Ditch the island mentality

British academics must stop being monoculturalists and embrace the influx of foreign students, says William Burns

September 4, 2008

Earlier this summer, it was reported that British universities gave degrees to overseas students whose English was far short of fluent. The newspapers, liberal and conservative, blamed the university administrators who had got us so hooked on overseas fees that we now had to sell certificates to the pathologically stupid.

Or perhaps, it was said, the real culprits were the backstreet visa agents who recruit a motley bunch of idiotic foreigners with faked English language test scores and ghosted personal statements.

The stories came from anonymous academics, who did not have the balls to give their actual names in print.

All the same, the mind boggles if we really are handing out fake degrees, and for the following reason: when the vice-chancellor takes home £300,000 a year while the masters student from Guangzhou hands over his family's life savings in fees and lives on instant noodles, one has to wonder if we haven't invented a new, more convenient, form of colonialism - minus the Delhi belly and mosquito bites.

For me, however, the media debate was actually an object lesson in what I would call the Nuremberg Defence, otherwise known as passing the buck.

Let's be honest here; we, the foot soldiers of the higher education system, the lecturers, tutors and supervisors, are the real reason why our overseas students cannot put a sentence together.

I think we need to shoulder the blame manfully and start giving them real value for money.

To begin, we should adapt our teaching to overseas students' needs by putting them, at least for some of their lectures, in different classrooms from their colleagues who speak English fluently.

That way, we can take their language difficulties fully into account by, for example, giving them subject-specific composition exercises. They should be able to practise speaking out loud without the fear of more assertive Anglophone students, or even staff, jumping in or ridiculing them.

There is an attitude problem in our ranks, especially towards overseas students who don't have white skin.

It seems to be assumed that they will collude, plagiarise and fake as if this is a cultural norm in their own country. Yet how many of us have an intimate knowledge of, say, the Chinese educational culture?

I think one of the reasons why we adopt such a thoughtless attitude is because British academics - particularly in the blinkered world of the natural sciences - are monocultural beings who cannot understand what it's like not to be British.

I always feel depressed when I hear colleagues moan about Chinese students because they don't talk in English to each other. If I meet an Englishman in Beijing, do I speak Chinese to him?

We regularly need to step outside our Anglo-Saxon Green Zone by, for example, attending an elementary foreign language course. To get maximum benefit, it must be a boot camp, say in Arabic or Chinese, that will remind us about the trials of dealing with unfamiliar words, but also with an unfamiliar culture and way of thinking.

It sounds a small thing, but the effect could be big. For without empathy, what hope do we have of teaching anything to an overseas student?

I have been learning Chinese for two years - I need it for my research - and I spent most of the last decade learning French, mainly for fun. I constantly use my experiences as a learner of languages to relate to overseas students who come to me for help.

In a decade's time, the current fuss over standards may look like growing pains in the development of a globalised higher education system. As we get more used to engaging with non-native speakers, we're going to learn about their needs and get better at teaching them.

We should always be aware of how long it takes to learn English. Sending students for occasional remedial lessons at the university's language centre won't do much good without follow-up. So, yes, we will have to spend more time and money - but then, we're charging exorbitant fees anyway.

One thing is for sure: we need to cherish the efforts of overseas students who are trying so hard to communicate in our mother tongue. University teachers who cannot adapt to this new way of thinking should not be in the classroom.

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