How to woo students from overseas

November 10, 2000

WHAT: Harinder Bahra argues that international students are not units of finance to be thrown in with the rest of the student cohort.

WHY: A warm welcome on arrival and sensitive support throughout their course will enriched students' experience and win Britain brownie points

HOW: The recruitment and retention of students from Africa and Asia is fast becoming the lifeblood of many universities and colleges as UK education plc is pushed into the export-import business to generate income to meet the shortfall in government finance.

It is an aggressive market with four major players - the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada - and a handful of continental countries. Recruitment strategies normally involve fairs organised by embassies or the British Council, scholarships, and creative marketing, which, rather like creative accounting, paint a prettier picture than the reality.

Tony Blair recently supported marketing initiatives in India by rallying UK education plc and government departments to exploit this new market. Not to be left behind the US, which allows students to work, he warmly endorsed the opportunity for students to work while studying in the UK. Unfortunately, he forgot to inform the immigration services on the ground, which are tasked with keeping people out rather than helping them get in even with an authentic unconditional offer letter.

While a more professional approach to marketing and external relations among institutions is commendable, there is an in-built commercial tendency to adopt the same Eurocentric approach. It is not enough to have a sprinkling of African-Caribbean and Asian faces with the odd balti dish or temple in the prospectus. Changes need to be deeper. What about improving the infrastructure for international students to aid acclimatisation, teaching and learning, assessment, retention and exit?

UK education plc, like any company, needs to ask who is the customer and what do they need? Often the real customer is the parent, and institutions often fail to evaluate the impact of images in their publicity. For example, parents do not want to know about the rave scene, they are interested in the educational, employment opportunities and "hygiene factors", such as where their child will be staying, the quality and safety of accommodation, and if it is single sex or mixed. Eurocentric education strategies lead not only to inequalities but loss of income. What are the main difficulties that prevent institutions from responding to the needs of international students? UK higher education is not exempt from charges of institutional racism. Prospective students may question whether they can expect fair treatment from an institution that does not treat staff consistently.

The increase in the number of minority ethnic academic and marketing staff attending recruitment fairs, especially in India, has helped present institutions as multiracial and multicultural. However, asking these staff to simply act as interpreters will enforce your colonial image or repel students. Such insensitivity is easily replicated within the institution. For example, it is no use appointing an academic responsible for international students if this removes responsibility from course directors and academic staff.

International students cannot be seen as units of finance brought in as a buffer to stave off bankruptcy. Some of these students have invested the equivalent of three to five years' salary to study in Britain. We owe them a duty of care and must ensure that our systems help to support and facilitate their development. It is not just a challenge to attract international students to an institution, it is important to retain them.

Arriving in any new country can be a traumatic experience, especially if you have left your family for the first time. Some institutions operate a "meet and greet" scheme under which students are collected from the airport for a one-off fee (£25 - £50). This is a small amount compared with the average of £12,000 students will contribute in fees, accommodation and other expenses per year.

Unfortunately, the help often stops after a short induction programme or perhaps a tour. It is important that all international students are escorted safely to their accommodation and are offered student mentors (final-year students?) as well as personal tutors.

The induction should be more comprehensive and provide: contextual information on the UK; institutional facilities; language skills and testing to determine level; study skills; delivery models (lectures and group work); plagiarism and assessments. There should also be an opportunity to relax, have fun and develop a group identity.

The lack of local support mechanisms often means that international students are considered high maintenance and more counter-dependent. In order for tutor-tutee relationships to work, there must be empathy and understanding. Institutions must ask whether this exists among its staff, whether they are excited about student diversity and the prospect of an enriched learning culture, or are only talking about "lowering standards". The international experience of staff, gender and race balance are also considerations.

The content and assessment of academic programmes are often steeped in western culture. Institutions need to evaluate western examples and models and revise them for appropriateness. Students need to be able to return to their countries, add value and transfer knowledge and skills to respond to opportunities in their economies. Academic staff need to realise that they are locked in a "partnership" with international students where they are likely to learn as much as they teach.

The presence of international students often affects the dynamics of the student cohort and needs to be monitored. Some western students see international students as an opportunity to embrace "globalisation", which enriches group debates. Others might see them as a liability who lower standards. Staff must be alert to covert conflict among sub-groups.

Employability and employment rates are also important considerations. Families see education abroad as an investment that should generate a higher return than if their child had studied in their own country. Students are likely to apply for posts in the UK or abroad.

The careers office needs to be aware of the differences in international selection practices, as well as inequalities in the national UK employment market, and be able to advise students accordingly. Successful alumni in appropriate posts are more likely to become ambassadors for UK higher education.

In a competitive market, we should concentrate on highlighting to international students how we, UK education plc, can contribute to their learning and economies, and provide an appropriate infrastructure that is welcoming. This and good educational experiences are likely to increase the traffic to UK education plc more than a veneer of glossy publicity materials and public relations exercises.


Harinder Bahra is associate dean for external development at Southampton Business School, Southampton Institute. He was previously academic director at the University of Central England Business School, where he turned around an ailing MBA programme and built up a successful portfolio of MBA and MSc programmes for international students. He writes in a personal capacity.


CARE OF FOREIGN VISITORS AND GROUND RULES

Welfare

After the induction process, international students can often find themselves ignored. For example, many students do not return home for holidays.

Universitiesand colleges should ensure they are catered for in terms of restaurant provision and accessto academic and counselling staff,as well as the library and IT facilities. There should bean emergency number for those who do go home, buton their return to the UK are held by immigration.

The careersservice must be attuned to international employment markets and understand the recruitment process in overseas countries.

Institutions and student bodies should also consider international student representation on committeesand boards.

Assessments

The assessment of international students is fraught with difficulty.

During assessment, students are often rewarded on their ability to regurgitate material with little application in overseas education systems, such as China, India and Pakistan.

Assessment criteria need to be clear, with no culturally ambiguous words. It is important to ensure that international students get a clear brief for their assignments and understand the implications of plagiarism.

Results of international students and referral rates should be monitored with the provision of revision workshops, where necessary.

In exams, students need to know the rules surrounding the use of language dictionaries.

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