The Under-Valuation of International Students in the UK
In a recent article on the Guardian's website titled: "UK universities failing to bridge culture gap for foreign students", Diane Schmitt criticises the admissions process at most British universities. She argues that universities in the UK often find their international students not "good enough" to start their careers in the academic institution they have chosen.
Schmitt argues that many foreign students are unable to adapt to the new academic system and to understand how things should be done in the UK. This sense of loss of comprehension among scholars is well represented in the image used on the Guardian's website to support the article. A group of international students are photographed attending a lecture, presumably at a university in the UK, and denote a sense of discomfort and being lost. However, who should be blamed for this uncomfortable situation of "being below the standards"?
According to the author of the article it is the centralised admission system which should pay more attention to the backgrounds of international students, rather then "just" considering their English exams, CVs, personal statements and letters of recommendations.
What is striking is how language should not be strictly related to the students' abilities, but rather to the whole environment created by low self-esteem and pressures which can negatively influence the students' results. Shyness and constant judgments often play upon the student's results, not allowing their abilities to be noticed and therefore revealed.
Understanding and Imparting Language
Since I started university this year, I have met people from all over the world who I can speak with and understand without a problem. Here, it might be argued that there is a big difference between understanding something, and reproducing something that has been said before (for example in academic writing).
However, what is important to note is the opposition between the student's ‘passive' and ‘active' roles in the process of expressing their level of English. In fact, there is no doubt that listening and taking notes are much easier than, for example, producing written work or speaking in front of other students. However, breaking the language barrier is often easier than it seems, and it is possible to start a process of communication and learning with not too many difficulties- even if the speaker's language level is not the highest.
It is also important to contextualise the whole situation and in which environment the conversation takes place. Trying to comprehend the other speaker by decoding their gestures and connecting their words together when you're under no pressure is, for example, possible only in a more informal environment. It is very different at university where everyone is requested to be good, intelligent, perfect.
Substance Over Style
What really matters when two people communicate, is not the way the words are pronounced or written, but rather the inner meanings of the ideas and beliefs. What should be considered more is not the superficial use of specific and wide-ranging language, but the knowledge which the student could share. It is not how we say and express things, but it is what we say and express. A focus on the content rather than other formalities might lead to a wider acceptance of the students' difficulties of expressing themselves.
We often tend to forgive people who speak and write perfectly in their native language even if their conversations lack content and deeper meaning. Alternatively, what we should promote are the people who have many ideas and new concepts to communicate and stand for. However, their freedom of expression is often limited by unfavorable pressures of judgment and critiques such as the ones found in Schmitt's article, which underlines some foreign students' limitations.
What's more, the whole process of communication should be broken down into a primitive way of sharing meanings with each other and not as a way to express who is better at doing so. In fact, communication should not be based on power relations or discriminations, which are sadly spread among most of the mainstream media, and which create majority and minority groups.
Is it also important not to separate the international from the local student, but to foster the acceptance and the diversity between them. It is essential to remember how much foreign students really appreciate a native-speaker's effort to understand and go out with them no matter the level of the language spoken.
Over time, students living abroad will improve their language skills and become more confident of themselves.
Blame Falls at Universities' Doors
In conclusion, I believe the article in the Guardian largely misses the whole point of how and why students often find it difficult to reveal their true abilities in an academic environment. The problem seems not to fall on the students, but on the universities instead. It is their role to provide pre-sessional courses to introduce the new students into the academic culture, therefore levelling the gap expressed in the article between different cultures and the British one.
International students, not just in Britain but in any country, should not be simply seen through their language level, but as wonderful resources to learn more about the world and its diverse cultures. They must be understood and helped, taking into consideration the everyday effort they make to express themselves, even when often people are not patient enough to listen to them.
Giacomo Tirelli is an Italian student in his first year at Goldsmiths University in London. You can read more of his posts here. Or you can read another of our writer's responses to the Guardian article here.