Durham in Stockton: how are international students prepared for University life?

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It is often forgotten by students studying in Durham, as they attend lectures in view of the city’s cathedral, or grab coffee by the River Wear, that Durham life continues almost thirty kilometres away, in the market town of Stockton.

On the edge of County Durham, Stockton-on-Tees is home to hundreds of international students completing a foundation year or a Pre-Masters course, in the hopes of progressing on to academic study in Durham, or elsewhere.

Run by the education provider Study Group, separate from but in close collaboration with Durham University, the International Study Centre (ISC) is an integral and formative part of the university journey for many of Durham’s international students. Palatinate interviewed some of these ISC alumni about their academic and social experiences within this frequently overlooked aspect of life at Durham.

A 45-minute bus journey away from Durham, some of the ISC graduates we spoke to felt detached and disconnected from their desired next destination while in Stockton. Omar Mazhar, who studied at the ISC a year after the first international cohort arrived in September 2017, said that “there was a huge disconnect” between the Centre and Durham University, “as we were taken to Durham once on a day trip.”

Four years later, in the opinion of another attendee of the ISC in 2022, who asked not to be named by Palatinate, “you never feel like you are a Durham student.” They described feeling “segregated not only in terms of the location gap but also the experience offered.” Another student also echoed the “sense of separation” and lack of a “strong connection between the International Study Centre and the main Durham University campus.”

However, for Emily Tan, a Durham graduate who completed a foundation year at the ISC in 2020, “Stockton isn’t really incredibly far away from Durham University.” She would commute to Durham “multiple times a week” for badminton training with Team Durham. Although there was a “disconnect between” the ISC and Durham students, this was “inevitable” in her opinion, and the ISC still made “their students feel included.”

There was a disconnect between the two groups of students [ISC and Durham]. This was inevitable, to be honest…That is not to say that the ISC didn’t try to make their students feel included

Emily Tan

In a statement to Palatinate, Study Group stressed that “we make clear in all our student recruitment materials, the International Study Centre is located at Queen’s Campus in Stockton-on-Tees, not in Durham itself. However, we work closely with Durham University to make sure that our International Study Centre students have regular opportunities to familiarise themselves with the university and its community during their time with us.” According to Study Group, this includes “access [to] university facilities” and the opportunity to participate in “popular university-led events such as Global Week, ‘Green Initiatives’ and Ustinov College formals”, playing in sports. They continued, saying they “are continually seeking ways to increase these opportunities as far as current logistics permit”.

The progression rate this year from the International Foundation Programme to a Durham undergraduate course was 74%. On the ISC website, prospective lSC attendees are told that the International Foundation Year programme will “prepare” them for studying at Durham University, and even provide a “head start on your degree.” Students at the ISC take a range of modules, alongside Academic English Skills and an extended project, from one of three possible subject pathways that align with the undergraduate degree that they hope to progress on to.

Amna Al Ali, who successfully progressed to an undergraduate course after completing a foundation year in 2022, felt that she was “without a doubt” prepared for the transition to university while in Stockton. The Academic English Skills module taught her “a lot about the language and related academic skills” that she needed for her time in Durham, while “one-on-one meetings” with teachers “were really helpful for getting personalised feedback, making sense of course material, and getting advice on my academic and job goals.”

Infinity Bridge in Stockton (Emily Tan)

Alongside laying a “solid [academic] foundation” for the “university’s rigorous courses”, according to another Durham student who attended the ISC from 2021 to 2022, the staff helped students understand Durham’s culture. “They gave us a clear idea of which colleges to choose … and helped us envision what our future at Durham could be like.” Nooran Thakur, who was also in Stockton in 2022, said that the ISC offered a “more intense and had a proper routine,” including attendance monitoring, that “really made me ready for what I was going to face at the university itself.”

