Millions of students make every year a momentous decision to leave home and study abroad. It is rarely an easy decision. For most international students, it is a high impact, high complexity step which cannot be easily reverted if something does not go as planned.
Studying abroad can be a once in a lifetime experience and the best decision students ever made. It can open doors students did not even know that existed and shape positively their future. It can also be the worst decision. It can wreak havoc on students’ finances, mental health and confidence.
There are multiple factors which have to be taken into account, each of these factors might affect students’ academic performance, academic success, and the whole university experience. So the decision to study abroad should never be taken lightly.
In this rather a lengthy blog post I want to tell students a little about the pros and cons of studying at English-speaking universities (e.g. in the UK, Australia, Canada, and the USA) from my tutoring perspective.
A few words about me
To understand my viewpoint, I need to tell a few words about myself.
Firstly, I was an international student myself. I did my undergraduate, master’s degree, and Ph.D. in the UK. For the last three years, I have been preparing international students for university (I help students overcome difficulties related to Academic English, IELTS/TOEFL, academic writing, research methods, statistics and so on). I have worked with students from different countries at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels (Masters, doctoral, Ph.D.). I also teach academic writing to native English speakers in the UK. It is all a bit ironic since I am not a native English speaker; I started to learn English when I was 25. I have never attended any English classes; I have never had a private tutor, and my English is not impeccable (it would be a good topic for another blog post).
I have been an international student at four different universities in the UK, and I loved (almost) every minute of it. My student experience was overwhelmingly good.
How could it not be good?
I had never had any major academic problems and financial issues. I did not have to pay for my Ph.D. I won a lucrative Ph.D. scholarship. My tuition fees were paid, plus my living costs were covered for 36 months.
Frankly, I am not sure, I would be so enthusiastic about the whole university experience in the UK if had had to fork out 50,000 pounds out of my pocket to pay for it or if I had not got my Ph.D. degree as some of my former colleagues who sadly failed. From my perspective, the benefits of study abroad outweighed the negative aspects, but it does not have to be other students’ experience.
Why did write this post?
I have written this post because few international students understand the issues related to studying abroad and that lack of this basic understanding is the source of many problems and challenges international students experience.
I do not intend to discourage students from studying abroad. I don’t want to encorage students to study abroad either. I don’t know students’ particular situation, context, abilities, goals, and plans. Even if I did, I would be cautious to provide more specific recommendations. I have no experience and interest in advising students on choosing a course or university.
I simply want students to stop relying solely on their gut feeling, instinct, anecdotal evidence from former international students (it might be valuable to listen to other students’ stories, but don’t expect an excessive amount of objectivity), educational consultants and universities (they all have vested interests – want students’ money).
As I mentioned before, I am an academic tutor, so I also have my ‘hidden agenda’ or ‘vested interest’. I tutor students for money. Students should know it. I may be exaggerating negative aspects of studying abroad and neglecting the positives. I will strive to be as objective as possible, though.
I want students to become more skeptical about potential benefits of studying abroad, more aware of potential dangers, motivate students to look for more reliable information to get a better perspective to make a more informed, educated decision.
In my opinion, the better quality information students have on studying abroad, the better they are able (and willing) to prepare for challenges they will face.
The international students’ sector has been a quickly expanding segment in higher education because of many factors e.g. increasing students’ global mobility and internationalization of education. It became easier for students to move to overseas locations. Universities develop international branches, exchange programs (e.g. The Erasmus Programme in Europe) and focus intensively on collaborative research.
Consequently, more and more students decide to study abroad. For example, in the UK, the second most popular destination for international students (after the USA) in 2016−17, 14% of undergraduate students and 35% of postgraduate students were from outside the UK. Chinese students constituted a majority of international students, followed by students from Malaysia, Hong Kong, India, Nigeria, the European Union and Saudi Arabia (Universities UK, 2018). In the USA there are more than 1 million international students, and again the biggest group are students from China.
Although the trend seems to have slowed down recently (due to factors such as the Trump and Brexit effect, restrictive visa policies, better quality of domestic higher education, and last but not least anti-immigration narration in some countries), still the total number of international students has reached globally almost 5 million students.
