Can a Man be a Prophet in Another Land?

Some thoughts about studying and teaching in the UK

Gonzalo Forgues-Puccio
University of St Andrews
Published August 2009

It is constantly highlighted in the media that there is a “special relationship” between the US and Britain. The two nations have a historical link, they both speak English, and they both share common values. In spite of these similarities, you have iconic artists such as Sting singing: “I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien, I'm an Englishman in New York…” which clearly highlights that being a former colony, speaking the same language, and agreeing that freedom and democracy are essential is not enough to be classified under the same label.

From my experience American students sometimes find it a little difficult to settle in the UK. They have to cope with beans on their breakfasts, butter on their sandwiches and all or nothing final exams that count for 100% of their grades (although this is not true for all breakfasts, sandwiches and universities in the UK). Americans are indeed part of a different tribe that separated from Britain the moment the first colonies in North America started to have different experiences and mixing with other cultures. A good example of this is that during World War II American troops based in England were given manuals on how to behave to avoid upsetting the locals.

If American students find it difficult to settle in the UK, imagine a student that comes from a country that has nothing to do with Britain and whose first language is not English. As you can imagine things are a little more complicated for him or her. Leaving aside cultural differences, which affect the total population of overseas students, language can be a serious barrier to thrive for non-native speakers. The average English requirement to gain acceptance for an undergraduate or postgraduate course in Economics at a British University is a score of 6.5 or more in the academic version of the IELTS (International English Language Testing System). Some universities are even willing to accept scores of 6.0, which is not very high. This means that overseas students every so often struggle answering essay-type questions in exams and writing essays and dissertations.

In this short essay, I want to narrate my experience as a foreign student and lecturer in the UK. I have to point out that this essay is a personal account of my time in Britain and may not be representative. However, I believe that the issues I discuss are potentially relevant to a large number of individuals linked in one way or another to the teaching and learning of Economics in British Universities. (note)

I came to the UK in September 2001 to study an MSc in Economics. My score in the IELTS was pretty respectable (I got 7.5). Hence I was feeling confident that my level of English was good enough and that I was not going to experience any difficulties during my masters - nothing more far from the truth…

My first six months in the UK were pretty tough. You do not realise how difficult is to study in another language the subject that you learned so well in your mother tongue. It is like learning it all over again. The technical terms have all different names. Some of them are similar while others are completely different. Even the acronyms are different. It was a nightmare. Fortunately, I discovered the Oxford Dictionary of Economics, which, though targeted at undergraduate students, proved to be quite handy to re-learn my Economics in English.

After six months in British soil and a crash-course in Anglo-Saxon economic jargon, my writing started to improve. Another brilliant book recommended by the University of Manchester Language Centre was Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage (Oxford University Press) which helped me to strengthen my grammar. In spite of these positive developments in terms of the quality of my writing I still found that
participating during lectures was another thing. You do not feel confident enough to answer questions. You believe that you are prone to grammatical mistakes and that your pronunciation will not be good enough. Consequently, you end up missing important interaction with your lecturers and tutors. Time flew during my MSc and sadly I did not have the chance to polish my verbal skills.

I was fortunate enough to secure financial support to pursue a PhD in Economics and as part of my funding agreement I had to tutor first year statistics and mathematics. This meant that I had to explain things to students in English. I was in panic (again). I think I practiced as much as I could before my first tutorial, but still I was very nervous. It is needless to say that my tutorials were far from perfect on my first year. What I realised on my second and third years of tutoring was to relax more and to allow myself to make grammatical and pronunciation mistakes during tutorials. I think that was the key. I understood that once I was relaxed and forgot about the accuracy of my English, I was able to think analytically and explain things much better. Worrying about the language only creates huge distractions in your mind that prevents you from teaching properly.

One of the many good things about Economics at the University of Manchester is that they have a series of doctoral conferences in which research students have the chance to present their work in a relaxed and friendly environment and get feedback from staff. I still remember my first presentation and I will be honest about it in saying that it was a disaster. In the following years things went better and better and by the time I enter the job market I had developed respectable presentation skills in English.

My first job was a part-time teaching fellowship for a year. It was pretty convenient because I was still completing my PhD and my funding was about to finish. It is fair to say that I got the job mainly due to good communication skills. Having a clear presentation and a good interview were absolutely crucial. With no degree yet or any publications there was no other way in which I could demonstrate that I was suitable for the job. During my teaching fellowship I learned a lot about lecturing, in particular
self-confidence. Good teaching evaluations helped in the process. With this experience and a submitted PhD I went to the job market again and got a one-year temporary lectureship. On my third year on the job market finally got a publication and hence more interviews (many more) and a permanent position.

Surprisingly, teaching in a British university turned out to be less complicated that I thought. I think this was the case due to the following reasons:

  1. Having been a student in the UK before, I was already familiarised with the system.
  2. I “paid my dues” in advance during my PhD and hence it was relatively easy to make the transition from tutor to lecturer.
  3. The large number of foreign students doing Economics in the UK facilitates the delivery of lectures by creating a true international environment.
  4. I was never an isolated case. I was and I am part of a growing number of overseas members of staff teaching Economics at British universities.

So, answering the question in the title: Can a man be a prophet in another land? I would say of course he can. However, first he has to make sure to master the language of that land. I believe that it is a capital mistake to underestimate the importance of communication. Ultimately, academia is about good communication skills. Students have to be capable of demonstrating that they have learned their subjects and lecturers have to be capable of transmitting their ideas effectively to students and the wider academic community.

Note

The UK has a very high number of foreign students and members of staff in Economics. The figures of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that nearly 40% of the total population of students in Economics in the academic year 2007/2008 were not British nationals. I do not have similar statistics for members of staff but based on casual observation it is not an exaggeration to say that on average 40 to 50% of the staff in Economics Departments in the UK are from overseas.