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Learning and information services support for international students at the University of Hertfordshire|
Faculty Information Consultant Business School and International Strategy,
Learning and Information Services,
University of Hertfordshire
Tel: 01707 285560
This article looks at how I tackled a new role offering Learning and Information Services support to international students at the University of Hertfordshire.
Last summer three of our posts for information professionals were re-focused to enhance our existing successful model of named LIS faculty information consultants working in partnership with each faculty, with complementary coordination of support for widening participation, international strategy and research strategy. These changes were part of the updating of LIS strategy, to link in with the university’s strategic plan 2004-2007.
I was appointed to the international strategy post in November 2004. This post also provides support for the Business School, where a high proportion of our international students study. In addition to international students in this country, the University of Hertfordshire, in common with many other universities, has arrangements with partner organisations overseas. Support for this aspect of our international strategy is also part of my remit. However, in this article I am focusing on support for international students who are studying in the UK at the University of Hertfordshire.
The international picture
When preparing for my role, I found that:
• The increase in numbers of international students studying in the UK already goes back a few years. In 1999 the prime minister announced the launch of an initiative (known as the Prime Minister’s Initiative) to increase international student numbers by 50,000 in higher education and 25,000 in further education by the year 2004-05. This target was achieved early.
• There are currently about 270,000 international students at British universities, who pay £1.5bn a year in fees and contribute £3bn to the economy1. A British Council report from April 2004 predicted that the number of overseas students would triple to more than 870,000 by 2020 but warned of the importance of Britain keeping its share of international students against competition from other countries, and not just English speaking countries2.
• This warning has been echoed by the latest ‘Education at a glance’ report produced by the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The UK’s market share of international students has declined since 1998. Six years ago, the UK enrolled 16 per cent of the total number of international students on higher education courses in OECD countries – second only to the USA. By 2002, Germany had an equal share to the UK with 12 per cent of international students. Australia enrolled 10 per cent and France 9 per cent3.
• In the UK, there has recently been a reduction in numbers of international students, especially from China, partly due to the increase in fees for visa renewals. Applications from overseas students outside the EU have fallen by 5.3 per cent this year, and Chinese student applications by 25.8 per cent4.
• There has been a general globalisation of higher education beyond international students coming to the UK. The Government strategy Putting the world into world class education identified 3 key goals:
º ‘Equipping our children, young people and adults for life in a global society and work in a global economy
º Engaging with our international partners to achieve their goals and ours
º Maximising the contribution of our education and training sector and university research to overseas trade and inward investment’5
• Universities UK international strategy reinforces this theme: ‘it is vital that we maintain our strength in international activities as higher education becomes an increasingly globalised activity and international competition for students, staff and research funding grows.’6
• UKCOSA: the Council for International Education’s survey Broadening our horizons: international students in UK universities and colleges 2004 details the results of a survey of nearly 5000 international students in the UK and finds high levels of satisfaction with the experience of studying here. However, there are significant challenges in maintaining this position7.
Tackling my new role
Supporting large numbers of international students at our institutions poses a number of cultural, communication and integration issues for us. I welcomed the opportunity to try to address some of these issues when I took up the post. My strategy in the new role was in three parts:
1 Fact finding
• to find out what colleagues at other institutions were doing to support international students
• to conduct some desk research
• to find out as much as I could about the picture at Hertfordshire
• to make the appropriate contacts at Hertfordshire
2 Support for our international students
• to identify and produce relevant materials for international students
• to promote their use
3 Support for our LIS staff
• to produce guidelines
• to provide staff development
Taking the work forward
I started by looking at both internal and external reference points:
LIS support for international students at other institutions
When I took up the post I emailed lis-link and asked if any colleagues were in similar roles. I am very grateful to all those who took the time to reply. I received nine responses; none of the respondents had full-time responsibility for international students, but for some it was a formal part of their role.
The support provided is summarised as:
• Liaison: with international office (6), induction, tours (3), input to information sent out to students before they arrive, liaison with student association (1)
• Skills sessions: were usually provided by subject specialists but some offered separate orientation sessions for international students (2)
• Support materials: glossary of library vocabulary (2), web pages or plans for web pages (3)
• Displays: for international students day (1) bespoke international students display (1)
• Social clubs (2)
• Support for students at partner institutions overseas: (3) involving technical issues, training local staff and evaluating resources, licensing issues
• Liaison point for international students at international forum (1)
• Cultural awareness training sessions for staff (3)
I set about reading as much as I could find about working with international students and used the information to write some short guidelines for our own staff when dealing with international students. I found Overseas students in higher education: issues in teaching and learning very helpful in discussing cultural attitudes to teaching and learning, and differences in the teacher student relationship8. Our systems value debate and discussion but some cultures defer far more to the teacher and value collective harmony. Janette Ryan’s book Guide to teaching international students is very practical with helpful checklists.9
International students and the University of Hertfordshire
In 2003-04 about 15% of the 20,000 students at Hertfordshire were international students10. In order to obtain a clearer picture of which countries our international students are from and what they are studying, I asked our registry information and systems development unit to run a report of statistics showing international students studying at Hertfordshire for this year, and used it to produce some charts which I circulated to our staff. The report will now be run annually. This is helpful in informing us how we can target our work to support our international students.
Liaison at the University of Hertfordshire
I spent the first weeks in my new post finding out who to deal with in the university regarding international students. Liaison has mainly been with:
• International office
• English language teaching unit
• Organisers of the international Globalink club
• Faculties and Schools with high numbers of international students
• Individual experts / staff
• Those teaching international students
As this is a new role, it took me a little while to find out who my main contacts were to be, but once I had established these I found staff were happy to help. Within LIS my colleagues, including my mentor, have also been extremely supportive.