While not all of these 5 million students study in the UK, the USA or other English-speaking countries, the majority of the students must have asked themselves a simple question: What are the pros and cons of studying abroad?
What are the benefits of studying abroad?
Most of the international students expect that the period of studying abroad will be the most rewarding and life-changing time in their lives. And indeed, it is often the case. But as with everything in life, there are pros and cons of studying abroad.
The widely held view is that there are numerous positive outcomes associated with studying abroad.
In theory, studying abroad should:
- provide with recognized degrees
- improve English language skills
- provide with better quality education
- offer students better job opportunities
- prepare students for working in a global environment
- fuel personal development and interests
- improve communication skills and self-confidence
- develop cultural understanding and global mindset
- develop independent learning skill
- provide students with the competitive edge
- develop critical thinking skills
- promote multidimensional development,
- lead to a better more meaningful life
The list is, of course, not exhaustive.
This optimistic perspective on studying abroad is rather naïve since it is based on an idealized picture of studying abroad (perpetuated by universities, educational consultants and marketers) which takes all potential benefits for granted and ignores obvious negative aspects. If we open any marketing materials (e.g. prospectus, brochures) released by any university in the UK or the USA, we can find lots of cheesy photographs of smiling international students. No visible signs of stress, mixed groups of international students learning collaboratively in a lab or outside on the campus. Studying seems easy and fun. Prospective international students should remember that advertising is based on happiness, positive emotions, and smiles. It is called an affective conditioning. Universities don’t what to be associated with students who struggle, are stressed and don’t laugh.
The reality is often different. I have met too many international students who were struggling academically, depressed, suicidal, failing assignment after assignment, wishing they had never gone abroad in the first place. These students struggled because nobody had warned them about potential dangers and challenges.
Also, some potential benefits e.g. better job opportunities are exaggerated. The job markets become slowly saturated with British and American graduates. Not always a degree from the UK/USA equates with a better job. Finally, some skills traditionally associated with studying abroad can be developed in students’ home countries without spending outrageous amounts of money (independent learning skills, critical thinking, surprisingly, also English language proficiency).
Unfortunately, none of the above-mentioned (bulleted list) benefits are guaranteed and they never should be taken for granted.
Let me give you just one example
Many prospective international students are surprised when I say that even the most obvious benefit associated with studying abroad, namely improving English language proficiency, should not be taken for granted.
However, there is a strong research body demonstrating that many international students don’t improve their language proficiency significantly after several years of staying abroad.
For some prospective students, it might be shocking. At the end of the day improving language proficiency is probably the second most important reason why students decide to study abroad (after getting a degree). However, when one thinks about it, it should not be surprising at all.
Many English teachers (incidentally, experts on language acquisition) have been living for years in China, Japan or Korea and they have never learnt the language beyond several words and phrases. In the UK, where I live, you can find easily groups of immigrants who arrived in the UK 20 years ago and their English is still rudimentary. People don’t learn the language by osmosis or by the virtue of being immersed in an environment where the language is spoken. People learn the language because they want to learn it and they make conscious choices that make learning possible and more effective.
This is exactly the case with international students who benefit linguistically from studying abroad (or in other words improve their English substantially).
From my observations, many international students improve their English skills only superficially, even after the prolonged stay in an English-speaking country. They improve general communication skills, become better in social situations, become more confident, have better ability to deal with situations when they don’t understand the language, tend to have a better knowledge of phrasal verbs and idioms. Students become crude approximations of native speakers. At face value, that does not sound actually like a problem at all.
Unfortunately, students’ progress in communicative abilities is not necessarily mirrored by the progress in academic English, technical vocabulary, writing and reading skills (e.g. understanding of high-level texts), grammatical accuracy. Students tend to become more fluent but not necessarily more proficient in English. It is disappointing since international students who want to become professionals and experts in their chosen fields should leave the UK/USA/Australia with both better social and professional English language skills.
I accept that for some students communicative language proficiency might matter more than academic/professional proficiency and therefore the above-described scenario is not the reason to be overly worried. However, even the development of communicative English should not also be taken for granted.
