Is the University of Edinburgh doing enough to support its third-years studying abroad?

It’s the start of another semester and for thousands of third year students leaving to study abroad, this signifies a departure from their normal life and the beginning of a great adventure. Although the vast majority will return with fond memories of a life-changing experience, moving overseas can be unsettling and scary, particularly at the beginning. It’s at this time more than any that the university has a duty to support its undergraduates. But rumblings of complaints from students indicate that they might be getting let down.

The University’s Go Abroad service is the go-to place for any and all exchange-related advice. Their student exchanges handbook provides a detailed guide on everything from visa applications to dealing with reverse culture shock, as well as listing the various paperwork deadlines that you must meet throughout the year. On their website you can also find the latest updates relating to the EU referendum, and stories from past students. As far as staying informed goes, it would seem Go Abroad is a success.

Availability of the facts isn’t necessarily the problem, however. Across the university, students complain that there is a significant lack of communication throughout the year and that staff appear to be doing ‘the bare minimum’. While this is more likely down to a shortage of time and resources than the fault of the faculty members themselves, near radio silence from your sending institution during an already nerve wracking time is only bound to make matters worse.

Students are advised prior to their departure that they can email regarding any problems they might have whilst away but, in practice, swamped university staff will often result in things falling through the cracks. While understandably there is an expectation that the host institution will bear the brunt of these duties, better placed as they are geographically, not all foreign universities have such comprehensive support networks, and even when they do many students might not feel comfortable going to them with personal problems.

Georgie Harris, a Spanish and Politics student who spent last year in Madrid, said:

“You can feel neither like a proper Edinburgh student nor a student of your host university. Edinburgh has lots of useful resources to offer (such as email counselling), but never told us about any of them before the end of second year. No-one reaches out or sends an email asking how you’re getting on, which can leave you feeling isolated and unsure who you can contact if you have a problem, which many people do on their year abroad.”

One third year currently studying in Sweden as part of the Erasmus programme agreed, highlighting the lack of human contact, even via email.

“In the first few weeks of my exchange I just wanted to vent my anger and frustration. I was convinced coming here was the wrong decision and that I was going to be unhappy for the next year, and you don’t exactly want to go dump this stuff on your friends and family who are all so excited for you. This is probably a pretty common experience and having someone who knows what you’re going through and has an active interest in your wellbeing would have been really helpful for reducing the sense of anxiety and pressures you put on yourself”.

These complaints are not unique to Edinburgh, it seems – not even to the UK. Students from everywhere, from Germany to the USA, say that they have minimal support from their sending institutions, and that there is a real lack of co-operation with the university they are heading to.

Back in Britain, the University of Southampton has been criticised by students for the lack of relevant information provided prior to departure on exchange, and that some important topics were missed out of information talks. One student told The Student that when she emailed Southampton to get clarification on an important deadline she waited weeks for a reply, and when it did arrive she was just told to get in contact with another member of staff.

It’s important to note though that this experience is by no means universal; University of Surrey student Ellie Morley says that she has received excellent support, making particular reference to the school’s buddy system as a reason for her satisfaction.

On the other hand, incoming exchange students rate British universities particularly highly. International students at any stage of education are more likely to recommend the UK than any other English-language destination for studying, and rate our institutions top for support services and general university living experience.

This is clearly the case at Edinburgh, where incoming students sing the university’s praises. The university received an International Student Satisfaction Award in 2015, and was one of only five to get an Excellent rating.

Previous students have had exams re-arranged to accommodate flights home, and the International Student Centre runs trips and organises plenty of events to facilitate the making of friends. Equally, the university’s many student residences and plethora of societies make Edinburgh a particularly welcoming community. One Erasmus student, Cyprien Sunderland, said he felt that whenever he had a problem someone was there for him any time.

Although it’s good to hear such commendations from incoming students, the issue remains that many of Edinburgh’s own third-years are left feeling deserted whilst away. This is something the Students’ Association’s VP for Welfare Esther Dominy pledged to tackle in her campaign last March. She told The Student:

“We know many students face issues when studying abroad and in particular students’ mental health can suffer as a result of being removed from support networks at home and finding it difficult to access support at the University.

“I would encourage anyone having difficulties to get in touch with their Personal Tutor or support staff in their School. The Student Counselling Service offers online counselling, including to students who are studying away, and students can access free online support and resources through Big White Wall. If you aren’t sure who to contact, the Students’ Association’s Advice Place can offer impartial advice about different options by email or phone.”

It seems that, particularly relating to the University of Edinburgh, a system to ensure the transition to an overseas university is as easy and supportive as possible would be a step in the right direction. The daunting task of leaving your friends could be made easier with a support system for students to feel more integrated and help with any difficulties they face. One idea could be to set up a buddy system that meant you immediately had a person to look after and help you when you got there. Another way the university could more greatly help students would be to set them up with someone who spent a year abroad in the same city or country who could answer questions they might have and calm any worries. This would allow students to feel less alone and create a comforting environment that keeps them in contact with the place they left behind. In the meantime, we can only wait and see whether Esther’s campaign promises will come to fruition in time to help next year’s batch of students going overseas.

Isabell Majewsky, the head of the Go Abroad office commented: “The University works closely with partner institutions to provide support for students when they are studying abroad. The University recognises that arrangements and support will vary from school to school and in partner institutions and countries. The University is working continuously to improve the international study experience for our students.”

Image: LWYang via Wikipedia

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