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Welcome to Britain, pal


WHEN STUDENT HIRO FAM Wee Siong first arrived in Yorkshire he couldn't understand why everyone called him Paul and kept toasting his health. 'Cheers, pal,' they would say, every time he paid for a loaf of bread. It took him a while to realise it was the Yorkshire way of saying: 'Thanks, mate.'

But it is those awkward incidents - which Mr Fam laughs away now - that can make life uncomfortable for international students. Now, Mr Fam, 25, a master's student at Sheffield Hallam University is co-ordinating an orientation programme to help international students feel more at home in Britain.

The language barrier is a big problem. Mr Fam said that when international students first arrived in Britain they often lacked confidence to converse, even though they understood the language.

'We worry people won't understand things we say when we go to the shop. People have a strong Yorkshire accent, we can't understand what they are trying to say, so sometimes it feels embarrassing to talk.'

Mr Fam, from Kuala Lumpur, describes himself as an outgoing MSC student, studying events and facilities management. He first went to Hallam on a summer programme two years ago through the university's partnership with Tunku Abdul Rahman College, Malaysia, which enabled him to upgrade his advanced diploma in construction management to a degree.

What made him feel at home was a voluntary programme that enabled him and fellow students to achieve a soft landing in Britain through Malaysian dance performances for local senior citizens and calligraphy sessions, showing people how to write their names in Chinese characters. It is one of many ways that British universities are trying to make foreign students' experiences genuinely international.

Internationalism has become a buzzword in Britain and elsewhere. But, as Peter Brady, head of the international office at Scotland's Napier University, told the British Council's Going Global2 conference in Edinburgh in December, the word tends to be loosely defined.

International education is big business and Mr Brady said this was reflected in the British definition which was 'skewed towards the economic'.

He told delegates that Prime Minister Tony Blair's initiative launched in April last year 'did little to disguise this economic imperative' when it quantified the advantage of bidding to attract 100,000 extra international students and double the number of countries sending more than 10,000 students a year to Britain.

In 2004-05 higher and further education institutions in Britain drew 53,000 students from China, 21,400 from the US, 16,700 from India, 11,500 from Malaysia, 11,565 from Hong Kong, 8,100 from Nigeria and 6,600 each from Japan and Pakistan. In addition, Britain attracted about 7,650 secondary students to its schools and sixth-form colleges from Hong Kong.

Mr Brady said the fact that the hard sell involved a two-way deal was reflected in Mr Blair's call 'to achieve demonstrable improvements to student satisfaction'.

'We need to recognise that for students paying full fees, education is seen as a 'luxury purchase'. As a result they have demanding expectations,' Mr Brady quoted the document, 'About the Prime Minister's Initiative for International Education' as saying.

He compared the US take on internationalism with the British view. In the US - at least prior to 9/11 - the term was used mainly to define home students' global learning experience.

'To continue to compete successfully in the global economy and to maintain our role as a world leader, the US needs to ensure that its citizens develop a broad understanding of the world, proficiency in other languages and knowledge of other cultures,' the White House Policy Directive on International Education says.

In Britain, on the other hand, Mr Brady told the conference: 'In the most part the benefits to UK students are seen as a by-product on increasing numbers of international students on campus.'

And there are many obstacles to keeping up the quality of the 'luxury purchase', as Nicola Peacock, from Bournemouth University and Neil Harrison of the University of West of England, have pointed out in their paper 'Understanding the UK Response to Internationalisation'. Language, illustrated by Mr Fan's experience, was one, but there was a whole range of barriers to social interaction, including 'us and them' perceptions, real or perceived threats - cultural or physical - age and cultural differences.

'Interactions between UK students and some sub-groups of international students are limited, problematic or non-existent. The sheer fact of proximity does not appear to offer significant gains for the internationalisation agenda, especially in regard to culturally-distant students,' they concluded from a study carried out at the two universities.

'The classroom experience of students is that cross-cultural interaction is not generally managed, even in classes with specifically cross-cultural learning outcomes ... interaction between student groups is thus chaotic.'

They said that while some students who felt there was a lack of interaction 'blamed themselves for failing to make more of an effort to engage' with individuals: 'The most common response was to blame the institution and its academic structures.'

Heather Forland, head of international development at Kingston University, London, said that while many institutions recognised the problems and 'the need for professional development activities for academic staff to enable them to consider how best to maximise the opportunities of having international students in their classes', others were guilty of cultural imperialism, failing, for example, to adapt their teaching styles and curricula to take account of students' different previous learning experiences. These were issues that would become even more challenging as the numbers of visiting students increased.

Traditionally, foreign students have looked to league tables ranking institutions by the quality of their research or teaching, but British universities are increasingly coming to realise that there are other important factors affecting the quality of students' experience.

Viv Thom, international student adviser at Hallam, points to three major surveys of foreign students that show they are more satisfied when they have the opportunity to meet and make friends with their local peers while living in Britain.

Yet only one in three actually had a mixture of British and international friends and more than two in three were unhappy with their ability to develop friendships.

At the same time, while two-thirds of international students said meeting students from overseas was a valuable part of the experience, only one in three UK students agreed.

'Most universities have developed innovative ways to help international students integrate with the wider community on and off campus,' Mr Thom said. At Hallam, summer senior UK students volunteered as mentors for international students and co-ordinated transition activities. They were trained to know about specialist student services and where to refer students if they needed counselling.

'They help new arrivals gain familiarity with a new place, find accommodation and sources of advice to resolve practical problems including managing different approaches to learning and teaching,' Mr Thom said. 'They share their experiences, encourage new arrivals to join societies and support them if they are homesick.'

Caroline Maynard, 22, a final-year languages and marketing student, co-ordinates a Tandem Learning Scheme at Hallam in which about 250 British and foreign students pair off to exchange cultural knowledge or share language expertise.

Many are Europeans but others are from the mainland, Hong Kong, India, Japan and Malaysia.

'The main aim is to make the transition for international students easier - to adapt to our way of life and increase their language skills if that's what they want.

'Some want to purely improve their language skills, others to learn about each other's way of life. It's mutual.'

Ms Maynard, who spent a year in Germany and six months in Spain on work placements as part of her course, has one Tandem partner for German and another for Spanish.

'In my first year at university I hadn't really been abroad and didn't know what to expect so my tandem was more about learning about life in other countries,' she said.

Ms Maynard also acts as a mentor for first-year students, helping them settle in their language course and adapt to new learning styles.

The Tandem Scheme has helped develop many friendships - and a few cross-cultural romances as well.

Some universities help students by maintaining links with faith groups, sports clubs or schools and arranging home-stays.

At Hallam, the students' union runs links with language exchange projects and the university has a taught unit on British language and culture, plus cross-course links designed to ensure international and British students meet and study.

Thanks to the workshops on British culture, for instance, they now understand that a club has a different meaning from back home - where it is a place for strippers and escort girls - and that it is all right to go and dance there.

Like many British universities Hallam's academic services team offers free English language support classes on topics such as grammar, writing essays and dissertations or how to talk the British way and lecturers are geared to explaining things patiently and clearly.

There is also a 24-hour free emergency contact number which any international student can use to talk to a member of staff if they have a problem.

Mr Thom fears students will never be guaranteed a truly international learning experience until cross-cultural communication skills are made a requirement on the curriculum.

Research at Hallam shows that after gaining a qualification, international students rank their reasons for studying in Britain in the following order; improving their English, experiencing another culture, travelling and getting to know people, and making new friends.

Students deciding where to study in Britain are advised to check out web ratings of students' experiences to see if the PR rhetoric matches reality and quiz institutions about what efforts they make to help with integration.

Additional reporting by Steve Cray