10 years of #WeAreInternational

Three international students sat on a bench

This article was originally published by The PIE.

Ten years ago a group of students and university staff sat in a pub in Sheffield. We were worried.

Around the world and here in our own country, the debate around immigration was becoming polarised and international students were being caught up in it in uninformed ways. Couldn’t the media and politicians see what we did? That our international university communities were places of education, shared perspectives, vastly different experiences of the world and unexpected friendships. That this was precious. 

Maybe it was time for us to tell our stories. To let people know what we valued and why. A campaign of solidarity which, as one student said, would take an us and a them and make it a we. 

So I took the idea with me to London and talked to good friends at UKCISA and Universities U.K. International. They agreed and offered to host a meeting of anyone who was interested – there were representatives from the Department for Education and the London Mayor’s Office, from universities of all kinds and the National Union of Students, from business and even the Home Office. 

And then I travelled to India. There we met British alumni who had achieved senior positions in the judiciary, in medicine and education. They were proud of their British education and all it had given them to prepare them for the decades that followed. But they were frustrated too. Why did government policy not always recognise the importance and value of that connection. And when would we reinstate post study work that mattered so much to international students. It was clear. We had work to do. 

So we set about creating a campaign. Not for an individual university or to recruit students from a particular country but to show that international communities in universities mattered. And that we should welcome talented students from across the globe with open arms.

The materials we made carried no university logos but were offered to all. I sent an email to every university in the country as to business organisations asking if they would back the campaign. Every one said yes. 

This was never only about warm words though and the campaign was coproduced by students and universities from the beginning. Launched in Parliament by a Somali-refugee student President standing shoulder to shoulder with a Vice-Chancellor who had himself been a taught by refugee scholars, the message was one of evidence powered by personal conviction. 

Over the years, we added policy work – the campaign supported the publication of the first report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Students and gave evidence to parliamentary committees. But always students told their own stories. After highlighting the economic and social contribution of international students to a gathering in the House of Commons, Student Union International Officer Alex Konhert talked about friendship and love. It was the best speech I have ever heard in that building, bar none. 

Then in 2019, Anne-Marie Graham the CEO of U.K. Council for International Student Affairs agreed to take on the campaign, ably supported by Yinbo Yu, a former International Officer for the NUS and an extraordinary champion for students. The campaign took on a new lease of life and the international student voice was amplified. 

It was a moving experience to help select the first cohort of #WeAreInternational student ambassadors who would go on to engage with every major policy intervention and commission which followed, including the development of the U.K. International Education Strategy. It was one of these ambassadors who first out forward the development of the #WeAreInternational Student Charter, an initiative designed to help students and universities collaborate to make a better experience for the diverse student body and its very different needs and aspirations. 

“None of this has been plain sailing as we have navigated politics”

None of this has been plain sailing as we have navigated politics which has made us return again and again to the question, can’t the media and politicians see what we do? That our international university communities are places of education, shared perspectives, vastly different experiences of the world and unexpected friendships. That this is precious. 

There is much to do of course. Problems to face around student hardship and immigration. And we’ve got a long way to go on improving belonging, tailored services, hardship support and international employability. But knowing there is much to improve does not make us doubt the value of our connections and the difference those make decades after graduation. 

Perhaps the most important and frequently misunderstood part of the campaign is in its name. The we in #WeAreInternational never referred solely to overseas students. It is all of us who benefit from being part of a global community, rooted in our locality but also connected and richer in every way for that. 

What will the next decade bring for international education? We can have an educated guess. No doubt AI and TNE will be significant influences. Changing geo-politics is reshaping our world. And there will be surprises, just as we didn’t imagine Brexit or a pandemic. 

But I believe some things are timeless and worth preserving. Ideas, education and friendship cross national boundaries, and so do the challenges a new generation face. We are better together. And proudly and importantly, we are international.

About the author: Ruth Arnold is the Executive Director of External Affairs at Study Group and a cofounder of the #WeAreInternational campaign. 

It’s more important than ever that #WeAreInternational

We are international. It’s in our DNA. It’s the very core of our mission and purpose in higher education – to bring people from different backgrounds, race and religion; beliefs, values and nationalities; together, to exchange views freely in open, respectful debate. That’s how we grow knowledge, broaden understanding, and transform lives to better serve society. We. Are. International.

As the campaign hits 10 years old, Universities UK International (UUKi), together with partners including UKCISA, London Higher, BUILA, British Council and others, have today formally relaunched it.

As Ruth says, some things are timeless, and this relaunch is timely. With threats of unwelcoming policy change to some groups of international students from government, aimed at curbing immigration, we are seeing our welcome factor decline – especially in comparison with other study destinations. We must counter this by telling positive stories of the many ways in which international students contribute to the UK.

In one of the original campaign videos, a number of domestic and international students commented:

“Home for me, it’s the place where I feel safe and where I have my friends, and so that’s why I’m saying I have two homes. One home its UK, one home it’s Italy.”

“I came to the UK because of the opportunities and the fact that the degree allowed me to interact with so many different people from so many different cultures.”

“Without having to travel abroad, without having to be brave, I have some of the best people from around the world coming here (to the UK) and I get to learn off them.”

“Our students and staff come up with ideas that then become reality and make a difference to people around the world.”

This is all still relevant today. Whether it’s a doctor or nurse from another country, trained in a UK university and working in the NHS, providing you or your loved ones with lifesaving treatment; an international graduate developing the tech to detect breast cancer early; the domestic student making friends for life with people from all over the world; international students volunteering in university towns and cities during Covid; the economic boost international students bring to UK communities; UK universities twinning with Ukrainian counterparts; or the thousands of other examples of how international students, alumni and staff enrich our society and culture – we must find a way that cuts through with the public, to tell a story – together as a sector – of how international students make the UK a better place.

It’s more important than ever that #WeAreInternational. 

About the author: Andy Howells is the Assistant Director, External Affairs at Universities UK International, and is leading the relaunch of the #WeAreInternational campaign.