Putting support for our international students in place
Identifying and producing relevant materials
Having conducted my fact finding mission, I was able to identify and produce some initial support materials about LIS for our international students. I chose the university’s managed learning environment, Studynet, as a key support environment. StudyNet, developed by our learning and teaching and development unit, provides a personal portal for each student, with access to all information about the university including the student’s individual programme of study and targeted links to learning resources. So I decided that a priority was to implement pages on StudyNet directed specifically at international students:
• An introduction to our services, including a pre-induction Powerpoint presentation with sound, using SMIRK software, developed here at the university (http://smirk.herts.ac.uk/). I also incorporated links to the help pages on StudyNet and to our LIS Guided Help facility.
• Selected useful resources and contacts, external and local – books, websites, general reference materials such as KnowUK, links to areas of the university which support international students such as the international office, English language teaching unit, the Globalink club and external organisations such as the British Council and HOST.
• Skills development materials with a glossary of key terms students would need when using Voyager, our library and resource management system, as well as more generic research terminology, and a quiz and online tutorial which I would also use with students in skills sessions
• Language tools such as international character sets, translation websites (with warnings about judicious use) and language help within MS Word
Having produced these materials, I now needed to make sure that students knew about them and could use them. I also needed to evaluate their effectiveness.
I have promoted the availability of these materials to students in a number of ways: via StudyNet itself and its news facility; through notices on our campus information screens; through our LIS helpdesks; and through other university staff and their roles in working with our international students. Our graphic designer is producing a flyer to be handed out to students in the orientation week for international students. A key point of liaison has been our International Office, both for including a welcome paragraph in the University information sent to prospective international students and for arranging introductory sessions in orientation week.
To promote the support materials for international students to academic staff I have asked our faculty information consultants to advertise them within their faculties. As my other role involves working with the business school, I have been able to liaise with the relevant business school staff myself.
In addition I am working with the lead tutor for all the in-sessional English classes. I have devised a diagnostic quiz and online tutorial for these students. Those who find these difficult will be advised to attend a skills session. I also plan to run a skills session for students attending the international Globalink club and additional drop-in skills sessions in October.
As this will be the first start of the academic year where this support is offered there will be a need to monitor uptake of the materials and skills sessions carefully. Unlike subject specific skills sessions where liaison is with academic staff, I will be working with our International office, the student support and guidance office in the business school, the Globalink tutor and in-sessional English tutors about the content and timing of sessions. We will need to work closely together to ensure that the materials are used effectively. Once I have been in post for the full academic cycle it will be easier to reflect on how successful these strategies have been.
Support for our LIS staff in dealing with international students
From my desk research, it seems that issues for our staff are: cultural awareness and sensitivity; clear communication; and the importance of welcome, support, induction and skills development sessions for our students. The problems that international students encounter may arise from culture shock, the fear of asking for help, stress from living and studying abroad, and different learning and teaching styles. We can help here by avoiding the assumption that knowledge from one culture is absolute, being aware of stereotypes, encouraging an inclusive environment, and fostering an understanding and appreciation of differences so that all parties benefit.
I used this information to write two sets of guidelines, one for our information professionals, and a shorter version for frontline staff. All staff have been alerted to these and their availability on the LIS intranet.
Staff development sessions were arranged for LIS staff, run by our English language teaching unit. These were very helpful sessions on communicating when English is not your first language. Practical exercises illustrated the need for clear communication and avoiding jargon. I also ran sessions showing our staff the StudyNet pages and materials for international students, with a quiz, and discussion of the guidelines. I was very pleased to be able to draw on the wealth of firsthand experience that our frontline staff have in dealing with international students, and welcomed their contributions. Feedback from these sessions was positive, and I plan to run refresher sessions and sessions for new staff in the future.
The past six months have been exciting. I have managed to put some initial structures in place to help LIS support international students here at Hertfordshire. I now need to undertake further development of our support measures, informed by the evaluation not only of the sessions I run with students but also more generally of the strategy I have adopted. Overall, I think the key success factor has been the importance of fostering good relations across the university with all those working with our international students and ensuring that our LIS support integrates with the wider experience of all our international students at the university.
1 S. Cassidy, ‘Increase in overseas students could cost Britons their places,’ The Independent, 21 April 2004, p15
2 British Council, Vision 2020: forecasting international student mobility - a UK perspective 2004
3 House of Lords Starred Question: world education 11 January 2005 Available from http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/parliament/showBriefing.asp?id=11
4 L. Hodges, ‘Universities cashing in on the overseas market’ The Independent, 14 April 2005, p6
5 Department for Education and Skills (England), Putting the world into world class education 2004 Available from http://publications.teachernet.gov.uk/eOrderingDownload/DfES10772004.pdf
6 Universities UK Universities UK’s international strategy 2005 Available from http://bookshop.universitiesuk.ac.uk/downloads/intlstrategy.pdf
7 UKCOSA International students in UK universities and colleges : broadening our horizons – a report of the UKCOSA survey 2004 Available from http://www.ukcosa.org.uk/survey/summary.pdf
8 D. McNamara and R. Harris (eds), Overseas students in higher education: issues in teaching and learning, London : Routledge, 1997
9 J. Ryan, A guide to teaching international students, Oxford : Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, 2000
10 University of Hertfordshire strategic plan 2004-2007 Available from http://perseus.herts.ac.uk/uhinfo/library/k59022_3.pdf
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