The Society for Research into Higher Education

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How do we teach international students in the UK?

by Sylvie Lomer and Jenna Mittelmeier

This has been the guiding question for our current SRHE-funded research project. We are looking at how pedagogies and practices have been developed or shaped within the context of changing student demographics across the UK higher education sector. We have conducted 40 out of the 50 planned interviews and have really appreciated academics’ time and enthusiasm during a completely unprecedented semester. Our data collection and analysis continue but we wanted to communicate early findings and the types of language used by participants to communicate their pedagogy.

Many of our participants taught predominantly, or talked mainly about, postgraduate teaching, where students’ professional or life experience was frequently highlighted as important. The limitation with our participant sampling so far is an overrepresentation of applied disciplines (education, business, health-related, etc) and an underrepresentation of ‘pure’ disciplines (physics, maths, philosophy, etc) (Biglan, 1973). It’s quite possible that this represents a teaching approach that’s dominant in certain disciplines and not others.

Teaching approaches

Most participants represented their teaching in strikingly similar ways. Through careful reflection on the key information that needs to be ‘delivered or conveyed’, lecturers sought to maximise the amount of class time spent on ‘real learning’, which was understood to happen primarily in social or group settings. There appears to be consensus across the disciplines, institutions, and geographic locations of participants that an active and social approach to learning is optimal.

We anticipated variation across disciplines and contexts in the pedagogical approaches adopted by lecturers working with international students, but most participants have described largely similar approaches to managing their physical classrooms in pre-COVID times. These are commonly characterised by:

  • Chunking talking time and lectures into ‘gobbets’ of 15-20 minutes
  • Following up with small group activities (eg discussions or concrete tasks)
  • Concluding with plenary or whole group feedback

Sometimes this pattern was repeated during longer teaching sessions. Pedagogies were also mediated in different ways: through technology; with the help of teaching assistants; or in collaboration with a range of campus services. Yet, the core of how most participants represented their teaching has shown striking similarity, with reflection on the importance of social or group settings.

Participants reported challenges in implementing their approaches, particularly given that massification and growing class sizes have largely coincided with international student recruitment. Infrastructure, such as lecture theatres with fixed seating, was also commonly criticized as a limitation to pedagogy. Adaptations to online or hybrid classrooms during Covid-19 included ‘flipped’ approaches where readings or recordings were available initially online, with ‘live’ sessions designed to be solely interactive.

Representations of international students

We explored how the presence of international students influences the micro and macro practices of lecturer; in that respect, how we define ‘international students’ has been a prominent angle of questioning. Most participants defaulted to using the term as adopted in the press and public policy – non-EU degree level students. However, they also highlighted other groups of students who may also be subsumed by the international label – EU students, short-term students on exchanges or top-up programmes, and students classified as British by residency but who have been primarily educated overseas. These nuances matter, because, as participants highlight, the key point is not what students’ nationality is, but what their previous educational experiences are.

Challenges around ‘cultures of deference’ to the authority of teachers and texts were highlighted, as well as individual confidence and skills to participate orally in discussions. While some participants referred to common stereotypes of, for example, ‘silent’ Chinese students, others were quick to challenge deficit-based assumptions. The latter tended to describe the perceived benefits of having international students across cohorts and unpack the diversity of experiences that underlie such stereotyping. Diversity, in this regard, was often described as a ‘learning resource’ (Harrison, 2018), whereby international students were assumed to support classroom learning environments by sharing knowledge and experiences from their country or culture.

An alternative consideration noted by a smaller number of participants is that students should not be seen as embodiments of some abstracted form of national culture (Lomer, 2017), but rather through recognising that people are different and know different things. Some participants criticised the  binary distinction – created by fee and visa restrictions – between ‘home’ and ‘overseas’ students, given that factors which affect learning are more likely to be a culmination of previous educational experience, language, and confidence – of which none fall neatly between political borders. In that regard, participants highlighted the importance of ‘good teaching’ and a desire to develop an inclusive ‘ethos’ which works for all students.

We asked participants what they feel makes a good teacher, and were surprised to see relatively similar responses between participants, regardless of their career stage or teaching contexts. Their responses emphasised empathy, reflexivity, humility, curiosity, disciplinary passion, and the capacity to value difference. However, there was less reflection about how key learning outcomes might be underpinned by Eurocentric assumptions about education or students’ behaviours, or how things like critical thinking or academic integrity may be culturally shaped.

