The challenges of supervising students from other countries

Gina Wisker offers some practical advice on cross-cultural supervision

October 23, 2015
Around the world

Postgraduate students and supervisors are very globally mobile. Pick almost any country with a university research culture and you might find a Japanese supervisor supervising students from Rwanda or one from Finland supervising a student from Italy or China. 

In the UK, public discourse around international postgraduates tends to oscillate between the commercial (their fees keeping UK universities afloat) and that of gatekeeping (concern over language skills, plagiarism, quality). While not ignoring these, my own efforts are more focused on the rich diversity of approaches to research, and to research the learning enabled by cultural diversity.

There are, however, practical considerations to be taken into account when supervising students from overseas.

For some who come to a new country, the basic needs such as domestic and financial security can predominate over research thinking and learning. As supervisors, we are often the first (though not the only) person who can direct students to resources, infrastructural support such as student services, students’ unions (considered worryingly radical in some cultures), and induction processes both within the university and in the form of international networks that can provide intellectual and emotional support.

In cross-cultural supervisory interactions, we might also need to consider culturally inflected nuances in things such as learning behaviours and choice of topic.

Difference and cultural richness are important, but both students and supervisors might need to prepare in terms of cultural awareness before engaging in the supervision process together. In some cultures, for example, students consider that knowledge developed and constructed is shared. Some consider it insulting to argue with elders or authorities, which affects critical debate. 

As one interviewee in research I conducted (with colleagues) put it: “It is my impression that the way to surmount these cross-cultural difficulties is by a fully engaged dialogue which is fluid and continuous all along the duration of the process.”

Some other effective practices to support the supervision process and research student learning that have emerged from research and experience include:

  • Increasing awareness of culturally different contexts, learning styles, expectations and behaviours
  • Acceptance of different learning approaches and research modes
  • A need to ensure that students have appropriate access to tertiary literacy support for writing and examination
  • Supporting culturally contextualised and inflected topics
  • Ensuring respectful interactions
  • Challenging entrenched culturally originated learning behaviours (for both supervisors and students)

Knowledge exchange, learning from different practices and developing a critical, enquiring stance are all important in Western doctoral learning. So too is the underpinning of ethics in research, and the importance of good communication. So students are learning not only about about how to research, but also what to research, what critical thinking is, and how to write, develop and sustain an argument.

They are also learning that global literature and global communication of knowledge are important, however precise and small their slice of their research field is. As one of our interviewees put it: “I believe that in almost every research we have to search for universal contribution to knowledge as we are living nowadays in a ‘global world’ and not in a local one.”

Gina Wisker is professor of higher education and contemporary literature at the University of Brighton. A longer version of this article was presented at a Society for Research into Higher Education symposium last month.

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