In various capacities, over several years, I have been fortunate enough to meet many IAS from different disciplines and countries around the world. While on the whole they seemed broadly positive about their experiences working in UK HE, what was less clear was whether the HEIs they were employed by were making concessions and changing their policies and practices to accommodate their international staff. Moreover, to what extent did any changes made by their HEI influence the choices made by IAS in terms of their own willingness to integrate and contribute to academic life in their place of work?
Exploring existing literature suggests that unless HEIs actively create supportive and inclusive working environments, IAS are not able to make contributions that positively develop the educational environment.
The intercultural experiences of IAS was a research interest shared by my colleagues Dr Glynn Jones and Dr Sean Walton. We chose to examine the acculturation strategies of 20 IAS, from 17 countries, working at one HEI. The purpose of our research was:
The data collected was fascinating and our findings enabled data to be categorised under two broad themes:
On the one hand, the data suggested that acculturation was hampered by bureaucratic processes and procedures and that this reduced the autonomy of IAS. However, some IAS felt that there was a lack of guidance in some areas, such as how to deal with students, something that the IAS would have welcomed more help with. This was an important issue for the majority as the different approaches to teaching and assessment at the HEI made it difficult for some IAS to acculturate. Of particular interest was the perceived lack of support for pedagogical practice. The inference was that many of the IAS were educated in teacher-centred pedagogic environments, while their experience in the UK was of a student-centred approach. They were encouraged to be student-centred and our study suggested that IAS were actively looking for academic support in this area.
"They don’t even consider that I as a foreigner, might have a different view on what a lecturer is meant to do, what a student is expected to do. There is support when I do a mistake ... telling me this is not the way it works, but the main issue is that my colleagues are not aware of my experience as a foreigner or how much my experience differs from theirs."
Many also had difficulties balancing and integrating the requirements of teaching, research, and administration: the issue was perceived to be created by cultural differences. However, the IAS were clear that they had to adapt to problems such as these and be flexible as these were skills that were highly valued by their HEI.
"...you have to find in-between ground, the university cannot change ... so you have to adapt ... you have to integrate, you have to lose some of your core. You need to be adaptable ... flexible ... or there will be a problem. "
What was particularly clear was that the IAS, initially at least, actively sort to build relationships with other faculty members from a desire to feel connected with people and the institution more broadly. The IAS valued such informal relationships with 'good natured' members of staff because such colleagues made up for the shortcomings of the HEI.
"I tried to create stronger relationships with individuals ..."
"I tried to go out with English people outside of work ... perhaps knowing a bit more of their social life and how they live would help me understand how to be different, or more accepted at work."
The fact that such relationships were not initiated by formal mechanisms of the HEI, but were initiated by IAS as a matter of necessity, was an issue for the IAS. They appeared to be worried that an over-reliance on supportive co-workers may become 'overbearing' and 'overwhelming' for their colleagues and that this may create tensions within teams and departments. Such issues seemed to make IAS more reluctant to continue to ask for help and appeared to lead to them separating themselves from other colleagues.
"Usually I asked my subject area leader, but at one point I felt 'oh God I can’t go to her again', I mean she’s going to be so annoyed with me ... when I started, I had tons of questions everyday about some really trivial stuff, but I just didn’t know where to look."
The data that was collected suggested that the specific HEI influenced the way in which the acculturation processes took place, and to some extent this constrained the choices available to IAS.
"I believe if the university is really into internationalisation there should be at least someone sitting there in one of the offices to support those lecturers to settle down for a year."
Although it was suggested that diversity was accepted and encouraged in the HEI, many IAS felt that international student comfort and support was a higher priority than their own. They suggested that some support was available to IAS, but this was nothing like the ongoing and comprehensive support offered to international students. The majority of IAS expected much more from their employer, suggesting:
The IAS felt that the expectations of them as academic staff should be clearer from the outset – without this it was difficult to cope and engage with academic life.
"I’m expecting the university to help me to understand the culture of students ... to offer me some sort of guidance from somebody ... to buddy up with somebody because this is completely outside my knowledge. I’ve got no idea what to expect, this is a big ask and I don’t know how I can help."
Our research highlights a willingness from to IAS to integrate and adopt the values of the HEI, however many felt that their previous experiences of teaching, learning, and research had little academic capital within their new HEI. The majority felt that their UK HEI was doing little to meet the needs of a diverse international group of scholars, they felt that they needed additional support to navigate the structures and procedures of their new HEI. Many felt that induction processes were too generic or vague.
To an extent, there appeared to be a 'benign neglect' where the HEI assumed that IAS would integrate into the workplace along the same lines as domestic academic staff. This suggests an assumption that there is no need to make specific adjustments for IAS. This 'benign neglect' suggested that the HEI was unsure of its own acculturation strategy and this may have unconsciously impeded the acculturation process of IAS.
Watch the online research seminar on this topic by Dr Glynn Jones, Dr Wayne Bailey and Dr Sean Walton held on 4th November 2020.
Read the full article in the Journal of Further and Higher Education (paywall)
Bailey, W., Bordogna, C. M., Harvey, H., Jones, G., & Walton, S. (2020). Transformational, inclusive, and multicultural or empty rhetoric? Perceptions and experiences of international academic staff. Journal of Further and Higher Education.