Prospective international students might hear the stories about ‘around-the-clock exposure to English’ in the UK/USA. It is a myth perpetuated by advertisement, brochures, commercials which does not exactly reflect the reality of living in an English speaking country. Firstly, many international students often have rather little contact with the native speakers (both on and off-campus). Some international students (notably Chinese students) tend to live in linguistic bubbles (or so-called linguistic ghettos). Some research papers suggested that e.g. 40% of Chinese students spend their time with students from their own country.
International students obviously have the motivation and desire to improve interactions with other English speakers but native students often stick to their groups, making friends with them can be oftentimes difficult. I bet it is not the picture students imagine when they think about studying abroad.
Another problem that prevents students from developing communicative proficiency is the lack of time. The more time students need to spend on learning, reading, and writing, the less time they have for social life and interaction in English which is important for promoting oral language development. Students who struggle with academic reading and writing, academic workload and looming deadlines have little time for improving English, making friends, etc.
Despite the widespread belief that nothing can beat learning a foreign language in a country where the language is spoken ‘study abroad is not a magic formula or a cure-all for language-learning problems’ (Kinginger, 2009, p. 220). Students who hope that their conversational fluency, listening skills, vocabulary, academic writing will sky-rocket during the sojourn in the UK or the USA just by the virtue of living in an English speaking country are deluding themselves.
That all sounds a bit depressing but it is not that bad if students are aware of these potential problems and challenges and know how to counteract them. I only want to throw ice water on the crazy idea that English will improve by itself.
Of course, the considerable improvement in English language skills is perfectly possible and many international students’ achieve dramatic progress. But as I said it does not happen by accident.
That brings up the question of what successful students do differently. The same question asked Kinginger (2011, p.1) when she mused ‘why do some students register impressive gains in proficiency scores or documented communicative abilities, whereas others do not, and some may even appear to have forgotten some of what they knew of the language before their sojourn abroad’.
Firstly, those students who have good English on arrival, learn more English. It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, however, it reflects the effect of accumulated advantage in language learning which is known as the ’Matthew Effect’. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
Students who arrive with good English read more challenging texts, listen to more challenging materials, tend to read more, faster improve their vocabulary and grammar, write better and quicker so have more time on social life and extracurricular activities. This virtues circle leads to positive cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences. The more students know the easier it is to learn new things. The more students know the more confident users of the English language they become, and the more motivation they have to improve their language skills. They start to believe in their language learning skills. Some of these students do so well in English that they start to learn another language.
Secondly, some students take a more active role in language learning. If making and maintaining contact with native peers proves difficult, such students don’t close themselves in ‘linguistic bubbles’ Instead they join academic clubs, meet-ups, participate in local groups based on interests rather than age, etc. They look for alternatives. Finally, such students tend to be better prepared for academic challenges so studying itself does not take that much time.
I started this chapter by talking about the benefits of studying abroad and it seems I digressed a bit by talking about English development during the stay in English speaking countries. The point I wanted to make here is that any benefits associated with studying abroad should not be assumed. Many advantages will depend on students’ preparation, goals, attitude, and understanding of the process of learning.
What about the disadvantages or negative things associated with studying abroad?
Good question. At the end of the day as an academic tutor preparing international students for English-speaking universities I tend to focus more on negative aspects of studying abroad :). I cannot prepare students for university properly if they are not aware of potential dangers and problems.
Firstly, studying abroad is actually less glamorous than most of the students expect and there are several disadvantages related to studying e.g. in the UK/USA/Australia and other English-speaking countries. There are hundreds of research studies focusing on challenges facing by international students (academic, social, psychological, financial).
Now, I don’t want to sound too alarming and I don’t want to scare prospective international students. Of course, studying abroad can be highly beneficial (but it does not necessarily have to, as it was exemplified by the case of developing English language proficiency).
Exactly, as it was the case with benefits, also negative things and aspect of studying abroad are only potentialities. The bad stuff might happen but it does not have to. Students should hope for the best and be also well-prepared for the worst.
Therefore, it is important to talks about potential problems related to studying abroad. Negative aspects of studying abroad often have serious repercussions and negative impact on students’ lives and the future. The saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ does not seem to apply to international students. Events such as failing in getting a degree, failed Ph.D. viva, academic criticisms, losing confidence, are often processed by international students differently and they have more serious consequences than in the case of domestic students.
