Cultural norms may be no-go areas for foreign academics

University staff urged to help visiting scholars adjust to life in the UK

May 7, 2015

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Cultural norms can be a challenge

Starting a new job at a UK university is a daunting experience for any early career scholar, and it can be so much harder if you are from overseas.

This is underlined by a study which suggests that, while foreign researchers do not lack competence or subject knowledge, it is the unfamiliar cultural norms that can unsettle them.

Patricia Walker, a visiting research fellow at the University of East London, who has collected the experiences of international academics in the UK, goes so far as to warn that institutions must do a better job of nurturing this group, or risk losing them. According to Dr Walker’s paper in the Journal of Research in International Education, many overseas academics are accustomed to classroom relationships in which they are seen as being superior and where questioning a tutor would be seen as challenging their ability.

In contrast, British academics tend to combine their expert status with seeing themselves as continuous members of a learning community, and they encourage informal contributions from students.

Some of the new appointees that Dr Walker spoke to were uncomfortable about this, with one stating that “I could never imagine that a student would challenge my authority”. Another found it “weird” to be addressed by their first name by students. This feeling extended into the British university style of open-ended discussions, in which tutors are confident accepting that they do not have all the answers. Some overseas academics feared being asked questions to which they did not have all the answers, Dr Walker says.

Another challenge was dealing with the Western style of robust academic debate, perceived as being “red in tooth and claw” by some new arrivals, according to the paper.

Some international academics may find having their research findings picked over, perhaps in the presence of “lower status” colleagues such as postgraduates, to be “deeply humiliating”, Dr Walker says.

Gender relationships were a further challenge to be overcome. One respondent, describing how a female student had demanded to be signed in as attending a lecture that she had missed, stated that “such female student behaviour has never occurred in my academic career”.

A final problematic area was the short-term outlook of UK universities, based around annual reviews and regular redrawing of courses. For some international academics, this created a “tendency to disengage” from such processes, the paper says.

Dr Walker suggests that there may be a case for introducing continuing professional development courses to help international staff “grow in inter-cultural competence”.

The significance of the issue should not be underestimated, she argues, since overseas academics are a “vital source of new blood in a somewhat ageing UK workforce”.

“If we do not want to lose them, we must find a way to nurture them,” Dr Walker added. “If we fail, we are all – students and academics alike – impoverished.”

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