Dust off the welcome mat

May 14, 2004

Overseas students put higher education in a win-win situation, but they need support, says Caroline Browne

Recent research forecasts that the number of overseas fee-paying students studying for UK degrees could treble by 2020. The rewards are many: beyond financial gains, international students bring cultural diversity to our universities and allow UK students to develop international networks for their future careers.

However, such growth in the numbers of international students will bring challenges as well as opportunities. For example, how can we help different nationalities to integrate? And how can we ensure that domestic students - who make up 80 per cent of the student population - benefit from the internationalisation of their institutions?

There are two avenues open to overseas students in search of a UK degree: study on a UK campus or take part in one of the growing number of courses offered in students' home countries by Transnational Education (TNE). The latter includes distance education, courses taught under franchise, validated programmes and twinning arrangements. Forecasters predict a high level of demand for both.

It is vital that those who opt to study in the UK receive the support they require to adjust to life overseas. The key is preparation, which is why it is wise to provide substantial advice before the students arrive.

There is also much that can be done to settle students on arrival. Examples include offering language support - Brunel has introduced tests on arrival to ascertain any weaknesses (for instance, those with excellent written skills may be less confident with the spoken word) - and providing courses to address specific areas.

Offering advice on British teaching methods is vital: sometimes students have learnt by rote and may be unaccustomed to the concept of debates with lecturers - or even participating in a discussion. The hosts need educating too: UK students are more likely to try to help a quiet student participate if they understand why she or he is unwilling to talk.

To ensure international students have the best chance of integrating fully, the orientation process should be ongoing, for example, through monthly newsletters, so that they understand British culture and have a chance to participate.

Accommodation is also key. Avoid "ghettos" of students but ensure a few kindred spirits are nearby to provide support. The bottom line is that it is not just international students who suffer if they do not "fit in", but their fellow domestic students too.

Turning to delivery by TNE, many UK universities are working hard to forge partnerships with overseas institutions to deliver their courses.

International students can choose to study in the UK for a short time, taking some of the programme in their own country, which brings obvious financial benefits. However, the traffic should not be one way: overseas study presents a great opportunity for UK students. Could we open up these courses and encourage them to take perhaps a semester or year of their degree at a partner institution overseas?

Currently, the main opportunity for UK students to study overseas is via exchange schemes such as Socrates and Erasmus. However, language barriers mean the take-up rate on these schemes is low. This is where TNE may enable more UK students to live and study overseas since it is ordinarily delivered in English. And more involvement in TNE would act as a "quality assurance" mechanism, with students' feedback and performance ensuring overseas courses match required standards. UK students may need some persuasion, as they don't tend to value the experience of studying overseas in the same way as overseas students gaining an education in the UK do.

This is perhaps as big a challenge as ensuring those who come to the UK have the best environment possible to succeed.

Caroline Browne is director of Brunel International, Brunel University's facility for international students.

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