Issues affecting postgrads will be debated in London this week at the UK Grad Conference. Here, speakers discuss the trials of part-timers, international students and researchers with disabilities.
The British Council's Vision 2020 document shows us the future that might be ours if we are able to maintain our "attractiveness factor" as a higher education destination. If this is the case, all other world variables remaining constant, then we can expect at least to double the number of non-UK students studying here.
But we worry that we are falling behind competitors in the US and Australia. The Higher Education Policy Institute July 2004 report on internationalisation identifies our inability to increase international research student numbers as rapidly as taught students, even though we have accepted that the presence of international research students is significant to the research output, reputation, income and ranking of our higher education institutions.
How do we increase numbers? Part of our "attractiveness factor" is linked to lifestyle and welfare issues, and we now recognise that student success is judged not solely on academic achievement but on the total experience offered to the student. Perhaps, even more important, we are beginning to acknowledge that academic success is more likely to be achieved if the student is secure and comfortable (even happy) in the environment that we provide.
Deciding to study in a culture or language other than one's own is challenging for any student. Deciding to undertake a research degree in these circumstances is not for the faint-hearted. Such students are often mature, many resign from jobs and positions of significance in their own societies and arrive at institutions that may know little of their culture and fail to recognise their vulnerability. Our quest for quality is laudable, and our rigorous selection processes are in part for the sake of the student. They can, however, be labyrinthine, obscure, arcane, inflexible and, most of all, long drawn out.
We must, as a profession, put more effort, knowledge and resources into producing transparent, consistent, humane and effective procedures for admission if we want to create the impression of an efficient and supportive community. Our selection procedures are often the first impression that the student, his family and sponsors are given of the institution. There is general agreement that there is room for improvement.
Pedagogic styles vary from culture to culture. We value our own analytic inquiry-based approach to knowledge, which encourages well-founded challenge and empowers students to share the responsibility for their own learning. Our culture encourages individualism even within a team; other cultures depend more on shared learning and discovery.
These differences in approach enrich the international community, provided that both student and supervisor are aware of the expectations that the other may bring to the process. We can help the student to progress in the UK learning environment if care is given to pre-arrival explanation of learning styles.
We should also accept that the special bond between student and supervisor is becoming less special with the massification of higher education and the pressures on academic staff. Where it exists, the student is fortunate; but where it cannot, then professional services need to supplant it.
Support is needed throughout the programme. An institution that recognises this, and is prepared to think carefully about how to provide, resource, monitor, adapt and value it, goes a long way to creating a caring environment and, as a direct consequence, successful students.
The areas in which support is needed are diverse, numerous and well documented from welcome to reorientation. A family-first policy, which recognises that increasing numbers of international research students arrive with dependants, is, for instance, helpful.
Institutions that have a policy of internationalisation, rather than merely international recruitment, try to offer such sensitive, well-resourced support. These institutions will view international research partnerships, staff travel overseas, UK student mobility, transnational education opportunities and global components in the curriculum as part of a package that enriches the lives of everyone concerned.
Students will face problems whether they come from Birmingham, Bologna or Bahrain, but a policy that values integration offers a greater chance of solving them.
Christine H. Humfrey is director of the international office at Nottingham University.