Some former ISC attendees raised concerns about the preparation offered to them for transition to studying after the foundation year. The student who attended the centre in 2022 claimed that they “never received help to transition from Foundation to Durham” and the academic teaching “was never helpful or essential” for their undergraduate degree. They also claimed that they had to contact a separate company to “learn how to get a new Visa and how to complete the registration process for Durham University.” While in the second year that the ISC was running, Mr Mazhar felt he was given “no preparation whatsoever” by the Centre for the British University culture of “drinking, partying and clubbing.”

Although Jasmine Wong “personally felt comfortable” with her “academic readiness at the ISC” when she was in Stockton in 2020, the actual transition “exposed a disparity between the academic expectations at the International Study Centre and those at Durham University.” Ms Wong subsequently felt that her time at the ISC did not “significantly contribute to my academic readiness for transitioning into full-time studies”, even though she noted that “some of my friends really did benefit” from the centre’s academic preparation.

“The transition to university revealed the high level of academic achievement among my peers at Durham. This exposed a disparity between the academic expectations at the International Study Centre and those at Durham…some of my friends really did benefit from the ISC for transitioning into University”

Jasmine Wong

In response to the testimony provided by ISC graduates, a Durham University spokesperson said: “we work closely with Study Group to ensure ISC students receive guidance and support across academic and personal endeavours, so those who do progress to a Durham degree programme have a smooth transition. This includes engagement with colleges and facilities on the Durham City campus, and student welfare and wellbeing.” With “challenging requirements for entry onto Durham University undergraduate programmes which are benchmarked to ensure they are equivalent to A-levels or similar … the vast majority of students progressing from the ISC to Durham go on to achieve good degree outcomes.”

For students struggling with those “challenges” of “adapting to” and “being alone in a foreign country,” ISC alumni widely praised the student welfare and support services available in Stockton. One international student who arrived at the ISC in 2021 commended the “always so supportive” welfare team, who “played a major role in our daily lives” and made “the transition smoother and less daunting.” Another student received daily check-ins as they were under 18 and were supported as they struggled to make it to classes. The Student Experience Survey, which is collected by the operator, Study Group, which completed at the end of the course, reported a satisfaction rate of 71% over the last academic year. in contrast to an 87% satisfaction rate that students gave at the start of the academic year.

The International Study Centre creates a diverse hub of international students, which some have said have left them feel vulnerable. Ms Ali said that “as a Muslim, I had to cover my hair with a scarf, and people were gazing at me in a very rude manner. We also received several Islamophilic remarks from elderly individuals. To be honest, I didn’t encounter any of this in Durham since the city is more diverse.” Another ISC alumnus added that her Muslim friends “experienced racism from local people… [and were] told awful comments by adults and children.”

Stockton Town Centre (Emily Tan)

It is, however, this opportunity to meet “people of various backgrounds and nationalities” that was the “biggest highlight” for many who spent time at the ISC. Despite a portion of her time at the ISC being hampered by the covid-19 pandemic, Ms Wong had an “amazing experience” in Stockton that she said was due to “the privilege of connecting with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds, forming friendships that have endured beyond my time there.” 

“Being in the ISC where all students were going through similar experiences made it easier and better for everyone… it was comforting to know that everyone was going through the same experiences, which created a supportive and understanding community.”

ISC Alumnus, 2021-22

Ms Tan also faced the covid-19 pandemic  while on her foundation year, but found her experience “fulfilling”, from “meeting people from all walks of life” to “bonding with the locals”. 

After overcoming his initial post-arrival nerves, it was the “good sense of belonging” at the centre that made Mr Thakur feel “at home” throughout his time in Stockton. Commenting on the experiences provided by ISC alumni to Palatinate, Study Group said that they are receptive to all student “concerns or suggestions, on any issue ranging from personal safety and wellbeing to academic and social issues”. The education provider “welcome[d] feedback on how we can continually improve the student experience, and this includes issues around location… we are always open to these conversations and how we can increase our responsiveness to student comment.”

Image: Queen’s Campus, Stockton (Adeline Hei Wah Cheung)

2 thoughts on “Durham in Stockton: how are international students prepared for University life?

  • I find a disconnect between the 2 groups. And this situation is inevitable. The transition has also brought some positive impact. slope game

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