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How to better understand and advise international students

February 2020

Universities and employers categorise students in all sorts of sophisticated ways for marketing and recruitment purposes. So why do we still use simplistic language when it comes to international students, asks Tom Pinder

A 2019 survey by YouGov found that 'half of Americans wouldn't be able to tell that a Briton is calling them an idiot' through the use of the phrase 'with the greatest respect', instead interpreting it as 'I am listening to you'.1

How we communicate with others goes significantly beyond the words we use and even the tone used to convey them, but is keenly rooted in our culture and surroundings. If there are such differences apparent between native English speakers, it stands to reason that there are considerably higher barriers for international students living and studying in the UK.

International students comprise about 19.6% of the total number of students in UK higher education, around 458,000 in total. They make, by every metric, an invaluable contribution to their universities, their localised economies, and the country as a whole. In return they get to pursue their education at world-leading UK universities.

At the end of their studies the majority of these students face one of two options: to further their studies into a postgraduate degree, or to seek work, be that in the UK or elsewhere. In my previous life in postgraduate recruitment you would expect to hear me talk about the former, but today I want to take a look at the latter. Now, as the return of the two-year post-study visa reopens the possibility of work in the UK for thousands of international students, what can we do to help best prepare them for the workplace?

We are often guilty of reverting to simplistic, homogenising language when talking about international students and the 'international student experience'.

One area I believe we can develop is how we talk and think about international students in the first place. There has been a shift in recent years towards segmenting different types of students, often for marketing and recruitment purposes, but across other areas too, with increasing sophistication. This has been a good thing. We have personalities and personas, student types classified as 'go-getters' or 'aspiring academics', which allow institutions to better target prospective students with more relevant information at the right time, or to help understand existing students' needs for their learning experience or potential career pathway.

However, though this approach knows no geographical bounds, we are often guilty of reverting to more simplistic, homogenising language when talking about international students and the 'international student experience'. Understanding the cultural idiosyncrasies of students can often be the key to helping them achieve their career goals in a foreign environment.

In INSEAD professor Erin Meyer's (fantastic) book The Culture Map she relates many cross-cultural strategies that can lead to greater success in business, and I think much of her work can also be applied to how we can better understand international students when giving them career advice. Take the chart 'Preparing to face you counterpart' from this 2015 article she wrote for the Harvard Business Review.2

A simple tool like this helps us to start to understand not only how likely nationals from certain countries are to be emotionally expressive, but what that expression represents. We may naturally assume that greater emotional expression is closely tied to a more confrontational style, but a quick glance at the chart will tell you that a Philippine national may think otherwise.

The more we begin to recognise our international students as more heterogenous than homogenous, the more we can start to better understand and advise them. Armed with this new information, we can more effectively prepare any student from a given country for interview, make smarter decisions about career pathways, and develop improved lessons for cultural understanding between employer and employee.

Businesses can challenge themselves to become more inclusive spaces that utilise the strengths brought by different nationalities.

At UKEC, we are in the middle of launching our Entrepreneurship scheme for international students. Aimed at harnessing the growing entrepreneurial streak in modern, global students, we're partnering with universities to create bespoke pathways that give students the support they need to grow their own businesses, supported by some of the fantastic infrastructure already in place at institutions. As part of Coventry University's Global Leaders Programme, for example, students can expand their skills through workshops, international networking events, and lectures from industry leaders to become future leaders in their respective fields.3

A diverse workplace is a stronger workplace. To be able to share ideas across people with different backgrounds to improve is a not a new idea, but it is one that still needs work to be fully realised. Universities can help drive that change by enhancing the international student experience beyond 'thinking globally' in ways that reduce students to a simple dichotomy of 'Home' and 'International'.

Equally, businesses can challenge themselves to become more inclusive spaces that utilise the strengths brought by different nationalities, and not simply seek to fit them arbitrarily into an existing culture that stifles creative freedom and expression.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects

Notes

  1. British subtext: Half of Americans wouldn’t be able to tell that a Briton is calling them an idiot, YouGov, 2019.
  2. Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da, Harvard Business Review, 2015.
  3. Global Leaders Programme, Coventry University.

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