Handle China with extra care

October 28, 2005

We must be helpful, honest and forthright when dealing with overseas students, says Tom Thomas

For those of us grappling with international marketing and overseas targets, this year's 22.5 per cent fall in enrolment of Chinese students comes as no surprise.

We have long been aware of the fragility of some overseas markets. In order to keep milking the "cash cow" that overseas students represent, many universities have expanded marketing activities in key countries. We provide assistance to smooth applicants' progress; we help with visa applications; our agents deal with local problems; we offer financial incentives including bursaries, scholarships and discounts.

Some universities make bold claims about their courses, including assertions that overseas students will participate in a multicultural, ethnically diverse programme with ample opportunity to share views with students from across the globe. Unfortunately, the reality is often different. On many courses, overseas students are in the majority. Indeed, at some universities, a Chinese student could arrive in the UK, enrol on a programme and sit with a group consisting entirely of other Chinese students. Is this the experience we should provide?

These issues were discussed at a conference held in September at Southampton Solent University. More than 100 delegates from 44 UK institutions considered ways to enhance the support provided to students from China and the South-East Asian region. In his keynote speech, Dominic Scott, the chief executive of Ukcosa, the council for international education, stressed the need to enhance support for all students.

Integration was a major theme. The conference debated the extent to which students learn better when exposed to students from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Repeatedly, issues concerning "home" students were raised. British students, particularly at undergraduate level, are not always willing to get involved with overseas peers. Home students can feel held back when working with Chinese students, and issues related to inadequate language skills exacerbate this reluctance. Many universities make efforts to integrate students, including the adoption of "buddy"

systems and student mentoring. Cross-cultural learning groups and projects linked to local communities also help.

It is widely recognised that Chinese students come from a different tradition of learning. Student-led informal problem-based approaches common in the UK can cause problems for Chinese learners. It is essential that lecturers be aware of these differences and that induction processes be used to support such students.

It may also be necessary to adapt the way we deliver programmes to suit our "customers". Clearly, this is contentious since we must maintain standards.

However, in what other service or business would the needs of the client not be paramount?

The challenge lies in striking a balance between adapting and offering a high-quality product. We also need to work harder at managing foreign students' expectations, and course promotional materials must be comprehensive, accurate and realistic. If a Chinese student is going to end up in a lecture room without any British students in sight, we should be honest enough to make this obvious upfront. It is always best to be clear about what we can offer and to ensure we deliver on our promises.

Tom Thomas is dean of the Business School at the Southampton Solent University.

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