Cheese parties, without the wine

September 15, 2006

Negotiate the minefield of local customs and you can gain personal and professional benefits from teaching abroad, finds Anthea Lipsett.

When Diana Leonard signed up to teach at Fatima Jinnah Women University in Pakistan, the Muslim country's strict ban on alcohol did not register with her.

But Leonard, an education and gender sociology professor at the Institute of Education, London, managed to outflank her teetotal hosts with the help of a friendly brigadier.

"He supplies me with drinks, but it took the better part of two months to find him, and even then I was told not to put the empties out because it would be shaming," she explains. "People think you're off on a wonderful trip, but they don't consider the temperature, the conditions and the food."

Leonard's experiences contradict the assumption that academics working in foreign climes live the high life. Teaching an intensive education and gender course to PhD students, and research methods to masters students in women's studies, was fulfilling but "very, very hard work", she says.

"I was teaching four hours a day every day for a month and then doing supervision and marking. People are very friendly, but they find it an effort to speak English; and it's 43C all the time. I went to Pakistan thinking I was teaching one thing and then had to revise everything."

But the enthusiasm of the students and the feeling of making a contribution makes it all worthwhile, Leonard says. She found that the women she taught -from the northwest frontier provinces, which sit alongside Afghanistan - had unexpectedly radical feminist leanings and a determination to try to change things. "Pakistan is such an important place to be trying to establish pro-Western values. It's vital that we have as many academic ties with Pakistan as we can because there are other people seeking those ties if we don't," she says.

For many academics contemplating a return to the teaching routine this month, a change of scene might seem a good idea. In fact, many might assume that, with the increasing globalisation of higher education, there are more opportunities on offer, but this is not necessarily the case.

Joan Turner, chair of the British Association of Lecturers in English for Academic Purposes, says: "There are fewer posts in English-language teaching because there's quite a movement for people in their own country to do the teaching." She cites Japan, where there is a move against "native speakerism". Many Japanese now believe that it is better to be taught by someone who knows what it is like to learn English as a foreign language.

But for those who fancy getting out of the UK, there are, as Leonard suggests, pros and cons to weigh up.

For some, the cultural differences they encounter can be hard to adapt to. Even in American universities, for example, alcohol can be problematic. For Christopher Viney, professor of engineering at the University of California, Merced, the ice-breaking cheese-and-wine parties of his Oxbridge days are impossible in a state where people under the age of 21 are barred from drinking alcohol.

Ewan Dow, deputy director of Surrey University's Centre for Language Studies, faced bewildering cultural differences teaching at China's Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. The university campus sits on a mountainside, surrounded by a wall, and is "China in miniature", Dow says. "It has its own kindergarten and police force and looks after people from cradle to grave, all on the campus."

Dow, who was given no introductory briefing, initially found the experience stressful. "I arrived at the beginning of September and there was no air-conditioning. The humidity was sky high, and the sweat was pouring off me in front of a room full of students who were not responding to anything I said. I made mistakes immediately without even realising it."

Chinese lecturers are expected to be paternalistic in the classroom but maternalistic outside it, Dow says. "You have an extended role where you're not just teaching them, you're a role model. We see teaching in a very truncated sense - you do your 60 minutes and that's it. In China, the expectation is that you follow up on students' problems. Teachers are strict in class but then go and visit students in their dormitories afterwards."

The students also appoint a class spokesperson, so not just anyone can ask a question, but students' humble demeanour belies the influence they carry. "Students can demand that a teacher goes," Dow says.

Working as an academic in Eastern Europe is no less challenging, according to Alec Charles, who leapt at the chance of a professorship in Estonia in 2001, less than a decade after the country had gained independence from the Soviet Union and three years before it joined the European Union. Charles found that academics were more respected than in the UK and that, as in Asia, they tend to enjoy a VIP lifestyle, with media coverage of their work and invitations to government receptions and diplomatic parties.

But Charles's salary was no better than in the UK, and he paid for his own accommodation. He also says it was not a great research environment, except in specific areas of science and technology. Nevertheless, he has been able to use his experience of teaching and working in Eastern European media to organise a conference on the media in an enlarged Europe.

Charles says it is vital for UK academics thinking of returning to retain ties with the UK and to keep up to date with developments in UK higher education.

Gabriel Donleavy, dean of business at the University of Macau, says that returning to the UK can be difficult for British academics who have worked in Asia. They may miss the higher standard of living - better pay, lower cost of living, fewer disciplinary problems - and they are likely to have to return to lower-level positions in the UK. "UK institutions want experience of UK systems," he says.

Ian Barnes, Jean Monnet professor of European economic integration at Lincoln University, has managed transition programmes in Hungary and Bulgaria and worked in China. He concurs: "It's difficult to demonstrate relevant skills for the UK market. If those who have worked abroad are not top-flight academics, all they are really doing is taking the money. Usually, they have to retire afterwards or take a lesser job in the UK."

But it very much depends on where and why you go - experience in China, for instance, is much in demand now. For some, the move abroad has been the best thing they have done. Viney says: "I have no regrets about coming here. Every day is an adventure. I live right next to Yosemite National Park, which is one of the finest places on Earth for grand scenery, and I'm helping to set up the first new campus in the area for 40 years. Where else would I get the opportunity to do that?"

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