Birmingham leads efforts to address foreign staff needs

May 11, 2007

In an increasingly internationalised environment, universities must work harder to get the best out of their overseas staff, writes Tony Tysome

Birmingham University is at the forefront of moves by institutions to review and upgrade support for international staff who make up more than a quarter of the sector's academic workforce.

The push to improve the working and personal lives of academics from overseas is seen by university managers as a key part of the internationalisation agenda institutions are being urged to address.

The latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that international staff now number 31,445 and account for almost 26 per cent of all academics in the UK.

Addressing their concerns and the particular challenges they face is regarded as an increasingly important aspect of professional development and providing a better working environment.

Special efforts are being made to get international staff themselves involved in setting the programme for improvements at Birmingham University, where in the past 12 months the number of academics from overseas has climbed by nearly a fifth to 930 - approaching a quarter of the university's academic body.

A series of informal lunches for academics from overseas and university managers has led to the creation of an international staff network steering group that is to closely examine the needs of international staff and consider how best to tackle them.

David Harrison, assistant human resources director at Birmingham, said the move brought together the aims of both the university's "workplace wellbeing" and internationalisation strategies.

"At the heart of it is a recognition of the increasing diversity of our workforce. The university wants the best out of its members of staff, but it also wants them to get the best out of the university," he said.

Support for international staff includes helping to deal with personal problems such as setting up a bank account or finding somewhere to live, adjusting to the culture and practices of UK higher education, or improving English language skills and understanding regional accents.

Judith Lamie, director of Birmingham's international strategy, said: "This initiative provides an immediate network for international staff to tap into wherever they are working in the university."

Caroline Chapain, a research fellow from France working in Birmingham's Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, said her department had to buy her a bed when she first arrived in the UK because, with no bank account to draw money from, she was having to sleep on the floor.

"I am really amazed by what the university is trying to do and the way it is involving international staff in the process. It is the first time I have experienced this anywhere," she said.

Sotaro Kita, a reader in psychology from Japan, suggested that a mentoring system was needed to help international staff such as him who were bewildered by the workings of UK higher education when they first arrived.

He said: "When I first got here, I had no idea what tutorials should be like.

"All staff get a guide on tutorials, but it assumes you know what they are and what is expected."

The new steering group is a step in the right direction that stands to benefit the university as well as its international staff, he added.

"A lot of international staff do return to their home country, so if they have had a good experience at Birmingham the good word will spread internationally," he said.

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