Foreign students: Overlooked and over here

Foreigners pay thousands of pounds to study in Britain, but many end up living in ghettoes and never befriend local students. Lucy Hodges reports
Click to follow

Overseas students at UK universities find it difficult to make friends with their British colleagues, according to new research carried out for the Council for Industry and Higher Education. The survey, of more than 30,000 international students in the UK and 8,500 of them abroad, sheds light on one of the dirty secrets of British campuses – that overseas students often live in ghettoes. Universities in Australia, South Africa, the US and the Netherlands are better at integrating international students, according to i-graduate's survey, which will be presented next week at two conferences aimed at helping higher education institutions become truly international and making UK plc more competitive.

"The United Kingdom is high-quality and high-cost," says Richard Brown, the Council's chief executive, "but we're not so good at welcoming students and we're not very good at developing the employment links, which is what students come all this way for."

This lack of social integration matters because the overseas student market brings in large sums of cash into universities' coffers. If overseas students are not able to socialise with UK students, why should they pay up to £16,000 to take a postgraduate degree here?

Another report on the issue commissioned by the Council for Industry and Higher Education will also be up for discussion at the conferences. Written by the educational consultant John Fielden, it suggests some ways in which universities can ensure their overseas students are not ghettoised, by spreading them around different halls of residence in their first year; encouraging second-year home students to act as guides; and asking tutors to match up home and international students in group work. Other suggestions include laying on events at Chinese New Year or Hindu festivals, and giving home students programmes on other cultures and religions, and topics related to global citizenship.

At Warwick University, international students put on a One World Week, which includes films, concerts, lectures and discussions. Academics and politicians come from around the world to talk about anything from globalisation and Iraq to the future of Cyprus and millennium development goals.

According to Fielden, the students' union can be the focal point for bringing the different communities together. That view is shared by Bernard Lamb, who teaches biology at Imperial College London, and who gives his first-year students a questionnaire. In a book published by the think-tank Agora, there is a chapter titled "Can the Prizes still Glitter? The future of British Universities in a Changing World", in which Lamb describes how profoundly conscious his students are that home and foreign students don't integrate much.

He found, however, that the lack of mixing is more on the part of the overseas students than of the home students, with the Asians in particular often socialising only within national, geographical or language groups. "The Japanese students seemed to have the most difficulty in conversing in English, and the Chinese students, of whom there are many, tended to keep to themselves in class and out of it," Lamb says in the report. "It was very noticeable in my 2006 third-year practicals that the ethnic Chinese (including Chinese-speakers from the UK, Singapore and Malaysia) wanted to sit and work together, and formed an extended social group, even though some spoke Mandarin and others Cantonese. In my second-year practicals, most of the Chinese chose to work with other Chinese or other Asians."

The student newspaper at Imperial, Felix, confirms that the different ethnic groups on campus rarely mix. This ghettoisation could be broken down if student unions were encouraged to do something about it, Lamb believes.

Agora is planning to investigate the issue further, because it believes it is so important and because so few higher-education leaders are willing to tackle such a sensitive subject. "Vice chancellors don't want to tackle the issue of social cohesion," says Anna Fazackerley, Agora's director, "but if we brush it under the carpet, we'll pay in the long term, when a generation of international students have returned and shared their dissatisfaction with others back home.

"On one level, our universities are models of a truly modern society – an exciting melting pot of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. Yet the reality is hugely disappointing. Universities remain alarmingly ghettoised. Chinese students often return home with a worse command of English than when they arrived, as they have spent all of their time with students from China."

The survey by i-graduate shows that the British institutions score better in academic areas (fair assessment and good teachers) than their overseas competitors. But foreign institutions do better when it comes to facilities such as libraries, learning spaces and technology. The British also score well on transport links and visa advice compared with their foreign competitors.

But there is no room for complacency, as the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) shows in another report published this week, titled " The Academic Experience of Students in English Universities", by Tom Sastry and Bahram Bekhradnia. More than a quarter of overseas students from outside the EU who were surveyed in this report said that their degrees were poor or very poor value for money. That may be related to the low level of teaching provided in some subjects, says Hepi.

This report is a follow-up to one published last year and its findings are broadly similar. It found that students in English universities spend less time studying than students in other European countries, receiving an average of only around 14 hours of tuition every week. Medical and dental students have a total workload (tuition plus private study) of more than 35 hours a week, equivalent to a full-time job, whereas for the others the workload is more like part-time employment.

Moreover, English degrees, notably our one-year Masters, are also shorter than those on the Continent. The conclusion of people abroad will be that English universities demand less of their students than do universities elsewhere in Europe, says the institute. "These are potentially very serious findings."

They make our international student market vulnerable, it adds. A decline could affect the finances of a great many universities. "With this information about how little our students study compared to those of our competitors and the relative cost of English degrees, I am worried about our overseas student market," says Bekhradnia.

The Internationalising Higher Education conferences, organised by the Council for Industry and Higher Education, will be on 4 October at the Royal Society, London SW1, and 5 October at Hulme Hall, the University of Manchester, M14 (020-7324 4330; www.

'Sometimes tutors ignore international students'

Simon Lee, 20, from Hong Kong, is in his second year of a biology degree at Imperial College London

"Normally, during practicals, students of the same racial group sit together: the British sit with the British and the Indians sit with the Indians. Yet, they do talk to each other when they don't understand something about the practicals. (And, of course, when students are drunk, we tend to mix better!)

Compared to other UK universities, the degree of mixing is pretty good at Imperial. I went to another university last year to study, and I noticed there students of different nationalities simply didn't mix.

There are some reasons why Imperial students mix better than other university students. First, all Imperial students are highly gifted academically and that means that all of them speak good English. Therefore, international students are more confident and willing to talk to local students. At other universities, some Chinese students don't even have sufficient English to communicate.

Second, compared to other British universities, Imperial has far more international students. This means that the overseas students have to communicate with students from different ethnic groups.

I think that British students and lecturers should be encouraged to talk to international students. Sometimes British tutors talk more to British students and ignore international students. Perhaps making a point about social and cultural mixing in the Freshers' welcome lecture and handbook would help.

When group work is needed, tutors can mix international students with British ones. The number of contact hours is important, too. Some universities have only six hours of contact time a week. At Imperial, I get 25 to 30 hours. Longer hours mean more time to get to know other people. There will be more mixing.

But forcing integration is difficult. Ultimately, it is the cultural barrier that makes students not talk to one another. Sometimes I find it hard to understand a British joke. I just don't find it funny. So, I think we should encourage mixing but we shouldn't hope for too much." LH