Although language barrier (e.g. accent-related problems), culture shock, reverse culture shock, loneliness are often cited as the main disadvantages of studying abroad, in my opinion, there are rather minor issues which can be easily tackled by students who understand themselves and what studying abroad involves and made a rational decision before they buy a ticket and paying university fee.
There are three main negative facets of studying abroad:
- financial cost
- psychological, emotional and health issues related to studying
- the danger of failing degree and heavy academic load
Financial costs don’t have to be explained. Studying abroad can be horrendously and prohibitively expensive. We are talking about thousands of dollars/pounds for tuition, cost of living in a foreign country, IELTS/TOFEL preparation, language courses, pre-sessional courses, books, materials, administrative costs, unexpected costs, travel costs, etc.
That is enough to scare most of the students (and parents). Students would be crazy if they did not ask themselves two simple questions: ‘is the course I want to take worth the money?’ and ‘can I really afford it?’. I repeat students mustn’t ignore the issue of finance. Students have to decide for themselves whether they have access to necessary financial resources. Please keep in mind that international students are likely to pay higher tuition fees, at the same time employment opportunities and financial help are limited. As an academic skills tutor, I often work with international students struggling academically not due to their academic deficiencies but to financial issues. They work and study simultaneously. Some students spend more time working for paltry money to survive and pay their fees than on learning which of course affect negatively their academic outcomes. Some students are so stressed by the financial problem so they cannot learn effectively.
Psychological, emotional and health issues
Apart from financial downsides, there are also psychological, emotional and health-related disadvantages of studying abroad. International students might not be aware of that but, for example in the UK, 35% of international students reported mental health issues in comparison to 24% of British students. In the USA, 45% of Chinese students reported symptoms of depressions. There many possible explanations for this serious problem. I will name four frequent reasons: academic problems due to the inadequate academic preparation (e.g. students struggle with real academic reading and writing, which is different from IELTS/TOEFL writing and reading), financial pressures, unforeseeable events (e.g. death in the family) and lack of adequate help on the campus. Different things can trigger anxiety and depression but problems and challenges related to academic workload are on the top of my list together with financial issues. That is not necessarily bad news. Students cannot predict the future and unforeseeable events but can prepare well for academic challenges awaiting them abroad.
There is plenty of research papers reporting challenges international students face e.g. language issues, academic reading, and writing, but disappointingly little information on what students’ chances of succeeding at universities abroad are (e.g.the UK/USA). I looked at different sources and the proportion of international and domestic students who fail their courses seems similar. Also, it is sometimes suggested that international students’ academic performance is not much different from native speakers (e.g. Olsen at al. 2015). Simultaneously, some recent research studies demonstrated that international students perform worse than their English-speaking counterparts (Crawford & Wang, 2015, Thorpe et al. 2017). Frankly, it is hard to find conclusive data to draw a more concrete conclusion (Adisa et al., 2019, Morrison et al., 2005). It appears that international students generally finish their courses and receive desired degrees, however, possibly with lower scores than native students.
It does not mean that all international students come back home with a degree. It is unpalatable truth but some international students do fail at university abroad and return home empty-handed (minus the money they spent, the time they waisted and the confidence they lost). It does not happen very often at the undergraduate level. However, it is more common on the postgraduate level (masters courses). In particular, students should be aware that failing a doctoral or Ph.D. degree is not rare at all.
The students who don’t believe me, should visit e.g. postgraduateforum.com and read numerous horror stories of students who failed. I am aware that I am referring students to a piece of anecdotal evidence that should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, If I were to study abroad again, I would still read these cautionary tales.
In my observation, the majority of international students succeed and get their desired degrees. However, I agree with Kim et al. (2017) that ‘international students may uniquely experience college and may not benefit from those experiences as much as their domestic peer’. In other words, international students don’t seem to rip all the additional benefits of studying abroad. Why is it happening?
No matter how international students were doing academically in a home country, studying in a second language is a huge cognitive challenge for most of the students. In simpler words, we process information in a second language slower than in our first language, the integration of new knowledge to long-term memory is harder and retrieval of the newly acquired information in a second language is more challenging. Usually, international students have to work harder and longer than native students to get the same results. It is safe to say that international students who are well prepared for university might have to spend 50% more time on learning, reading, and writing. In the case of students who struggle and are not prepared for university properly, it might be 100% more time on learning and still, they finish with worse results.
