Moving to the UK to study? Not sure how to navigate university as an international student? As well as our 10 tips, we spoke to five friends about what they wish they’d known before arriving.
Caroline comes from Germany, Juliette from France, Vicky from Spain, Simone from Italy and Daura from the Netherlands. Whilst their experiences cannot represent all international students’ time at UK universities, it may help to squash any concerns you might have.
Why study in the UK?
There is no wrong or right reason to decide to study abroad or to choose the UK specifically. Most students named the language or literature as their main reason or the reputation of the UK for a fun student experience. Here are the reasons these students gave as to why they chose a UK university as an international student.
“I was studying English, so it seemed natural!” Juliette told me. Caroline also agreed that there was no better place to study literature. Daura, by contrast, felt Brexit might affect the convenience of coming to the UK in the future, “Brexit was about to happen, so I decided to use the last opportunity to go there on an Erasmus exchange with all the EU benefits included.”
The university courses
Always thoroughly research your course before choosing a specific university as an international student. Teaching style, assessment style, and course layout might differ from your home country.
Caroline noted that the structure of her uni course greatly differed from universities in Germany, “There really weren’t many contact hours for me and also the structure of terms is different from in Germany where they have semesters – I ended up having term breaks at very different times from my friends at home, which was difficult sometimes.”
Daura also found the timetable of her course very different from the Netherlands, with much more free time. “The biggest difference with studying back home was the independence my UK professors gave me to divide my time during the term,” she explained the advantages of this, “At my home university, with two absences you fail the course and weeks were filled with assignments, sometimes merely to check if you had understood the readings. At Warwick, I could completely manage my own time, if you needed to skip a class you could. Also, many of my modules only had one final assignment, so outside of the classroom, this offered me the chance to do other things besides studying.”
In addition, Simone described how the assessment style completely contrasted his previous university, “In Italy, we do have mostly oral exams (for Literature degrees), whereas here I learnt how to build an essay, how to create a PowerPoint presentation as part of a project and to interpret books in a different way (it was more open to personal interpretation).”
The societies and sports clubs
UK universities offer a vast amount of extra-curricular activities to get involved with, where you can learn a new skill, sport or just socialise. All five students were pleasantly surprised by the amount and range of societies and clubs on offer at uni.
Caroline told me, “When I first came, I was so impressed with it all being student-led – most things I know in Germany are organised by the institutions.” Daura added to this point, commenting on the leadership of students among the societies as well, “I was so impressed by how many there were but especially by how organised and professional they were!” She remembered, “The roles attributed within the clubs and how these are democratically passed on, also showed how serious students are about preserving club values and traditions. I had not expected that sports and social life go together, with all the socials and events.”
Daura also loved how the societies created so many smaller communities within the university. She explained, “Back home, my university college had a total of 600 students and the University of Warwick was in another league with thousands of students. I found it interesting to see how the student body was subdivided into different clubs and societies, even sometimes nationality-related.”
The drinking culture
UK universities somewhat have a reputation for binge-drinking. These students admitted they were shocked by UK students’ love of drinking but rarely felt pressured to drink. Here’s what to expect of the drinking culture at a UK university as an international student:
Caroline said, “In Germany, British people do have a reputation for heavy drinking, but the entire social element was still a huge culture shock. People are very loud and outgoing, where I’m used to people being more reserved – after a while, it was less scary though as I realised most people were very friendly and wanted me to be involved.”
She added, “Also, I was surprised as alcohol is much more expensive in the UK, so for some of my friends who drank really regularly, I was like – wow, you must spend loads on this habit!”
Juliette felt similarly, “I thought French people were heavy drinkers until I met Brits. Sometimes I felt it was hard to keep the rhythm, even though I never felt pressured by anyone to drink during socials if I didn’t feel like it.”
Daura was less shocked by the drinking culture coming from a university sports club in the Netherlands, “I do think that social drinking is definitely part of the UK uni life, as it is linked to many of the socials and traditions. However, I had seen that coming because it is similar to student life back home. Still, I never felt forced into drinking if I did not want to.”
Beyond their drinking habits, UK students might differ in attitude and behaviour to students elsewhere. Arriving at university as an international student might lead you to observations about UK students.
Caroline commented on the different levels of acceptance between UK students and her friends at home in Germany. “I still would say that uni students were bigger on the activism side and definitely had more defined views on politics and social injustice than what I know from German people around our age,” she discussed. “I think that, at our uni at least, people were more openly supportive towards queer people than what I know from home (where it’s kind of not spoken of much),” Caroline described, but on the other hand, she also noticed “I found that there may be more racism or identity struggles at the hands of racism or microaggressions. My POC friends in Germany have far fewer saddening stories to tell than my POC friends in the UK.”
Simone really found the students’ attitude to human rights and their tolerance of injustices impressive. “I felt more free to express the true me,” he explained, “It definitely helped me to improve my ability to be around people, listen and build a personal opinion and a personal, true self.”
From food, meal times and nights out, there are some tiny adjustments that it will take a while to get your head around in the UK. Everyone has a different adjustment they laugh about from their time at a UK university as an international student.
Caroline described her biggest surprise, “I would say the way that people went out multiple times per week – crazy – and then still did well in seminars.”
Juliette commented on the cuisine, “Food! It was hard to adapt to British food, to be fair, coming from a country with a strong gastronomic background.” She added other smaller differences which affected her every day, “Apart from that, it was just getting used to using the British Pound – I always had to think about what each purchase was going to cost me in Euros. Also being asked for my ID when buying beer or scissors.”
The moments of misunderstanding
Inevitably, if English is your second language, you might come across some moments of mistranslation. Nonetheless, studying at a UK university as an international student will enormously help your English.
Caroline said, “Many times, towards the beginning, I used American terms as opposed to UK terms. I also had a hard time understanding British slang at first.” Vicky struggled with the same American terms, “I can’t get used to saying trousers instead of pants, as in the UK pants is underwear.”
Daura also laughed at British slang, “First of all, I thought I spoke English when I moved to the UK, but I soon realised that textbook English is not the same. The slang, such as words like ‘peng’, and all the accents took me a while to get used to.” She added, “Every time after my flatmate from Manchester had visited home, and her accent had thickened, it took me three days to understand her again, which was a big joke to the rest of the flat.”
Juliette loved how willing UK students were to help her improve her English, “Everyone was really comprehensive about the fact that I sometimes struggled to phrase sentences and was always willing to help!”
A word of advice for students moving to the UK
Caroline: “The biggest piece of advice that’s often forgotten: sort your UK bank account as early as possible – if you can before term starts. During freshers week, I sat in front of Barclays bank every morning for hours trying to open an account, but the queue was always too long for everyone to get a turn. It took several days until I succeeded!”
Juliette: “You will maybe go through times where you’ll feel a bit different to British students, but know that they’ll always be here to help you if you need time to adjust, and so will your teachers!”
Vicky: “Just do it! It will be an amazing experience.”
Simone: “Try to create connections before going: check the FB pages, try to find some people who can be a safe point of reference for any kind of enquiry (house, uni life, study etc) and don’t miss any opportunity to explore the country! With covid, I did a lot, but still not the amount of travelling I wanted to.”
Daura: “Get out there and join clubs or societies related to something you enjoy doing. It will be such an easy and fun way to meet people and make friends. Also, having something to plan your time around, next to classes and studying, while finding your feet in a new place can really help.”