International students make me feel like an academic again

Overseas students’ respect for learning helps restore some of the authority that consumerism has stripped from UK academics, says Rania Hafez

April 24, 2024
Young woman sitting at table in a library to illustrate My international students make me feel like an academic again
Source: Fotostorm/Getty Images

My new Nigerian international student smiles and does half a curtsey as she addresses me: “I am Fatema, Ma. I am sorry for joining late: my visa was delayed. I will do my best to catch up.”

With that show of politeness and respect for my epistemic authority, Fatema (not her real name) re-confers upon me a mantle that higher education has been trying consistently to strip me of: that of teacher.

There has been a recent flurry of articles, including in Times Higher Education, raising the alarm over the increasing number of international students at UK universities and the potential negative impact they are having on standards and the participation of home students. But those articles have failed to pay attention to the multiple advantages of having students join us from all parts of the world.

I’m not just talking about the international fees that, let’s face it, we academics need to pay our salaries. I am also talking about the improvements to our pedagogy that we make as we adapt to a changing student cohort, as well as the cultural richness that international students bring to our campuses, from which home students also benefit.

It may seem shallow that I am citing, as a cultural contribution, how international students address us, but being referred to as “Ma”, “Ma’am” or “Sir” helps restore some of the authority that UK academics have lost due to the commodification of higher education, the entrenchment of an anti-knowledge philosophy and the rise of a therapeutic culture.

Commodification denotes students as clients and has made student satisfaction the main measure of our performance as academics. Allied with the prevalent anti-knowledge philosophy, this has sidelined our role as teaching experts; we are told that we are now mere facilitators of the student experience and the student voice.

This reduces us to the equivalent of social media influencers (though with very limited influence), chasing after student “likes”. It has left some of us deeply anxious about our teaching, afraid to take our students on the necessarily painful journey of intellectual growth and evolution that encapsulates learning.

That fear is only heightened by the therapeutic culture, which sees all students as vulnerable and potential victims of epistemic violence – which could, in reality, be nothing more than an assertion of the primacy of knowledge over feeling and perception.

International students, however, tend to value knowledge – to the extent that they are prepared to cross continents to acquire it. That naturally instils respect for the status of the teacher. I have had African students tell me how, back home, they would have cleaned their teachers’ houses in gratitude (not that I am advocating that practice here!).

International students come ready to make sacrifices, to work hard, to pull out all the stops to gain the grades and achieve the qualifications. Despite the large fees they pay, they do not behave like clients, expecting to be entertained or pandered to.

At the start of the year, I tell all my students that I will make them study so hard their heads will hurt. I remind them that they have paid to join an exclusive intellectual gym, and that if they want to achieve the results they aspire to, they need to work those intellectual muscles hard. The international students love that analogy: this is exactly what they came to university prepared to do. And that attitude rubs off on my UK students too, so that even they eventually thank me for it.

Time for a disclaimer, for I can almost hear the heckles. I am not saying that students should not have a voice, not enjoy learning, or be expected to just suck up distress. Academics are well aware of our duties in that regard, but those duties do not arise out of institutional edicts so much as from our deep epistemic obligation to care for our students, just as the shepherd cares for their flock (do I hear more heckles?).

As programme leader for a master’s in education, my mission is to help my students develop their autonomous voices as scholars to the extent that they can become co-creators of knowledge (a currently trendy concept). But that can only happen when they master disciplinary knowledge, and this requires them to become apprentices to academics’ mastery. We wouldn’t expect apprentice mechanics to start teaching their instructors how to fix cars, so why are we expecting university students to teach their teachers?

But academics can and do learn from international students. The application of knowledge to their differing national contexts helps us to widen our own epistemic horizons. The student voice, when well informed and enhanced by cultural insights, contributes greatly to our classrooms. And home students benefit greatly from seeing through “international” eyes that bring the world to them.

International students choose the UK because they highly esteem our scholarship and academic rigour. It must be disconcerting when they arrive to find an academic culture that is increasingly insecure about its history and credentials, almost dismissive of knowledge and discourteous to its own academics.

Perhaps the lasting contribution of our international students to UK academia is that they help us regain the academic confidence that managerial performative processes have worked consistently to strip us of.

Rania Hafez is associate professor of education and society at the University of Greenwich and programme leader of the MA in education.

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Reader's comments (1)

Well said! International students from Nigeria has the politeness already in-built and being miles away from home or mixing with other tribes or exposed to another culture won't change a bit of that. I am proud to be one with great regard for the academics.