International Students of Economics in the UK

Insights from the 2010 Economics Students Survey

Inna Pomorina, The Economics Network
Published December 2010

In 2009-2010, the Economics Network of the Higher Education Academy carried out its fifth survey of Economics students, covering both undergraduates and postgraduates. This report concentrates on the perceptions of international students that were revealed.

The survey was conducted online, as part of the Economics Network's ongoing research programme into teaching and learning in Economics. The survey was the same as was administered in 2008, with an additional question on whether students value and use resources on the Economics Network’s student-oriented websites WhyStudyEconomics.ac.uk and StudyingEconomics.ac.uk

The survey aimed to provide valuable information on students' perceptions of studying economics, including identifying strengths and weaknesses in learning and teaching practice. The Economics Network use results from this and previous surveys in their departmental and national workshops and student focus groups as well as to inform curricula development in the departments.

Students’ responses to the quantitative survey questions were examined using standard statistical methods. Differences in responses were examined by gender, age of entry, year/level of study, A-level Economics, A-level Mathematics, English as the first language and choice of course. Relationships that are statistically significant at the 0.05 level were discussed. The analysis examines trends in responses across the three most recent surveys (2006, 2008 and 2010). Responses to each of the qualitative questions were coded and aggregated for analysis using NVivo software.

Profile of survey respondents

The survey asked whether English was the student’s first language. It may not just be language knowledge itself, but also educational background that is a factor, as students for whom English is not their first language could have school training that differs from those in the UK. Among all the respondents English was a first language for 66.3%, which was lower than in previous surveys. There are no national statistics regarding this question. The closest match is the domicile of students. According to HESA data, 63.1% of Economics students come from the UK and a majority have English as their first language. In the rest of this report, “international students” refers to those who did not have English as a first language.

This year we also asked students who were not native English speakers how this affected their learning. Of the students who answered this question, the majority (54.3%) felt that their learning was not greatly impacted; while slightly fewer (40.4%) felt it had some effect but not very much. The majority of comments were from respondents in these categories. Only a small minority (5.3%) felt that being non-native English speakers impacted greatly on their learning experiences.

Comments include:

  • “It makes me hate reading and writing at most time as they are both my weakest aspects in learning so usually I will not choose some courses which are essay writing but no exams! So it does effect my studying to some extent,”
  • “it has affected my learning style as I believe I research the meaning of things more as that would be what I wouldn't understand, but it hasn't affected me that much as not being able to learn,”
  • “Sometimes you take longer to learn or read certain things as English is not your first language. However after the first year at uni it gets far better,”
  • “In the first months I was struggling: At first only in the Maths module, since certain ways of writing differ between nations;”
  • “Bilingual with French. Studying A level economics in French meant I had to translate a lot of the vocabulary”.

Some students commented on the difficulty of writing essays – “essay writing during the first year was a little difficult” – that may be taken into consideration by departments when providing additional support for students who are not native English speakers.

Previous learning experience

Seventy percent of the respondents had studied in the UK before starting their present university course, which is fewer then it was in 2008 – 73.0%. Of those who had not previously studied in the UK, the majority came from Europe (54%), with the highest numbers coming from Germany, Lithuania, Poland and France. Other European countries included Spain, Sweden, Romania, Norway, Italy, Greece, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Belgium. There were significant numbers of students from Asia (21%), primarily China and India, as well as Africa (7%) and North America (6%).

The decision to study in the UK

There were 532 coded responses to the question, “What factors were the strongest in your decision to come to the UK?” The main themes emerging were the quality of education in the UK, the reputation of UK universities, exposure to the English language, a desire to be in the UK itself, opportunities for international experience and interactions, and career opportunities thought to be linked to study in the UK.

The perceived quality of education was by far the most repeated factor in coming to the UK and was often intertwined with the reputations of its institutions. Some typical reasons given: The “UK has the stringent quality of teaching and strong academic background”; “Because UK is regarded as one of the best country in the world for education”; “Excellent academic quality of universities in the UK.

The reputation of the UK educational system and its specific universities also played a large role in determining students’ choices: “Reputation of the education system”; “Reputation of British universities”; “prestige of school”; “Quality of education, its recognition on international level”; “World class reputation and leading department of economics.”

Many students claimed that it was the exposure to the English language and the opportunities for improving their language skills that brought them to the UK. Some comments: “Learning the language”; “The opportunity to finally study all courses in English (even though my first language is not English I am better at English than I am in Dutch). On top of that the English teaching method works better for me.” Some were drawn by the value of English: “Because of the language, English is a world spoken language. Could arouse far more job opportunities” and “better studying in English than French or German for an Economics degree I think.

There were also significant responses to interests in spending more time in the UK itself and to gaining more international experience. Reasons for the former: “being half English”; “I had lived in the UK for two years prior to the start of my course “; “I chose England because I was so keen on British culture.” Students who cited the latter reason claimed that they “wanted international exposure,” wanted to “experience a different education system and culture” and one wrote that “I wanted to know something new and want to be independent, so I came to the UK.”

Finally, future prospects and career opportunities were cited as a major reason determining choices to study in the UK. Typical responses were: “UK is the home for Industrial Revolution and has a very mature financial market, which is good for my study and potential job career after graduation”; “High availability of jobs for graduates”; “because of higher prospects to get a job.”

Differences from prior experience of education

International students mention the following differences between their study in the UK and their prior education.

  • Teaching methods: “In UK, lecturer always show the theories and leave the questions to us to solve by ourselves. But in China, students always solve the problems by following the teachers;”
  • Assessment: “I was graded on class participation, problem sets, essay and two exams (a mid-term and a final exam) in the US. At Oxford, all we have is an end of the year exam that determines our entire grade for a course”; “Performance depends on examination only here while assessment like assignment are also counted in Hong Kong”;
  • Contact hours: “in the US I was always in contact with my lecturers and I would spend at least an hour a day getting individual help from them. At Oxford, there is much less contact with lecturers;” “Here lecturers are approchable and they encourage us come with them if have any problem. Their contact details are provided;”
  • E-learning and use of IT: “Excessive use of communication via university networks at university. More face-to-face communication during my previous education;” “more frequently use in UK than China.”

When asked how their expectations were not being met, students left the following comments:

  • “We get too little practice, the lecturer's accent is incomprehensible, we don't get handouts with the course outlines, we don't have enough study resources and the department seems quite disorganized and a bit disinterested with students;”
  • “The biggest problem for me is the language, some lecturers have strong accent or speak too fast;”
  • “teaching method is not as good as it is in India. Also, PG Economics degree should be more focused on the general issues of economy as a whole instead of mathematics and statistics;”
  • “Some of the coursework has been a bit different from what I expected, e.g. I never expected to be writing this many essays!”

English as second language was a statistically significant factor for the following:

  • Workshops: native English speakers found workshops less useful than others (39.8% versus 51.4%);
  • Office hours: native English speakers found office hours less useful than others (46.8% versus 51.7%);
  • Assigned reading: native English speakers found assigned reading less useful than others (59.3% versus 67.4%);
  • Other reading: native English speakers found non-assigned reading less useful than others (40.6% versus 46.7%);
  • Group work projects: native English speakers found group work projects less useful than others (33.4% versus 39.5%);
  • Set preparatory work: native English speakers found this more useful than others (75.3% versus 72.4%);
  • Use of online software: native English speakers found it less useful than others (34.1% versus 46.6%);
  • Use of communication tools: native English speakers found them less useful than others (30.7% versus 37.7%);
  • Working informally with others: native English speakers rated this as more useful than others (68.4% versus 66.4%);
  • Relevance of the course content to the real world: native English speakers were more positive than others (71.7% versus 71.5%);
  • Workload: native English speakers were more positive than international students: 19.9% of them find the workload heavy, compared to 25.8% of non-native speakers.

Virtual Learning Environments

International students were very positive about the use of VLEs in their course: “I find Blackboard very useful, more resources can be accessed that way and help me with studying;” “extremely useful to go through past lecture notes and extra reading lectures want us to look at. Saves time and money;” “very effective - makes things much more clearer as problems are solved and numerical examples are given.”

They also had some suggestions:

  • “Different structure of WEB CT for different courses. Unified structure system would be nice!”
  • “Effective if the lecturers put up notes, but not all do;”
  • “All lectures are available on WebCT. Discussion boards would be useful!”
  • “Starting this year, all my modules use VLE. I don't feel they're all making good use of it because they mostly provide only a link to a digital copy of lecture handouts and reading lists. Other features like the discussion board, online assessments and etc are rarely used. At least for the moment.”

Overall satisfaction

Four out of five international students were satisfied with their degree course. Some of the comments offered critical points:

  • “The teaching quality is a bit disappointing sometimes course you know lecturers will come across some basic mistakes in calculation or sometimes they did not structure well in their slides by missing out assumptions first but introduce at the later lecture;”
  • “lecturer/ class teacher are sometime not very good at teaching. Some lectures sometime just read the slides instead of explaining the materials;”
  • “Tutors are vital, make sure they are competent and answer questions. Even if this is a senior professor tutoring doesn't mean he's helpful.”

However, many of the comments were positive:

  • I am extremely impressed by the kindness of teachers, directors and advisors.
  • In this country you are doing it really well with the Universities system. Congratulations!!!
  • My years at university were so far the best years of my life. I have made here many friends and opened myself for other people, cultures and possibilities. It was hard work but definitely the work worth hassle.