Complacent staff could lose foreign enrolments

February 10, 2006

Academics need more training to help them avoid cultural clashes and misunderstandings with the rising number of overseas students they must teach and supervise, according to international students' representatives.

The representatives called this week for urgent action to address the issue amid widespread concern that a lack of systematic staff training would further weaken the UK's position in the lucrative overseas market.

Lecturers and postgraduate supervisors who had not learnt how to handle the cultural complexities of communicating effectively with students from different countries ran the risk of causing confusion or anger, which could damage an institution's reputation abroad, they said.

The warning follows research by education consultants that highlights the dangers of failing to pick up quickly problems experienced by international students. A survey of more than 18,000 international students, carried out last November by the International Graduate Insight Group (i-graduate), found that most were happy with their education.

But Will Archer, i-graduate director, warned that institutions could not afford to be complacent about the minority who had unresolved problems.

When feelings were running high, students who felt aggrieved were liable to broadcast their complaints over the internet. This made it all the more important for academic and support staff to be trained to rapidly spot the warning signs of problems that might otherwise be missed because of cultural or language barriers, Mr Archer said.

"It is not uncommon to hear an academic say they enjoy their job but international students are a problem. Often it is because when they entered higher education they were not having to teach in such complex multicultural contexts," he said.

"Staff may say they know when their students have a problem without realising that students from certain countries will not make their discontent obvious in a way they might expect."

A fifth of complaints received by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education last year were from overseas students, who make up only a tenth of the UK student population.

Ruth Deech, the Adjudicator, said misunderstandings between academics and students were often at the heart of problems. "UK academics tend to use quite moderate language and expect international students to understand that if they are not praising them wholeheartedly, there may be something wrong with their work," she said.

Benson Osawe, international student officer for the National Union of Students, said: "Students from some parts of the world, such as Africa, will have been taught to respect their tutors and not to question them, so they are unlikely to raise a problem.

"Academics need to be trained to appreciate these kinds of cultural differences. But I think some universities are reluctant to make training mandatory for fear of upsetting the staff unions."

Jude Carroll, deputy director of the Centre for Excellence in Assessment Standards and Knowledge Exchange at Oxford Brookes University, recently published a book on the issue based on her research.

She said: "I am staggered by the lack of empathy of some academic staff.

The fear for many of them is that this will take up more of their time. But they need to realise its importance and be more focused about how things need to change."

But academic union leaders thought most institutions were doing enough training.

Steve Wharton, president of the Association of University Teachers, said:

"When it comes to staff training, it has to be recognised this is another call on academics' time."

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

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