Reflections on professional identity

A final consideration for this project is how lecturers’ professional identities are shaped by their work with international students. Participants reflected on the loneliness of being ‘the pedagogy person’ or ‘the internationalisation person’ in departments or schools. In such contexts, some told stories about past and current colleagues or other academics in their networks who voiced explicitly racist views about international students. Most suggested these were now outliers and that the dominant discourse has changed towards a more positive view of international students.

Language used by academics when communicating the implementation of active and social learning approaches with international students positions the academic as in control and the (international) student as subaltern. For example, many participants spoke in terms of ‘being strict’, ‘setting expectations’, ‘forcing them to speak’. This was often explained with reference to meeting key learning outcomes or developing professional skills, but sits in contrast with the more emancipatory discourses often associated with student-centred approaches to teaching.

Earlier career academics have only ever taught in a highly internationalised sector, while those with a longer professional experience reflected on the change they had seen during their career. For most, internationalisation was reflected as a fact of contemporary academic life; some commented that they hadn’t thought about the particularities of teaching international students before their interview with us. For some, this was a characteristic of the discipline, particularly those in areas like business and international development; they positioned their subjects as inherently international, with assumptions that internationalised teaching followed ‘naturally’.

Get involved

The responses so far have been encouraging and suggest that, across UK institutions, academics are dedicated to: developing pedagogies that value diversity on multiple axes; working with international students; and valuing the knowledge and perspectives that an international student group can co-create.

We are still collecting data and would love to hear from anyone who teaches international students in any UK HEI, but particularly if you:

  • Teach in a STEM or Arts subject
  • Teach in Wales or Northern Ireland
  • Disagree with or don’t recognise the account above or have a different viewpoint.

All responses are strictly confidential, although participants will be invited to participate in a webinar at the end of the project.

We are working on building up a repository of case studies about teaching innovations with international students, hosted here, and welcome submissions from all (even if you do not wish to participate in an interview). Contact or for more information.

SRHE member Sylvie Lomer is Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedogogy and policy enactment.

SRHE member Jenna Mittelmeier is Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focus broadly on the internationalisation of higher education,  taking a critical perspective on issues of power, privilege, and ethics in international higher education.

Our thanks to Parise Carmichael-Murphy for reviewing the blog before it was submitted.


Biglan, Anthony (1973) ‘The characteristics of subject matter in different academic areas’, Journal of Applied Psychology 57(3): 195

Harrison, N (2015) ‘Practice, problems and power in ‘internationalisation at home’: Critical reflections on recent research evidence’, Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4), 412-430

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Challenges of multilingual studies

The SRHE Blog is now read in more than 100 countries worldwide, and we have therefore decided to introduce publications in more than one language. Click on ‘Versão em Português below to jump to the Portuguese language version of this post. In the next few months we hope to post blogs in French, Russian, Chinese and more. SRHE members worldwide are encouraged to forward this notification, especially to non-English-speaking colleagues.

New contributions are welcome, especially if they address topical issues of policy or practice in countries other than England and the USA. Submissions may be written either in English or in the author’s native language. Please send all contributions to the Editor,

Desafios de realizar pesquisas multilíngues Versão em Português

by Aliandra Barlete

I have been intrigued – and somehow fascinated, too – by the ethical implications of conducting international research. As an international student in the UK, ethical dilemmas have surfaced many times, in spite of preparation during the course of studies. Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay

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Ian McNay writes …

By Ian McNay

The news from Ukraine is that, at least in Odesa (one ‘s’ in Ukrainian) market, my country is known as ‘Bye, Bye, Britain’. I was there as part of a project on developing leadership training. At the rectors’ round table, we were thanked by the British Council rep. for being honest. We were discussing HE governance, and lessons from the UK, without doing the usual thing of pretending our approach is wonderful and everybody should imitate it. We learn from mistakes more than from things that went well, perhaps because they imply that there is a need to learn.

One challenge in Ukraine is the nostalgia for the old days. When I first went there 20 years ago, I asked an undergraduate class for their models of good leaders. My first three answers were Hitler, Stalin and Thatcher, which led to a discussion of the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘good’. That preference for strength over everything else is still there. In a survey of the ex-Soviet republics, the question was asked: ‘would you rather have democracy or a dictator who solves problems?’ Ukraine topped the table of those opting for the second, with over 50% choosing efficient despotism. The Czech Republic scored only 13%.

This is relevant to us because Theresa May has been claiming to be strong and has resisted the operations of democracy. At organisational level, since power tends to corrupt, the signs are not good: a recent survey of UK managers for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealed that only 8 per cent claimed to have a strong personal moral compass, and so are susceptible to corruption. Even UK university managers would score better than that, despite the disappearance of collegial democracy.

Wouldn’t they?

Did you notice…? The Universities UK blog reported a survey of the teams who prepared the institutional submissions to the Teaching Excellence Framework, and found that even they were dismissive of its validity and reliability – basic requirements for us as researchers. 72 per cent of those most closely involved in the exercise did not believe that it ‘accurately assesses teaching and learning excellence’. Only 2 per cent, 2 per cent, thought it did. Even they might change their view, since the views of students – those ‘at the heart of the system’ and the alleged beneficiaries of the exercise – are to be given a lower weighting, since their voice, through NSS, gave the ‘wrong’ message. More weight will now be given to post-graduation data on jobs and earnings, which are more heavily conditioned by accidents of birth, and employer prejudice, than the quality of teaching and learning. So much for promoting social mobility, another claimed objective. Russell Group universities will benefit, since they scored poorly on NSS, and recruit more of those privileged by birth. That couldn’t be a reason for the change, surely? That would suggest that corruptive pressure had been applied to the reward process, as in the awarding of Olympic Games to cities or the football world cup to countries. Or in awarding Olympic medals – gold, silver, bronze – in boxing. Or bonuses to bankers. Still, footballers and bankers are now our benchmarks, according to the head of the world’s leading university, so we still have some way to fall.

Don’t we?

‘That way madness lies’ (I have just played Lear in a local ‘Best of the Bard’ concoction).

Recent reports from some universities suggest grade inflation is just as much an issue as the cost of living index. UK wide figures are not yet available for the latest batch of graduates, but in 2016, 73 per cent of first degree graduates got a first (24%) or upper second (49%), with the gender split favouring women by 75/71. Four years previously, the figure had been ‘only’ 66 per cent. So, despite expansion lowering entry tariffs, more ‘value’ is added to compensate. If 50 per cent of an age cohort now study for a degree, that means that 12 percent of an age group got a first class degree. A few years ago, when I passed the 11+, only 11 percent of the age group in my home town did so.

Did you notice the figures for ‘alternative providers’ from HESA, interesting in the light of the recent report from the HE Commission? Of the 6,200 graduates they produced (2,000 more than the previous year), 58 per cent got ‘good’ degrees. No Inflation – it was 61 per cent in 2015. 14 per cent got firsts, and women again outperformed men, by nine percentage points – 63/54.

The Commission’s report goes well beyond simply comparing the provision of full-time first degrees, emphasising the potential role of apprenticeships in adding to diversity of routes; urging flexibility of funding to allow flexibility of study patterns across the sector and outlining the greater part employers should play in developing work-related and work-relevant provision. I was interested that, of over 120 names on the attendance list, only 6 were from mainstream universities, and three of those had given evidence to the enquiry. Does the sector not think there is a challenge from the alternatives? Will they just wait for the demographic upturn early in the next decade, and then supply the same-old to a similar sub-set of the market? Are they aware that some of that demographic upturn is of children of EU immigrants who may well choose to return to their parents’ home country to study where fees are much lower, if they exist at all? And that nearly all recent growth in demand has been from BAME applicants, who suffer from admissions decisions which imply unconscious (I hope) decisions, particularly in elitist universities, as work by Vicki Boliver and Tariq Modood and statistics from UCAS show?

Finally, and still on my campaign for equity…I have a plea. At a recent symposium, participants commented on the inequity, at a global level, of the monopoly role of the English language, which has an exclusionary impact on those outside the Anglo-Saxon countries. Some national governments are bothered about its impact on knowledge transfer within the country that sponsored the work that produces journal articles. My suggestion is that any journal with ‘international’ in its title or its statement of aims should publish abstracts in, preferably, three languages, but at least two: the second being the author’s first language or that of the host institution of the research reported; the third another global language, probably Spanish. So, if you are on the editorial board of journals, or review articles submitted, can I urge you to make representation about this. It would enhance awareness across a broader landscape of HE, and allow those beyond the current privileged language enclave initial access to relevant work and to follow up with some contact with authors, since email addresses are now commonly given. It would also support the Society’s role in encouraging newer researchers. Simples!

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich