Success in international education requires inter-cultural competence

Our latest forecasts suggest that in academic year 2014/15 just under 40,000 Chinese nationals will start Postgraduate level studies at a UK Higher Education Institutions alongside 21,000 of their fellow country-men and women who will start courses at Undergraduate level.

While the official data will not be published for another eighteen months, Robert Peston of the BBC has recently pointed out that the number of Chinese students starting Masters courses in the UK is not far short of the number of UK students. In areas such as maths, science and engineering, Chinese students are already numerically by far the dominant national group.

The ability of the UK to attract international students in general – and students from China in particular – has been one of the economic success stories of the last ten years contributing tens of billions of pounds to UK export earnings.

Less well understood is whether, once enrolled in UK universities, educational outcomes for these international students are meeting both their and their host institution’s expectations. A growing body of data and anecdote suggests that drop-out rates are often higher and grades achieved often lower among some groups of overseas students, including those from China, compared to peers from the UK and Europe.

The reasons are complex; language ability is often crucial – not just for study purposes but because language is the key to unlocking friendships, social life and team-working for students in a new environment. Study styles and previous home country experience are frequently at odds with what the UK system requires. But our research suggests that there can also be a fundamental mismatch in expectations and ambitions between the students (or frequently their parents) and the institutions themselves.

Rightly or wrongly, international access is still the goal for many international students and their parents. Acceptance to a university in the UK, USA or Australia can itself bring social status, networking and employability benefits for students and their families. Successful completion of the course, is sometimes an issue which can be politely ignored.

The cynical view is that pass or fail, international students still pay hefty course fees. But in the longer term, if institutions are going to maintain credibility and the trust of future generations of potential students, they are going to have to do more to bridge the achievement gap.

This means both gaining a better understanding of what really motivates international study and doing more to make the process of educational and cultural integration easier. Both students and institutions will need to improve their inter-cultural confidence and competence.