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International lecturers struggle with UK’s student-centred learning, survey finds

International academics may need extra help to adjust their teaching styles to incorporate “the student voice”, the results of a survey have suggested.

The UK’s diminishing student-teacher hierarchy, and how that plays out in seminars, was a recurrent source of concern in the survey of international academics at the University of East London.

The study was conducted by Patricia Walker, a research fellow at the university, and published in the Journal of Research in International Education on 13 April.

Direct reversals of the teacher-student hierarchy can be particularly troubling to overseas staff, her findings suggest—especially those who have taught in environments where teachers and lecturers are less likely to be questioned or challenged. One tutor reported that after they refused to raise a student’s grade on an assignment, the student threatened to give critical feedback on the National Student Survey. “I am very worried because we have been told that we have to give student satisfaction,” the academic wrote.

Such conflicts will by now be familiar to all UK teaching academics, Walker says, but they can be much more shocking to staff from less student-centred educational cultures. Self-doubt and disillusionment can take hold, she says, and higher education institutions should do more to counteract this, given the UK’s increasingly international academic workforce.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency reported that 26 per cent of the UK’s nearly 200,000 academics were non-UK nationals in 2013-14, up from 22 per cent in 2009-10. The number of international academics in the UK grew by 11,000 in the five years up to 2013-14.

“These are highly skilled, ambitious people who are a huge asset to universities,” says Walker. “If we don’t do more to help them understand the system, we risk losing them.”

What Walker suggests goes beyond basic orientation or what she regards as trivial cultural acclimatisation exercises. “It shouldn’t matter if staff don’t know about, say, the importance of the pub in British culture,” she says. “What’s needed is courses or workshops focusing on learning and teaching culture in the UK and on the evolution of the British university.”

The full title of Walker’s study is The Globalisation of Higher Education and the Sojourner Academic: Insights into challenges experienced by newly appointed international academic staff in a UK university.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight