Mostafa Rajaai, International Students’ Officer at the National Union of Students (NUS), will stop at nothing to get the voice of the UK's overseas students heard. In 2009, he left his native Iran to study Photography at University of the Arts, London. Since arriving in the UK, Mostafa has become a key activist in the battle against xenophobia, lobbied MPs to create a crisis fund for international students and campaigned for the reinstatement of the post-study work visa.
We caught up with him to find out how he's trying to work with UK institutions and their Student Unions to make real improvements for international students.
What is one of the biggest concerns that international students face when in the UK?
I think a lot of universities don’t look at mental health support properly, they say ‘oh it’s just a cultural issue, because of the way they’re brought up, because of cultural norms in their society, we’re not going to touch it'. In my view that’s too much of an easy excuse. At the end of the day, you as an institution are going out of your way, going to countries across the world and bringing people from these countries to your institutions, so surely you have a responsibility to make sure that the people you’re bringing to your institution have the ability to use all the services that you have on offer. The onus is not on them, the onus is on you as an institution, because you’re the one that invited them to come and were indeed very insistent on bringing them here. So to say it’s a cultural issue and leave it at that I don’t think necessarily is good enough.
What can UK universities do practically to support international students while they’re here?
Just think about the stuff that international students need when they are in the UK. The welfare of these international students including housing and mental health support and also the experiences they have dealing with the authorities, dealing with border agencies.
I have come across a lot of students since Brexit that say they feel uncomfortable speaking their language on the street when they’re with their friends or when they’re on the phone to their family and that’s a real problem. These kind of shifts have to happen and universities can take a really important role in trying to move people away from this rhetoric.
In conjunction with each other, it would make the experience of students when they’re here much better, which would in the medium and long term lead to a lot more international students wanting to come here. At the end of the day, what a lot of institutions want to achieve is increased market share, but they should go about it in a different way.
How important are events like this to get your voice and the voice of international students heard?
Events like the HCI Forum can be useful, but the marketised ideology that surrounds education is so embedded within every layer of higher education policy at these kind of networking events, that I think it’s very difficult to challenge it. It almost seems bizarre to say well universities are not really a business. There’s always a business logic, you have this amount, you spend this amount, you make this amount. These are publicly funded institutions so making money or making a surplus should not be a priority, it should be educating people in a way that the world would be a better place tomorrow.
What's next on the agenda for you as International Students' Officer?
What we are doing is trying to get Students Unions on the ground to talk with institutions about Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in particular and put pressure on institutions if they need to so the university doesn’t opt into TEF, or at least they come out in opposition to linking TEF to the recruitment of international students. We know it’s going to create a multi-tier system for international students, which is going to contribute to taking away the rights to work and other rights of international students.
Updated December 12, 2016
Since Hotcourses International interviewed Mostafa, the UK government made headlines in the education sector once again for proposing to cut international student visas by nearly half. Speaking to The Independent, Mostafa said: "These potential plans will further damage UK's reputation, to a point of no return. We know many degrees at leading universities would not exist without contributions of international students.
"With the number of international students falling in British universities and colleges, we believe the UK is losing its advantage of being one of the most diverse, progressive and exciting countries to study in."
Katie Duncan is Editor of Hotcourses Abroad and is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and University of Exeter graduate. Having worked at an English language school in the UK, as an educational consultant in Spain and as a reporter in the international education sector, she is well placed to guide you through your study abroad journey. Katie grew up in Australia, which perhaps explains her unusual reptile collection, comprising of a bearded dragon (Bill) and tortoise (Matilda).