As the student body becomes increasingly international, familiarity with UK popular culture cannot be assumed on courses. Curricula must instead become 'internationalised', as Harriet Swain reports.
Jokes about the old Tango ads fall flat. References to Porridge in criminology take hours of explaining, and nobody knows what a Clapham Omnibus is. Students don't seem to understand where you're coming from anymore.
But what about where they're coming from? As the student body becomes increasingly international, university curricula can no longer assume familiarity with British television, popular culture or even basic Western notions about economics, says Digby Warren, learning, teaching and curriculum developer at London Metropolitan University.
Before you launch into internationalising a curriculum, however, you need to ask why you are doing this, says Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at Ukcosa, the Council for International Education. "Part of what drives this is making the curriculum more relevant to international students rather than being Anglocentric," she says. "But it is also making UK students more prepared for a globalised world."
Warren says it goes beyond internationalism too. Rethinking curricula has to consider the needs of increasing numbers of non-traditional students from within the UK. "They are not entering the system with the conventional middle-class liberal education on which, historically, university has rested," he says.
Merrick says you need to recognise that internationalising the curriculum will vary from subject to subject. But she says tackling the issue at an institutional level is a way of prompting action from people who may not have thought about it before. "It's an area where there aren't straightforward right or wrong answers," she says. Glynis Cousin, senior adviser at the Higher Education Academy, says it is a good idea to combine a subject-based approach with pressure from the top. She praises Leeds Metropolitan University, which has a strategy for every academic to look at their programmes and assess the extent to which they can integrate crosscultural capabilities into the programme. Elspeth Jones, dean of the Leslie Silver International Faculty at Leeds Metropolitan, suggests thinking in detail about internationalisation every time a course comes up for review, which means that every course will eventually get covered.
Guidelines for curriculum review issued by her university stress that internationalising the curriculum must be done in the wider context of students' overall university experience.
Among many other suggestions, these guidelines urge careful use of language - not saying things such as "Asians are..." or "In Africa..." for example.
They suggest displaying international materials in the faculty, rewarding intercultural perspectives in assessments, and encouraging students to question whether their work excludes any national or other group, and what its environmental impact might be. The guidelines also advise offering a wide range of learning strategies to ensure that the course responds to different learning cultures.
Alison Dickens, senior academic co-ordinator for the Higher Education Academy subject centre for languages, linguistics and area studies, says you need to ask yourself whether you are using case studies, examples and references to academic work from outside the UK, whether students and staff have opportunities to learn languages, and to spend time abroad.
"These are all things to think about rather than being gospel," she says.
But if you claim to be running a course that is international you need to check that it really is, in terms of offering study visits and language learning, for example.
Merrick says it is useful to establish links with partner universities abroad and perhaps develop a joint degree. This is a particularly good way of internationalising the curriculum because overseas partners can highlight differences in perspective that UK university staff may not even be aware exist.
David Pilsbury, chief executive of the Worldwide Universities Network, says students need to have opportunities to participate in a programme in a way that reflects and enables internationalisation. "The curriculum on its own is not enough to create an international programme," he says. "It is how students engage with the curriculum that makes the difference."
He says it is important that learning flows in both directions and not just from the developed to developing world and that you are aware of differences in students' learning expectations.
Merrick says it can be useful to make the most of the insights of your international students, although she warns against depending on them too much. "Expecting them to represent their country or culture can be too much of a burden," she says. "But be open to what they bring."
Don't be tempted to restrict your world-view just to the handful of different nationalities you have in your lecture room, she says. Make sure you are conscious of different perspectives between developed and developing countries and your curriculum recognises the different resources available to students coming from poorer countries.
Cousin suggests using both home and international students to inform you about their experience of studying on a multicultural campus - Coventry University is offering bursaries to students explicitly to conduct this kind of research - so that their findings can inform your curriculum.
But don't get too carried away about internationalisation, warns Dickens.
If your curriculum is too international your foreign students might start objecting that they are not receiving the UK education they have travelled a long way to receive.
Academy Exchange , a special issue of Higher Education Academy magazine, focusing on internationalisation, www.heacademy.ac.uk/4131.htm
Internationalising Higher Education by Elspeth Jones and Sally Brown, Routledge, is published in May Worldwide Universities Network, www.wun.ac.uk
Council for International Education, Ukcosa, www.ukcosa.org.uk