UK universities often pride themselves for their international outreach. At London School of Economics for example, 70% of all students are international. However, throughout my university degree, I have learned that even though cultural diversity is a characterising feature of the student body in the UK, there is also a noticeable division between foreign and British students. Internationals tend to stick to themselves and so do British students.
The reasons for this may be numerous and hard to identify without an in-depth study, but by interviewing some students in my social circle I have been able to get an idea.
At the beginning of my experience in a UK university, I was surprised by the politeness and warmth of the nationals that surrounded me. Strangers would call me “love,” acquaintances would refer to me as “mate,” and they always asked how I was. They seemed extremely available and always ready for a chat.
Nevertheless, I sometimes found myself isolated during conversations with English nationals. As an international, at times, I missed a word or a sentence and while struggling to grasp the gist of the conversation I became very silent. Missing a joke or a hint of humour that required me to have some kind of reaction is also something that I experienced. There are some common language barrier examples, as British student Nikki suggests: “maybe some of us do not think of it as a language barrier and we interpret that silence or non-reaction as lack of interest in the conversation. Perhaps we would see you as a generally silent person and judge you as having a personality that is not compatible with ours.”
From the perspective of internationals, it might look like British students are unaware or forget that English is not our first language and do not seem to be supportive of our efforts to communicate in a language that differs from our own. It could also be the opposite. British nationals may realise that we might not understand them, which could result in them feeling tense and uncertain about how to communicate in a relaxed way. This, I believe, is one of the main reasons that leads internationals to feel more comfortable around people that have had similar language barrier experiences and with whom we shared an initial feeling of displacement in a foreign country. At the same time, a hypothetical tendency of British nationals to stay in the ‘comfort zone’ may discourage them from making efforts towards social bonding with international students.
“Just a Girl from Nottingham”
Lydia agrees with me. “I think internationals often feel like ‘outsiders’ and automatically gravitate towards people that feel the same way.” It is definitely true that from the start, international students may experience a natural bonding simply due to the fact that they find themselves living in a different country. On the other hand, Lydia added: “I do not feel as interesting as international students who have travelled the world and lived wonderful experiences. I just feel like Lydia, a girl from Nottingham.” She believes that these kinds of insecurities may draw British students towards people they feel closer to: fellow nationals.
Another reason for the division that I find plausible concerns culture. Going to university is almost the norm for young British people, in the sense that it is seen as the ‘next step.’ It is considered a fun stage of life, made accessible by the availability of student loans. Maybe some attend university to enjoy that part of their life without being majorly interested in cross-cultural exchanges and the diversity that university life offers. However for internationals, having the opportunity to study in a country we love and admire, works as an incentive for us to make the most out of our university experience, including cross-cultural exchanges.
“I Could Not Afford to Go on Otley Runs”
There is also a financial aspect related to this issue. International students, non-Europeans more than Europeans, do not have access to as much financial aid as British nationals, who have the right to maintenance loans and are entitled to loans covering their tuition fees. Maintenance loans sometimes offer the possibility to go out and spend that money. This, together with the drinking culture in Britain, sometimes finds us financially unsupported to participate in British social events, which require spending considerable amounts of money on drinks. Polish undergraduate student Julia says: “when I first came here I could not afford to go on Otley Runs and get takeaway all the time.” Another aspect to be considered when reflecting on the division between international and British students is that the latter are more likely to afford to go out more often than some internationals. This may become an obstacle to friendships that could originate under circumstances that do not require spending money on nights out.
If we also consider internationals who come from more conservative backgrounds, practice different religions, and for any other reason, cannot drink alcohol — they too can experience further isolation by the British standards of sociality. If the only venues to make friends with British people involve drinking, then non-alcohol consumers can feel excluded or uncomfortable spending so much time in these spaces.
“Universities tend to separate internationals and nationals in student halls.”
International student Marysia chose to go into student halls in her first year of undergraduate study. She found herself living with only international students and by talking to friends, she has observed that “universities tend to separate internationals and nationals in student halls.” If this is true, there might be a general assumption that internationals prefer to stick to themselves and so do British students, which may be even be perpetuated by institutions and accommodation providers.
Even though this article is not supported by research studies, in my opinion the division between internationals and nationals is visible and undeniable. Based on the interviews, and my own experiences, the reasons that emerged in trying to explain this division include: language barriers, a fear of stepping out of the comfort zone, financial issues in relation to the British drinking culture, and general assumptions and misconceptions that see a separation between internationals and nationals as given.
Some of these issues are difficult to overcome, but efforts can be made in several areas. University societies could promote more affordable social events that do not involve going on nights out, or drinking alcohol. Accommodation places could be allocated by subject studied or randomly, forcing students to get beyond the awkwardness of the first impression. In seminars, tutors could make an effort to pair international and British students, encouraging a conversation that is likely to feel less awkward because it is based on the subject studied. Therefore, instead of speaking about themselves and trying to appear interesting, students would be talking about wider matters, which could then spark more relaxed conversations about nationality, interests, etc.
There are many measures that can be taken to address this issue, but the bottom line is that both sides should be willing to make an effort. UK universities crawl with opportunities, including cultural diversity. It is a shame that we do not take advantage of it as much as we should.
Luca is a third year International Relations student. He is currently an intern at CMIR (Centre for Migration and International Relations) in Nepal where he researches issues concerning labour migration from Nepal to other countries, and writes case stories on migrant workers' experiences.
Note: 'Student Blog' pieces highlight the student perspective on issues relating to ProtectED. Consequently, this article reflects the views of the author and not ProtectED.