies, sector bodies and regulatory partners. For further information on UKSCQA, see qcuhe.org.uk
  2. For more information on the existing UK Quality Code, see http://www.qaa.ac.uk/assuring-standards-and-quality/the-quality-code
  3. For any queries about the UKSCQA, please contact Jessica Bacon on j.bacon@hefce.ac.uk
  4. For any queries about the consultation on the review of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, please contact Catherine Kerfoot at QAA on c.kerfoot@qaa.ac.uk