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‘They don't really want to know us’: experiences and perceptions of international students at the Dublin Institute of Technology

Author - Almut Schlepper


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Results from the lecturer's questionnaire

Nearly all of the lecturers saw the international students as an asset to the course because of their maturity, motivation, diligence and commitment, and because they add an intercultural dimension to the classroom. They are seen as having a positive effect on the Irish students by setting a good example and by 'internationalising' those students who have little experience of life abroad. While the issue of content is not regarded as problematic, most lecturers consider the language difficulties a challenge to their teaching. They are aware that the difficulties do not merely require extra effort by the student but also that they themselves have to invest more time and effort, develop sensibility and adapt their teaching to the needs of a more heterogeneous class group.

Some lecturers feel that they require more preparation and training, more information about the background of the students. The issues of culturally sensitive course content and the opportunities of a culturally heterogeneous group are appreciated particularly by the language teachers. On the issue of fairness, a lack of equality in assessments (e.g. the need for extra time in exams and use of electronic dictionaries) is only acknowledged by some lecturers. Considering the large drop in student numbers it is remarkable that very few lecturers mention the fact that not only their employer is dependent on the income the international student but some courses are dependent on their numbers for their survival. It is interesting that not only do both lecturer and students give each other 'good marks', but their answers correspond largely with each other regarding difficulties and suggestions for improvement.

Suggestions by students and lecturers

Suggestions often give a better insight than explicit questions about experiences regarding lack of support and discrimination, as international students might have been reluctant to openly criticise the host institution or the lecturers, particularly as the researcher was herself a lecturer. Often, terms such as discrimination or racism have to be clarified. The following suggestions emanated from both the students and the lecturers:

Fees should be reduced, or at least different forms of payment should be allowed, and scholarships should reward achievements of students.

The income which international students create should be matched by a higher level of support on matters such as dealings with authorities and administration, accommodation, induction/information, assessments and so on.

International students should get organised and engaged to have some sort of representation, maybe through the Students Union in order to make themselves known/heard.

To overcome the separation of Irish and international students, a number of structural and informal measures should be introduced such as involvement of the Students Union, international student's day/officer/centre/tutor/buddy system, organisation of social events, and holiday arrangements.
Diversity of students requires additional training on all levels: students, lecturers, administrative staff, support services.

English language support should be increased and be specific to the level and the subject needs of the student.

Discussion of the findings and recommendations

International Students as an asset
Much of the literature is characterised by the 'student problem' approach: whether it concerns language inadequacies or difficulties with teaching methods and different learning techniques, it was always seen as a problem for the students, not for their teachers or for the institution. To quote Elsey and Kinnell (1990: 2), '"They" had problems with "our" system (of a socio-cultural. Linguistic, academic or practical nature) which "we" could help them to overcome. Ownership of the system was largely assumed to rest with the host country'. Therefore it was a welcome surprise that a significant majority of the lecturers (20 out of 22) regarded international students as an asset. Even taking into consideration the possible skew resulting from the role of the researcher, this result is remarkable.

The reasons given for this positive attitude substantiate the arguments for the educational benefits of a diverse student population and question the attitude of higher education institutions. The positive attitude of lecturers is all the more remarkable as they concede that a more diverse student body presents a challenge to their teaching. In their view, the benefits of the presence of the international students seem to outweigh the additional effort they require: teaching methods and content have to be reconsidered, while extra attention and commitment are required especially because of language difficulties. It requires a particular sensitivity on the part of the lecturer, as international students often cannot or will not request assistance.

Students and lecturers alike confirm that mastering the content of the course does not present a problem for most of the international students, who seem to be well prepared by their home education to cope with the demands. This points to the question of why the students come here to study, making considerable financial and personal sacrifices, if similar courses are available in the homeland. According to a survey of the national statistic office, nearly 90% of Chinese students in China want to study abroad (Blume 2003). A western degree is assumed to be superior and has more value on the labour market. Cohen (1995: 4) points out that many students come from countries or cultures which have been excluded from, or made the objects of, the kinds of knowledge associated with the success of Western capitalism, and they want to get their hands on this precious cultural capital and the social status associated with higher education in our society. Further exploration of the connection between political and economic dominance of the minority world on the one hand, and academic and language imperialism on the other, is not possible in the context of this paper.

 


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