“The nearest Britain has to a truly global university.” It’s a catchy phrase, one we’ve all seen plastered across websites and buildings alike. Described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as “the embodiment of the modern international university”, Nottingham’s global pedigree is undeniable. With two campuses abroad and overseas students making up approximately 26 percent of the student population, Nottingham was ranked third amongst the top twenty recruiters of international students in the UK. The number of international students studying at Nottingham is set to rise in the coming years, as the university aims to “increase the flow” of international students studying at the Nottingham campus. Next year, it is predicted that the proportion of international students at this university will reach 30 percent – almost one third of the total student population. The facts and figures are certainly impressive, but is the multicultural nature of the student populace truly reflected in everyday life on campus? Impact investigates.
Although the phrase “a truly global university” is almost forcibly imprinted into our memories by the university, in reality it seems that the overwhelming majority of Nottingham students are woefully ignorant of the high proportion of foreign students studying here (asking around in Portland, we received answers ranging from 5 percent to 60 percent). This lack of awareness is powerfully indicative of the ignorance of some home students towards their international counterparts; of the home students surveyed, many seem to be unaware of the multicultural nature of their student community. This raises the question – how can the University claim to be a “globalised” institution, when this is evidently not something reflected within the student consciousness? Why is it, that students are not aware that they are part of a diverse and multicultural community? Perhaps it is integration; the act, not just of putting together, but most importantly, of combining, this diverse mix of nationalities, which is the issue at hand.
Clearly, integration of international students into the home student community is far from complete. The Nottingham campus is a melting pot for a wide variety of ethnic, cultural and religious identities, yet despite this, these disparate elements seem unwilling or unable to mix. There is an “unspoken but seen line between the local and international students, present in every aspect of university life”, writes Pryanka Bogheri, of Voice, our university’s international student magazine – an assertion, which in many ways perfectly encapsulates the problems of integration on campus. This line between home and international students is not merely a notional but also a physical divide of custom, culture and language. “In lectures”, one home student admitted, “we sit at the back, while they (international students) sit at the front” – further evidence, not only of the divide in the student population but also powerfully demonstrative of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude prevalent in many aspects of student life. It is clearly a contentious issue; chatting to students around campus, we couldn’t avoid the tensions that arose when we asked about integration. Home students mentioned problems of language and cultural differences, which makes it difficult to work effectively with international students in seminars and workshops, and the apparent reluctance of international students to integrate. Meanwhile, several international students have felt unwelcomed by the ‘unfriendly’ British: “I don’t expect everyone to warmly smile at you if you greet them, but at least do give some response. I did meet some people who totally ignored greetings”. The evidence seems to suggest that integration really is an issue, but if there is a divide in the student population, is it just something that everyone’s thinking, but no one’s saying?
Thankfully, there is another happier and far more positive side to our story. It seems that the overwhelming majority of home students we spoke to felt that working with international students has been a positive experience, despite the inevitable difficulties that differences of culture or maybe even language may present. Likewise, the majority of home students, according to the results of a student survey, also count international students amongst their close friends. Furthermore, when asked whether they had felt welcomed by home students, 68% of the international students questioned felt that they had. Outside academic life, international students also play an active role in the SU and make up a large and active proportion of society membership. Various societies, ranging from caving and gliding, to Catholic society and Bandsoc, reported that international students made up 50% or more of their total membership. These experiences all evoke a university-prospectus-worthy example of the benefits of welcoming international students into this university; however, it still remains to be seen if these positive moves towards integration are visible on a wider scale.
Home students seem shamefully unaware of the contribution that international students bring to the community here at Nottingham – a sense echoed in the upper echelons of the student hierarchy, the Students’ Union. Despite making up almost one third of the student population, international students remain underrepresented within the SU. The position of International Officer for the SU was left vacant for many months. Meanwhile, the society specifically aimed at international students, the International Students’ Bureau (ISB), has been disbanded and amalgamated with the Nottingham University Exchange Society (NUSEX), a society primarily designed to bring together home students who have studied abroad for a semester and therefore unsuited to the international student populace. Additionally, Voice magazine, in contrast to Impact, remains relatively unpublicised.
Because of the difficulties of coming to study in a country far away from your own, supporting international students as they embark upon what can be an uneasy transition into life here at Nottingham is essential. International Welcome Week runs the week before term starts in September, aiming to introduce international students to the university and British culture before the mayhem of Freshers’ Week. In many ways, this week forms an essential part of the university’s support system in attempting to smooth the transition of overseas students into British university life. Despite all the benefits that this effort undoubtedly reaps, it can also be seen to be counter-productive. By the end of this intensive week, international students form friendships amongst themselves, leaving them with less incentive to befriend the British Freshers when they arrive. This, in many ways, compounds the problem already experienced by a great number of international students, who feel cut off from the rest of the student population. Forced to live in accommodation with only other international students for company, they are unable, rather than unwilling, to fully immerse themselves in English culture. “We came here to learn more about English language and culture”, said a student from Germany, “Instead we are picking up French, Swiss and Italian accents, because all our friends are international. We want to spend more time with English students, but we don’t know where they hang out.” Thus, it seems that despite the fact that the university and SU have made a visible attempt to welcome and support international students, there is evidence to suggest that a re-assessment is needed. Evidently, any action which inhibits the ability of international students to fully integrate within the student community here at Nottingham runs contrary to the university’s aim to create an internationalised student body. Still, to what extent is it up to the university to ensure that international students are integrated within the wider student community.
The responsibility for creating “a truly global university” cannot rest entirely with the SU or university alone. There is a sense, amongst home students, that it is up to international students to make the effort; it is up to ‘them’ to integrate themselves within the student community, not ‘us’. Yet, it must be said that it is up to home students too. The effort must be there on both sides, or, as history has shown, it just doesn’t work. As aforementioned, certain home students feel that working alongside someone for whom English is not their first language inevitably slows down the working process. Are home students being held back in their studies by this? Contrary to popular belief, applicants from overseas do need to attain a high level of spoken and written English in order to study here at the University. Although the exact level of English required does vary from department to department, the overall standard is extremely high. All of the international students studying at Nottingham have passed the official entry tests and consequently, the majority of overseas students questioned felt adequately prepared to take a course taught solely in English. Perhaps, these students are sometimes not given enough of a chance. There is also a sense that the cultural barrier between home and international students plays a role in preventing the forming of close friendships. What is sometimes forgotten, however, is that to be the type of person willing to travel to a different country, a different continent, to a culture that could be totally different from your own, you’ve got to be an adventurous and open-minded person.
Globalisation is not just about getting international students over to Nottingham so that the university can brag its way up the league tables. Both the university and its students need to do more to welcome and support international students once they are over here. The bottom line is, whilst 62% of the international students we spoke to felt welcomed by their fellow British students, only 17% felt strongly that they are integrated within the student community. A large number of international students still feel like ‘international students’, a section of the student body set apart from everyone else. Our world is becoming more international and multicultural by the day, and our attitudes towards one another at our university should reflect this. If we want to be a truly globalised university, we need to rid ourselves of the unspoken line.
Sarah Murphy and Jenny Newbold