'In the UK, you find you're on your own'

July 14, 2006

Are universities more interested in foreign students' fees than their welfare? Tony Tysome asks the experts

It's been a five-hour train journey to Plymouth and I have no idea where I'm going when I get there. But I need have no worries, thanks to Rong Huang.When I get off the train, she is there on the platform to greet me and escort me to Plymouth University's Business School where I will interview her and some of her Chinese students.

I recognise her immediately. Hers is the only Chinese face at the station. And her English is excellent, as you would expect from a lecturer in tourism marketing recently recruited by a UK university. So this "meet and greet" has few anxieties - unlike those faced by most international students arriving in this country for the first time.

Nevertheless, it seems that Huang's own relatively recent experiences as an international student, as well as her new role at Plymouth as international student tutor, have a lot to do with her courteous insistence that I should not have to find my own way to the Business School.

In fact, Huang probably knows more than most international students about the problems of trying to fit in to an alien culture very quickly. Having survived an often unhappy five years gaining a masters and PhD in tourism and management at Derby University, she has spent the past ten months taking on the more enjoyable but equally testing challenge of acclimatising to life as an academic in Britain.

One of the first contrasts between China and the UK that she noticed was the attitude of students towards punctuality. "They kept arriving ten or 15 minutes after the start of the lecture," she says. "In China, students always turn up early. In the end, I had to tell them I was tired of them being 'fashionably' late."

She also struggled initially to come to terms with a more informal relationship between senior and other staff than is the norm in China.

"I got so anxious that I sent my boss a Christmas card telling him that, as a typical Chinese, I was finding it difficult to deal with him. He just told me that he was my colleague as well as my boss," she says.

Then there was the relatively laid-back dress code. "In China, you would normally wear very formal clothes, but some colleagues here are very casual. At first it made me very uncomfortable. I sometimes wondered if they had been to the beach."

Huang is acutely aware that the culture shock she has endured first as an international student and now as an academic, provides her with a useful perspective in her role as international student tutor.

Her experience in counselling international students began when she was a PhD candidate at Derby. The frustrating problems she encountered prompted her to apply to become a student adviser.

She says: "I should have finished my PhD in three years, but it took four.

I was very bitter about it - I felt it happened because I did not get the right kind of support. I volunteered to become a student adviser because no one else was doing the job."

So when Plymouth's Business School director invited her to become an international student tutor, she jumped at the chance. One of her first moves in the role was to conduct a survey of problems faced by international students. The results raised some familiar issues, confirming that UK universities have yet to resolve even the most common difficulties international students encounter.

The seriousness of what is perhaps the number one problem - language - was underlined by the Chinese students I met at the Business School.

Zhuoran Yang, a human resources PhD student, recalled his struggle to overcome the language barrier when he first arrived in the UK to begin an MBA course at Swansea University.

He says: "My reading and writing were OK, but speaking and understanding everyday English was a problem. I could not do simple things such as go to a restaurant or open a bank account. The university could not help because no one could speak Chinese. In the end, I had to contact the Chinese Student and Scholar Association and they found a Chinese student to help me."

Tingting Wang, who is studying for a degree in accounting, says she had to resort to drawing pictures to make herself understood. "I went to the Business School and they gave me some coursework, but I had no idea about it. I had a lot of trouble with listening, understanding and reading. I felt I would be able to speak English before I arrived, but when I got here I found it was quite different. I felt very lonely."

Huang says she thinks more emphasis should be placed on spoken everyday English in the tests that international students take before they are admitted to courses in the UK. Cultural differences often compound misunderstandings that can arise from weak language skills, she adds.

"Often there is a misunderstanding between an academic and a student not only because of language, but also because of a cultural barrier. For instance, Chinese students are often shy to ask questions, and reluctant to say if they have a problem."

Language and cultural barriers cause many other problems, including finding a part-time job and breaking away from cosy groups of students from your own country so that you can mix with those from the UK.

If left unresolved, all these issues can result in a general feeling of resentment. Some of the students I spoke to felt that UK institutions focused more on collecting fees from international students than on looking after them properly.

Yang says: "In China, you get a personal tutor who must look after you as if you are a member of the family and if you have problems you can talk to them. But when Chinese students come to the UK, they suddenly find they are on their own. It's like you are offered the chance to study, you pay the fees, and that's it."

Wai Mun Lim, a hospitality PhD student, suggests that international students are often unaware of what support is available to them. "I think the university does provide these resources, but maybe it doesn't advertise them well enough," she says.

But Xiaopeng Wei, who is taking an MA in publishing, is unconvinced. He says: "I think in the UK education system making money comes first and providing an education second."

Huang believes Plymouth has made a special effort to help international students, including applying for support from the Leadership Foundation's Change Academy programme to help internationalise its campus and curriculum.

Mark Cleary, Plymouth's deputy vice-chancellor, says: "I think, in the past, UK institutions have had a quasi-colonial view that it is important to recruit overseas students because they impact on the bottom line. Most realise now that you have to move away from that attitude, because overseas students bring so much more to your campus than just fee income."

Another concern of Chinese students is that it is becoming harder for them to find a well-paid job when they return home. Part of the problem is that it can be difficult to gain work experience, even though some institutions such as Plymouth are now trying to help secure work placements for international students.

Huang says: "There is a joke that the best students go to the US, the richest go to the UK, but the smartest and poorest stay in China. Although it is a joke, you can see there is a dilemma for Chinese students about which option will give them the best chance to find a good job."

The assumption made by many Western institutions - that their approach to education is best - is also sometimes seen as mistaken and arrogant by Chinese employers.

"Here, you learn Western theories that do not always apply to China," Huang says. "Also, I am always being told about Chinese students' lack of critical thinking. But to suggest that you are no good because you don't have it seems quite an imperialistic attitude. Perhaps it is time for us to accept our differences and to start to learn from each other."

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