An analysis of student feedback on discrimination and inclusivity policies within UK universities

With international student populations continuing to grow at UK universities, the need to evaluate the effectiveness of inclusivity policy in a way that centres the student voice has never been so important. Since the Autumn 2021 survey, the International Student Barometer (ISB) has expanded its contribution to the topic of inclusivity through a specific question set designed to gauge student’s experiences of discrimination at their institution.

With a focus on the race, ethnicity and nationality elements of this question (the other elements warrant their own discussion), some key themes have begun to emerge from the data. International students studying at UK institutions over the past two survey waves, on average, experience slightly less discrimination than the Global ISB average – and when drawing upon pre-existing ISB metrics, feel more welcome and a greater sense of belonging. When breaking this data down by different nationality cohorts however, we see a clear variation in the frequency of discrimination experienced by international students in the UK, with students from East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) backgrounds the most affected. This demonstrates the need to utilise the granularity of tools like the ISB when using them to inform on inclusivity policy and internationalisation strategies, ensuring that the full range of student experiences are considered.

Looking at the data in more detail, firstly in terms of race and ethnicity, discrimination was experienced slightly less frequently by international students at UK institutions when compared to the global average, with 21% of international students surveyed having experienced discrimination on this basis in the UK ISB benchmark (either occasionally, quite often or always) and 22% in the Global ISB benchmark. There was no major shift in these scores on the previous year, with the proportion of those experiencing some level of discrimination remaining consistent with the 2021 survey results. A slightly bigger difference between the UK and Global benchmarks is apparent when looking at discrimination based on a student’s nationality, with 21% of international students in the UK having experienced some frequency of discrimination versus 25% in the Global benchmark. As with race and ethnicity, both scores remained consistent on the previous year.

When breaking these scores down by the nationality of the respondent however, we uncover some stark variations in the frequency of discrimination faced by these different groups. Of the five largest nationality cohorts at UK universities, students from China were by some margin the most discriminated against in terms of both race and ethnicity, and nationality, with 35% and 37% respectively having faced discrimination on these bases. This compares with 19% for Indian students (both metrics), 16% and 14% for Nigerian students, 19% and 20% for Pakistani students, and 18% and 33% for US students, respectively. Although drawing upon smaller sample sizes, we almost exclusively see similar levels of discrimination to that faced by Chinese students in the UK when we view the results for other ESEA nationality cohorts. This is particularly true in terms of race and ethnicity-based discrimination, where an average of 33% of students across ESEA nationalities with a significant response count reported experiencing discrimination. Similarly high levels were reported by Chinese and other ESEA nationality cohorts in the 2021 survey.

It would be easy to assume that the relatively high prevalence of discrimination against ESEA students in the UK is a hangover from the COVID-19 pandemic (during which reported hate crimes against ESEA communities in the UK rose due to the popular apportioning of blame for the virus’ origination on China), and that such attitudes will soften the further the pandemic recedes from our immediate memory. Concerningly, however, the survey data from the 2022 intake of ESEA students (those students in their first year of study or on a short course) suggest something potentially more pervasive. 34% of Chinese first year students in 2022 reported being the victim of discrimination based on their race or ethnicity, 39% of students from Hong Kong and 47% of those from Thailand and South Korea. Of the largest ESEA cohorts, only Malaysia saw a significant drop in incidents of race/ethnicity-related discrimination amongst its first-year students, down 17 percentage points on the previous survey iteration.

The good news for UK institutions is that the frequency of discrimination faced does not appear to correlate with a significantly lesser sense of belonging, or feeling welcome, amongst students from ESEA backgrounds, with the scores for international students in the UK more widely outperforming the Global ISB benchmark in these metrics. In response to the statement “I feel a sense of belonging at my institution”, an average of 85% of students studying in the UK from ESEA countries with a significant number of survey responses either agreed or strongly agreed, just below the 88% of all international students in the UK surveyed and slightly above the 84% of international students within the Global ISB benchmark.

When presented with the statement “There is a friendly attitude towards international students at my Institution amongst staff and students”, an average 93% of UK-based ESEA students agreed or strongly agreed, compared with 95% of all UK international students and 93% of international students in the Global benchmark. In response to the same statement, but this time relating the attitudes of the local population as opposed to staff and students, an average of 89% across ESEA nationalities studying in the UK agreed or strongly agreed, in comparison with 92% of all UK internationals surveyed and 90% of international students in the Global benchmark. Finally, when asked whether they feel welcome as an international student in the UK, an average of 91% across ESEA nationalities agreed or strongly agreed, versus 92% of UK internationals more widely, and 90% of international students in the Global benchmark.

The first two years of inclusivity data from the International Student Barometer show that UK universities are overall performing better than the global average when it comes to providing an inclusive environment for international students of various racial, ethnic and nationality backgrounds. International students in the UK are overall less likely to have experienced discrimination on these bases and are more likely to feel welcome, and have a sense of belonging, than students across the Global ISB benchmark. In this sense the figures could be seen as somewhat encouraging for the UK sector, but with still over a fifth of international students in the UK having experienced discrimination due to their race, ethnicity or nationality during their studies, there is clearly more work to be done. The experience of ESEA students in the UK as reported through the ISB data also highlights the disparities which can exist across different nationality cohorts. The frequency of discrimination faced by this group of students was significantly higher than the UK average, and consistent across all years of study, meaning this cannot simply be dismissed as a pandemic-related aberration. This is not to create a hierarchy of discrimination when discussing inclusivity policy, but to highlight the fact that the experience of international students cannot be homogenised. The specific challenges, concerns and needs of different groups must be understood – through tools like the ISB – and effectively responded to.


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