In a recent editorial  in The Guardian Diane Schmitt, a lecturer at Nottingham University, calls attention to the thorny issue of whether UK universities are enrolling under-prepared international students. She takes the debate to a new level emphasizing that there is a distinction to be made between English-language skill and cultural familiarity and suggests that the latter may be a bigger problem than the former. She stresses that we should not be too quick to blame English language tests and low scores for the difficulties many international students confront in the classroom. She points to research conducted by Lancaster University and the London School of Economics that suggests that the problem may be the differences between education systems—not so much in content of programs but in classroom culture, criteria for success, teacher expectations, exposure to research, and experience with collaboration. For those of us who have worked with international students for many years, this is a “no-brainer” but a reality rarely recognized and hardly ever addressed.
In many countries throughout the world, university education is delivered entirely by lecture where students are sufficiently intimidated by their teachers that they do not interrupt, let alone contradict them. The student’s engagement is passive; success depends on retaining vast amounts of information returned to the professor on an examination. Discussion, collaboration with other students, independent work tend to be rare experiences.
At my own institution, where I believed we provided great support to international students, I was shocked to hear graduate students recount horror stories of their early experiences with faculty and peers. Professors and students displayed impatience with a student’s accent or a student’s hesitation when articulating ideas in their second language. Professors and students made insensitive comments in the classroom reflecting the presumption that everyone shared the same world view. It is hard to imagine how these individuals found the emotional fortitude to push through the insensitivity and ignorance of others.
Most universities that welcome foreign students have an orientation for international students. Of necessity, these programs tend to address immediate and practical issues. Orientation may include a session on classroom culture but this is not necessarily sufficient or useful when students are overwhelmed and (often) jet lagged during their first weeks of academic life in a new country. There is sufficient research about culture shock to know that problems tend to occur much later.
So, my first recommendation is for an ongoing program that brings together an international student advisor, host-country students, other international students further along in their programs of study, and faculty. This needs to be a “safe” environment where new students can ask direct questions about the experiences that confuse them.
But more than orientation for international students, institutions that welcome students from abroad need to consider international orientation for their professors and national students. We tend to put the burden of bridging the cultural divides on the international students—they are in a new country and expected to adapt. After all, they made a choice. But when this accommodation moves in only one direction, much is lost.
Although I would like to assume that anyone with the amount of education required to teach at the university level will be “worldly” in the sense that they will have above-average knowledge of international geography, politics, history, etc., this is not the case. Teachers are as likely to arrive to their class with the same prejudices, insensitivities, and limitations as students from the host country.
Those of us who champion internationalization lament the extent to which international students are under-valued and under-utilized for the experiences and perspectives they bring to class. As Mark Salisbury wrote in another recent editorial , “institutions have a responsibility to help their students internationalize their thinking” whether they study abroad or not. And I’d add that institutions have that same responsibility to their faculty.
So my second recommendation is for any university that incorporates international recruitment into institutional strategy to plan professional development for faculty and orientation for all students to make sure that international students feel truly welcome and so that their presence becomes an opportunity for learning.