High fees, no reward

May 16, 1997

A survey by Eunice Okorocha reveals that foreign students fear British universities are more interested in their money than their education

International postgraduate students have expressed concerns over the value for money offered by British universities in a new survey. In many cases expectations failed to be met by the conditions of study on offer at 12 institutions in the study which has been conducted for my PhD research into cross-cultural work and the international student experience.

Postgraduate students make up 59 per cent of my sample and according to their answers in interviews, the greatest areas of concern include: the recruitment policies of some institutions, differences in academic systems, language issues, relationships with supervisors, and the general quality of support provided by institutions.

There are now universities which could not balance their budget without the income from international students. This seems to have led to indiscriminate recruitment policies by some. And while students expected to be assigned to supervisors whose expertise included the focus of their research project some said that on getting to their universities they found that there were no specialists in their area. A few had to make private arrangements for outside supervision at their own expense. In the words of one respondent: "Institutions should ensure that their recruitment policy is honest. International students should not be recruited when the university has no expert in their area because this is not fair considering the high fees they pay''.

Some respondents said they were not given full institutional and departmental induction into the United Kingdom system of assessment. Others mentioned the lack of awareness for students whose native language is not English. They said that what is regarded as inappropriate use of language, for example, is often due to their lack of awareness of social conventions. This often counts against them, alienating them and creating barriers in communication. Some say this can lead to loss of vital grades as tutors and supervisors often do not understand what they want to say.

The students expect more understanding. In particular, they would appreciate it if staff could speak more slowly and avoid the use of local slang, acronyms and complex verbs when working with them.

The most controversial issue reported by international postgraduate students was that of supervision. An overwhelming majority said they had no clear definition of the role of the supervisor. Some were not easily accessible while others were often away on trips abroad. Draft chapters of research were not returned promptly, in some cases they were kept for several months. There were variations in relationships with supervisors however. While a few students said they had a good relationship marked by mutual respect, others complained that theirs was characterised by serious lack of trust and goodwill. Some reported lack of interest in seeing that the research was completed within sponsorship time and recalled cases where students had to return home before completion because their sponsorship time came to an end.

Some students were unhappy about supervisors' lack of interest in non-academic welfare. Others said they did not have access to facilities. The early stages of their study could be very stressful because they were not fully introduced to relevant facilities needed for their research. Some recalled spending time writing computer programmes only to discover later that these were already available. One student said he had a feeling that he was not introduced to the facilities because of fear that he would ruin them, since it was assumed that he was not familiar with such sophisticated equipment. It is unthinking to treat overseas students as if they know what is available. And even more insensitive to treat them as if they are dangerous to the facilities. In-depth departmental induction will ensure that they know what is available and how to use it.

International students are not a homogenous group. While some come from countries that are advanced in the use of computers, for example, others come from countries where working with computers is still in the introductory stage. Most universities provide counselling and advisory units as support services for all students. My research findings show that international students do not often use these facilities because of cultural barriers. Cultural awareness workshops could encourage members of staff to acquire the necessary cross-cultural skills. Some institutions do not have a system of monitoring the progress of their research students and quite often students who are struggling go unnoticed. International students say they would appreciate a means by which they could say what they think about what is provided for them, including relationship with supervisors, and hence be able to suggest how these may be improved, without fear of repercussions.

Eunice Okorocha is completing PhD research on The International Student Experience, at Surrey University.

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