Also, ‘harder degrees’ e.g. law, dentistry, medicine, physics, engineering require Sisyphean or (rather Herculean) effort to finish and students cannot afford to focus on anything else. For such students, academic load (reading, writing, learning) can be like rolling a huge boulder to the top of a steep hill. Many international students can get it to the top. However, they cannot take their hands off the boulder to enjoy life, invest in friendship, networking, improve language, develop additional skills, invest in personal development, follow interests or passions. If they did, the boulder would likely go down, so they keep pushing it up.
As I said, it is not my intention to put anyone off studying abroad. There are plenty of international students doing well academically and enjoying studying in the UK/the USA/Australia. However, negative aspects of studying abroad do exist and students should be aware of them. On a positive side, most of these negative aspects can be counteracted with appropriate academic preparation and my blog intends to help ambitious students prepare for university in the best possible way.
Most international students are academically brilliant, highly motivated, focused, full of stamina, and strength. With appropriate preparation, they can overcome most of the academic challenges (appropriate preparation should not be confused with preparation for IELTS/TOFEL test or taking a pre-sessional course).
Still, it has to be acknowledged that some challenges international students face are rather unpredictable, many risks can never be fully avoided and studying abroad is not for everybody.
I believe that most of the good things happen to international students who know how to prepare adequately for university abroad, know what to expect from the university experience, and know the ways to respond effectively to challenges and adversities.
Studying abroad is like squeezing a lemon to get the juice out. Most international students get some juice out of lemon, just by squeezing it by hand, then the squeezed lemon halves go to the bin. Only few students have appropriate tools and techniques at disposal to get the most of their lemon.
Such students are indeed able to reap the above-mentioned benefits of studying abroad. They tend to get better degrees, develop a higher level of English proficiency, make life-long friends, develop interests, etc. It does not happen by accident though.
Degrees, diplomas are important, however, we have to remember that a good education is much more than getting a degree. Following only the degree curriculum is not likely to offer students the competitive edge they will need at work and in life.
Adisa, T. A., Baderin, M., Gbadamosi, G., & Mordi, C. (2019). Understanding the Trajectory of the Academic Progress of International Students in the UK. Education+ Training.
Auerbach, R. P., Mortier, P., Bruffaerts, R., Alonso, J., Benjet, C., Cuijpers, P., … & Murray, E. (2018). WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project: prevalence and distribution of mental disorders. Journal of abnormal psychology, 127(7), 623.
Crawford, I., & Wang, Z. (2015). The impact of individual factors on the academic attainment of Chinese and UK students in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 40(5), 902-920.
Foster, G. (2012). The impact of international students on measured learning and standards in Australian higher education. Economics of Education Review, 31(5), 587-600.
Han, X., Han, X., Luo, Q., Jacobs, S., & Jean-Baptiste, M. (2013). Report of a mental health survey among Chinese international students at Yale University. Journal of American College Health, 61(1), 1-8.
Higher Education in Facts and Figures 2018
International Students Facts and Figures
Kim, Y. K., Collins, C. S., Rennick, L. A., & Edens, D. (2017). College experiences and outcomes among international undergraduate students at research universities in the United States: A comparison to their domestic peers. Journal of International Students, 7(2), 395-420.
Kinginger, C. (2009). Language learning and study abroad: A critical reading of research. Springer.
Kinginger, C. (2011). Enhancing language learning in study abroad. Annual review of applied linguistics, 31, 58-73..
Morrison, J., Merrick, B., Higgs, S., & Le Métais, J. (2005). Researching the performance of international students in the UK. Studies in Higher Education, 30(3), 327-337.
Olsen, A. J., Burgess, Z., & Sharma, R. (2006). The comparative academic performance of international students in Australia. International Higher Education, (42).
Paton, M. J. (2007). Why international students are at greater risk of failure. International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities & Nations, 6(6), 101-112.
Thorpe, A., Snell, M., Davey‐Evans, S., & Talman, R. (2017). Improving the Academic Performance of Non‐native English‐Speaking Students: the Contribution of Pre‐sessional English Language Programmes. Higher Education Quarterly, 71(1), 5-32.