Exploring international student experience through induction and disability disclosures

The international student experience is replete with challenges spanning academic study and settling into day to day life in the UK. These factors are well known and I won’t break those down fully in this blog (Brown and Holloway, 2008; Arkoudis et al., 2019; Page and Chahboun, 2019; King and Bailey, 2021). Suffice to say issues can be roughly categorised around adjusting to culture (e.g. navigating unfamiliar social norms, customs), academia (e.g. expectations, ways of studying) and personal challenges (e.g. language, wellbeing, financial, loneliness). It is a complex matrix as these factors can often intersect with and exacerbate each other. For example, language challenges may restrict effective communication, both in academic and social settings, contributing to feelings of isolation.

In my role as Director of Student Participation and Success within the University of Hertfordshire’s Faculty of Law and Education, I have been working to grow an inclusive environment where belonging is prioritised. In this blog, I will introduce how some practice-based initiatives are enhancing programme inductions for international students, while fostering a more inclusive learning environment aimed at increasing the amount of disability and mental health disclosures.

Academic-based inductions

New programme inductions in Law and Education subjects aim to transition students to university by recognising their expectations (Farenga, 2018 and 2019), while starting to develop important subject skills and knowledge. Relational pedagogy underpins these inductions and ensures support is individualised while opportunities exist for relationships to form between students, their peers and staff (Bovill, 2020). Sessions cover introductory lectures, seminars and research workshops allowing students to both experience learning and begin to inculcate key subject knowledge within a low-stakes environment. Staff that will be important to students throughout the year (personal tutor, key teaching staff, Year Lead) are take part in session delivery, helping to develop student/staff relationships.

Evaluations from September 2023 show:

  • 94% reported positive confidence levels
  • 85% said their questions were answered
  • 97% feeling part of a community

Establishing a sense of belonging so early on is imperative for students who may be feeling displaced, especially international students. This is the foundation for an inclusive and open environment in which all students feel comfortable disclosing wellbeing and disability challenges and receiving support.

Creating a disclosure-friendly environment

Law and Education programmes are increasing international student recruitment, particularly at Level 7. However, participation levels of these cohorts have not always met expectations around academic and community engagement, or, expected levels of disability declaration. In fact, out of 300 international law master’s students on a 2022/23 cohort, only 1 has a formal wellbeing/disability study support plan in place suggesting extreme under-representation. Drawing on current institutional data, there is a lack of awareness amongst international communities on disabilities, why identification is important and how a study support plan could support learning—all of which can be exacerbated by cultural stigmas attached to a learning difference or disability.

The project aims to (1) ensure learning environments are inclusive and accessible, motivating all students to engage fully in learning; (2) identify academic, social and learning difference/disability challenges; (3) collaborate with staff and students to plan and deliver appropriate support activity using existing frameworks (e.g. personal tutoring), while enhancing community within/between programmes to support our students. These aims are crucial to our growing international communities across Law and Education.

Already this academic year, we are seeing changes. 30% of all wellbeing/disability declarations are from international students, evidence of a more inclusive environment and that high level of sense of belonging observed in inductions. Supporting this work will be Student Champions, helping to being a co-development stream to our work. Although promising, there is more work to be done, particularly around breaking down data to unpack how individual groups perform, while also looking to tackle some of the more troublesome outcomes, such as awarding gaps. Stay tuned!


 Arkoudis, S., Dollinger, M., Baik, C. and Patience, A. (2019) ‘International students’ experience in Australian higher education: can we do better?’, Higher Education, 77(5), 799+, available:

https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.herts.ac.uk/apps/doc/A581088911/AONE?u=uniherts&sid=summon&xid=fe3a69bd [accessed 12 Sep 2023].

Brown, L. and Holloway, I. (2008). The adjustment journey of international postgraduate students at an English university. Journal of Research in International Education, 7(2), pp.232–249. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1475240908091306.

Farenga, S. A. (2018) ‘Early struggles, peer groups and eventual success: an artful inquiry into unpacking transitions into university of widening participation students’. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning. 20(1), pp. 60-78. Available at: http://doi.org/10.5456/WPLL.20.1.60  

Farenga, S. A. (2019) A Participatory Study into the Student Experience of First Year Under-Represented Students in a UK University. University of Hertfordshire research Archive. Available at: https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/handle/2299/22568

King, C.S.T. and Bailey, K.S. (2021). Intercultural communication and US higher education: How US students and faculty can improve. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 82, pp.278–287. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2021.04.007.

Page, A.G. and Chahboun, S. (2019) ‘Emerging empowerment of international students: how international student literature has shifted to include the students’ voices’, Higher Education, 78(5), 871+, available: https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.herts.ac.uk/apps/doc/A604467916/AONE?u=uniherts&sid=summon&xid=059432cb [accessed 12 Sep 2023].

Blog By: Dr Stephane Farenga

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