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Students via Vitchanan Photography/

Why we need to stop talking about ‘foreign’ students

British universities attract some of the best and brightest students from across the globe. Almost half a million students from outside the UK are enrolled in UK higher education institutions. Newly published figures show the number of new students from outside the EU coming to the UK to study increased 1% in the last academic year, representing 14% of all new entrants.

Officially, these are “international” or “overseas” students. But academics and the wider world too often refer to them as “foreign” students. This suggests they are outsiders, rather than an integral part of our strong academic traditions.

The days are long gone when UK universities provided education for the national population, with a handful of additional students from elsewhere. Without fee-paying students from outside the UK, courses in some subject areas would not run and academics would not be as able to engage in research-led teaching. This is particularly the case in subjects with a high percentage of international students, including business, engineering and law.

British higher education is part of an increasingly competitive global market and has become a national industry, with students from outside the UK estimated to contribute £2.4 billion to the London economy alone. It is not only London that benefits: a study in Sheffield showed that students paying international fees at the two universities there make a net contribution of £136.8m per year to the regional economy.

Seeing students primarily in terms of where they come from reinforces notions that our teaching and learning are primarily aimed at UK students. Perceiving students as “foreign” also plays into stereotypes that such students bring down standards.

A recent frontpage headline in The Times, for example, claimed that universities are facing a plagiarism crisis, “disproportionately fuelled” by “foreign” students. As a chair of my university discipline committee, I have expelled students (both UK and non-UK) for cheating and there is never an excuse that plagiarism is an acceptable practice in other countries or cultures. Since suspicions may arise when a student whose English is known to be less than fluent submits a perfectly worded essay, it is little surprise that “foreign” students are more likely to be caught.

Despite having the required academic and English-language qualifications for entry, some students have found the ways they are expected to work extremely difficult to adapt to. Non-UK students often have added pressures including living a long way from home, adapting to a different country and climate, and expectations from sponsors or family who are funding their studies. In extreme cases, this has led a minority of students to decide to cheat.

Culture shift needed

Too often we assume that students arrive in the UK with the same set of skills, such as essay writing, that are common in the UK, or with general knowledge that only students who have grown up in the UK will have. This also plays into a stereotype that “foreign” students are academically less able.

We cannot assume, for example, that the popular social science question “critically discuss …” will be obvious to students who have never heard it before. This is not a call for dumbing down, but the reverse: by reflecting on what students with different backgrounds are asked to do, we increase the opportunities all students have to achieve higher marks.

In a project I recently ran at Sheffield on experiences of UK and non-UK students in university assessments, a student from South-East Asia reported that non-UK students often perceive they are at a disadvantage when questions assume some “general” knowledge. In this student’s case, it was that a question in a law exam assumed that students knew that whisky was a traditional Scottish product.

Not what everyone is used to. Junial Enterprises

Asking staff with international backgrounds to scrutinise exam questions is one practical way of ensuring that non-UK students are not at a disadvantage.

Treating a significant section of our student body as “foreign” also does a disservice to UK students within the learning environment. All students can learn from each other – not just within the classroom but outside it.

Many students, even in large, international departments, leave university having had limited interactions with international counterparts. Getting students to mix is never easy, but promoting small group work – and allocating students to those groups rather than self-selection – can be an excellent way to facilitate this. In my project, both UK and non-UK students felt that this would help form better working relationships and social interaction outside the classroom.

Not just cash cows

Breaking down the distinction between “foreign” and UK students does not mean that universities become globally-focused at the expense of being less-British – but rather the opposite. Students from overseas should be seen as contributing to raising standards, not the other way around. All university students should be international, not just those from overseas.

Students and applicants from overseas are being put off by rhetoric on migration, coupled with checks and increased restrictions on what they can do while in the UK.

Despite the desire of the chancellor George Osborne to increase the income generated by these students, the current danger is that UK universities could lose their allure. The right response is to embrace higher education as global and not regard a significant proportion of students as being “foreign”.

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