The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

2. Challenges faced by international students of Economics in Higher Education

The 2010 Economics Students Survey of International Students of Economics in the UK sheds light on the experiences and perceptions of international students.[9] Students whose English is non-native were asked how not being a native speaker affected their learning; 54.3% reported feeling their learning was not greatly impacted, while 40.4% felt it had some effect but not very much. Encouragingly, only 5.3% felt that being non-native English speakers impacted greatly on their learning experiences. Nonetheless, comments from international students in the Survey 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 affect my studying to some extent’;

‘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’;

‘Essay writing during the first year was a little difficult’.

Aggregates of qualifications obtained in UK HE for 2008–09 and 2009–10, across all subject areas, also indicate that non-European Union domiciled international students obtained lower grades then their peers, with fewer first class and upper second class grades, and more lower second and third class/pass grades obtained.[8] Moreover, Davies et al. (2007) report that cultural background influences students' evaluation of Economics teaching in an Australian university;[10] it would thus be unsurprising if the self-evaluation of non-native English speaking students, on how their learning is affected, also depended on cultural background. What emerges from the literature is the need to support international students, so that their achievements are comparable to those of UK/EU students with similar academic potential.

In 2003, the Central Council of the Economic Society of Australia (ESA) conducted a survey to examine the standards of work achieved by students of Economics in Australian universities, what affects these standards, as well as to identify policies for maintaining or improving them.[11] International students typically made up over 30% of all students, and even higher in first year studies, at all levels of Economics study.[12] The level of English language of international students was identified as one of the factors affecting student standards. Johnston (2001) examines the perceptions and experiences of first year students in an Economics and Commerce Faculty in Australia, and concludes that whilst confidence in written and verbal communications skills was maintained over the semester for students with an English speaking background, those with a non-English speaking background suffered a deterioration in skills confidence.[13] Johnston suggests students are given opportunities to practise verbal skills through collaborative group learning, or through other forms of class interaction. In fact, offering opportunities for international and UK students to mix in class and to engage in group work outside class is a feature of all the case studies presented in this chapter. Further, Johnston suggests English language support programmes in the context of the disciplines of the Economics and Commerce Faculty, are likely to be important for non-English speaking background students. Such a service is provided, for example, by Cardiff Business School and LSE.

Brown (2008) highlights international students’ anxiety, and feelings of shame, inferiority and of being disadvantaged regarding their level of English language.[14] This has an impact on their self-confidence in engaging in class discussion and in social interaction, and contributes to some students communicating mainly with others from the same country, which inhibits further progress in English language. LSE has a long tradition of a high proportion of international students, and some of the strategies used to avoid the domination of mono-culture groups are presented in this chapter.

Recently arrived international students, in particular, may misinterpret their observations and experiences, which can than lead to misunderstanding and strengthen unhelpful stereotypes. This, is turn, can affect cultural adjustment and prevent more meaningful intercultural learning.[15] The potential role of staff with international exposure, who can identify differences between UK academic and non-academic culture and that of students' native countries, should not be underestimated. The Departments/sections of Economics presented in this chapter are very active in supporting international students in coming to understand practices in the UK that international students typically struggle with. For example, the Economics section of the University of Aberdeen Business School, in addition to the induction programmes offered to recently arrived international students, also conducts pre-arrival induction events in China for students in 2+2 programmes.

McCallum (2004) presents a case study of teachers, including teachers of Economics, on a Foundation Programme in New Zealand.[16] The teachers support the transition of students’ expectations regarding learning; in particular, from book-centred, teacher as the ‘transmitter of knowledge’ approach, to critical learning approaches. Language development, a supportive learning environment, variety of teaching styles and resources, clarity of instructions, and working in groups were all identified as successful teaching approaches. Well-resourced Foundation Programmes were also found to facilitate the transition of international students towards university study. Several UK HE institutions offer Foundation Programmes for international students intending to go on to undergraduate studies of Economics. For example, Cardiff Business School offers an International Foundation Programme with Economics-specific modules, and the University of Bristol offers an International Foundation Programme of English with Economics and Finance. The University of Bristol also offers a full-time one-year programme Pre-Masters in English for Academic Purposes, including for Economics programmes.

International students' access to Libraries can also be affected by language, as well as cultural and technological barriers,[17] while cultural expectations may affect the way international students perceive the role of Libraries and use library resources.[18] Assisting international students in incorporating Library use into their study practices and accessing Library resources is a further potentially important aspect of support provision. For example, the University of Bristol employs an International Librarian, whose responsibility it is to research and develop the access of international students to its Library services.

Curriculum changes, particularly those involving large numbers of staff and students, present multiple challenges. Crosling et al. (2008) discuss the organisational challenges of curriculum internationalisation.[19] Of the case studies presented in this chapter, the approaches taken at the University of Aberdeen Business School when choosing the use of international examples in lectures are of particular interest.

To encourage the Economics HE community in supporting international students, the Economics Network has funded a number of projects, including publishing a guide for Economics lecturers on how to motivate international students,[20] as well as a project on promoting international Economics students’ participation and satisfaction.[21]