Wary foreigners are in the ghetto

Culture clash sees overseas students flock together to the detriment of learning. John Morgan writes

February 4, 2010

Overseas students at British universities often form social "ghettos" with their compatriots - and Thai students are seen as the most "unapproachable".

A study by Lorraine Brown, senior lecturer in tourism education at Bournemouth University, finds that international students feel the need to mix with people of the same nationality, are shy about speaking English to home students and fear discrimination. This drives them into a "mono-ethnic ghetto", hindering the growth of their language skills and cultural knowledge.

In her study of 150 foreign postgraduates at a university in southern England, Dr Brown states that South East Asian students raised in a "collectivist" culture of extended family support were "perceived to be close to the point of exclusivity".

"If there were a hierarchy of intransigence, Thai students were seen to be the most entrenched and the most unapproachable," she writes.

A Chinese interviewee told Dr Brown that Thai students "stick together even thicker" than other groups, adding: "They usually come to the class in groups. I don't."

And a Thai student said: "If I broke with them they would not like it. In this society, it isn't good to make yourself separate."

On the failure to promote cross-cultural contact, Dr Brown argues that higher education institutions should take "some responsibility for encouraging students to maximise the opportunity for growth that the international campus offers".

The study, published in the International Journal of Educational Research, is titled "An ethnographic study of the friendship patterns of international students in England: An attempt to recreate home through co-national interaction".

Dr Brown told Times Higher Education that there was a perception among the students she had spoken to that British students were "not bothered" about interacting with them. A culture clash between East and West played a part in the failure to mix, she added.

"South East Asian students place a big emphasis on helping each other and being like a family, whereas in our society, it is the individual that counts," she explained.

According to the study, overseas students - who are a vital source of income for UK universities - found the lack of contact with British people a source of "disillusionment".

Although Dr Brown's paper calls for universities to do more to help students integrate, she accepted there was a counter-argument. "I do think that it goes against arguments of multiculturalism and globalisation," she said. "Maybe this is a natural phenomenon - we like familiarity."

But Dr Brown added that she takes the "maternal" approach of reminding students early on that they are on international courses and should "make the most of it".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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