International Students’ Unique Challenges – Why Understanding International Transitions to Higher Education Matters


  • Sidonie Ecochard Edinburgh Napier University
  • Julia Fotheringham Edinburgh Napier University



international students, student transition, acculturation, transition support


International students represent a large and increasing share of the diversity encountered on British campuses, with 19% of the student body coming from another country to study in the United Kingdom. While the concept of transition in the context of Higher Education (HE) is better understood as a process of change and adaptation to the HE culture, international transitions –undertaken by international students – present additional and specific challenges. These involve multiple additional cultural adjustments, to the host nation culture, the international student culture and the subject disciplinary culture. The scale and number of these challenges may lead to mental health issues and to students dropping out.

The growing number of international students and their importance as a significant economic driver to the HE sector have been reflected in the literature, with an increasing number of publications on the topic. Various models have been elaborated to describe the process of academic and socio-cultural adjustment experienced by international students, along with concepts of acculturative stress and culture shock used to refer to the sometimes extreme emotional turmoil created by such cultural dissonances. University staff and students have different but key roles and responsibilities in supporting and facilitating international students’ adjustment, improving retention and enabling international students to reach their academic and personal goals in spite of the challenges that confront them.

This literature review presents the different stage-models of international students’ acculturation and defines key concepts for international transitions such as acculturative stress and culture shock, thereby allowing for a better understanding of the international students’ academic and social journey. It describes the challenges international students meet in their transition to UK HE institutions and introduces literature identifying ways of better supporting the specific needs of those students. It concludes with a discussion on the limitations of the current international transitions discourse.

Author Biographies

Sidonie Ecochard, Edinburgh Napier University

Sidonie Ecochard works at the Department of Learning and Teaching Enhancement at Edinburgh Napier University. She is involved in Edinburgh Napier University’s answer to the QAA (Scotland) Enhancement Theme Student Transition, and conducts initiatives and research on international transitions, internationalisation of the curriculum and the nexus culture-learning.

Julia Fotheringham, Edinburgh Napier University

Julia Fotheringham is a Senior Teaching Fellow and Senior Fellow of the HEA. She is the Edinburgh Napier University institutional theme lead for the QAA Enhancement Theme working on various strands of research activity relating to student transitions. She is Programme Leader for the PG Cert in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and Module Leader on the MSc Blended and Online Education (BOE).


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