International students pose challenge to library staff

Demands by overseas cohort for 'exclusive' services test hard-hit librarians. John Gill reports

May 29, 2008

University libraries are being put under growing pressure by the rising number of international students, a report says.

The study by the Society of College, National and University Libraries (Sconul) said that increased demand from an ever-wider range of students was causing problems for libraries whose budgets have been static in recent years.

Overseas students tend to require more help than home students. The report said that many need what are in effect "exclusive" services just to stay on a level playing field with UK nationals. Overseas students pay very high fees, and they are typically among the most diligent students on campus.

Moira Bent, liaison librarian at the University of Newcastle and a national teaching fellow, said the extra demand has increased the burden on librarians and the range of cultural and other issues they must deal with.

In one incident at Newcastle, a Middle Eastern student was shocked to find a copy of the Koran on a low shelf - something library staff were not aware would cause offence.

"He came to us very distressed and said it was extremely disrespectful to have the Koran on a bottom shelf," Ms Bent said. "It was there because that's where it fitted in the classification sequence, but ... we had to reorganise the religious studies section so it was on a top shelf."

Although undergraduate students tend to study the same courses regardless of nationality, postgraduate students from abroad can cause a significant drain on resources.

"They tend to do research based on their home country, and demands for resources from those countries can be difficult to meet," Ms Bent said. "I had one student who wanted satellite maps of Afghanistan, which could have been politically sensitive. He was doing research into agriculture in his home country, so it was a logical request, but it raised difficult questions about why he wanted the data, whether we had to censor it, and whether it was our role to do that."

Alongside cultural issues are obstacles such as the language barrier, varying levels of IT literacy and experience of different library systems.

Another problem is the gap between students' expectations and the service on offer.

In one incident cited, a group of Chinese students studying for a masters degree in business at an unnamed university felt so strongly about the poor service that they returned as a group to China.

One of the reasons they gave was that they had expected the library to provide each of them with all the textbooks they required - they were dismayed to find they had to take turns to use library copies.

Karen Senior, head of the library at the University of Bolton and leader of the research, said university websites were sometimes geared towards "selling the product" to potential students rather than giving accurate information about the services that were available.

"International students have paid a lot of money, and their expectations in some cases are sky high," she said. "I don't think universities deliberately mislead international students, but they don't make it explicit enough what they can offer and what they can't."

She added: "Librarians are beginning to feel that these students ought to be addressed in a more specific way rather than bunched in with all students."

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