The latest publicly available data tells us that in 2011 Oxford had 5,371 postgraduate research students, of whom 1,126 (21%) were from the European Union and 2,094 (39%) from overseas. Since more than half of Oxford’s postgraduates are international it therefore makes sense to look at what information is available about their experiences at Oxford.
Figures from HEFCE show that, overall, doctoral completion times at Oxford, when calculated over seven years, are falling for both international students and their Home/ EU counterparts. However, the proportion of international students completing is lower than that of Home/EU students. For international students, completion within seven years for those who started in 2002-03 was 76% (72% for those who began in 1999-2000) whereas, for Home/ EU students completion within seven years for those who started in 2002-03 was 81% (78% for those who began in 1999-2000).
Whilst completion times may be discouraging, in general, international (Europe/Overseas) postgraduate research students surveyed in 2011 (Student Barometer) were positive about many areas of their research experience at Oxford including the quality of teaching/ supervision. Of those who responded, satisfaction was expressed with "the subject expertise of academic staff" (94%/95%); "the teaching ability of academic staff" (87%/90%), "detailed feedback on my work" (82%/86%), "guidance in topic selection and refinement from my supervisors" (79%/85%) and "getting time from academic staff when I need it/ personal support with learning" (86%/86%). Fewer were satisfied with the "advice and guidance on long-term job opportunities and careers from academic staff" (67%/64%) and "learning that will help me get a good job" (71%/74%). However, overall, 88% of all international postgraduates were satisfied "with all aspects of [their] university experience" and 86% would "encourage people to apply" to Oxford.
At the same time, adjustments still need to be made. Here an international doctoral student talks about his experience at Oxford:
We’ve got ...some culture or some background from home, so we need to adjust our culture to England, to English culture, but at the same time, I think the... people here should adapt their culture to understand us more too, because... in the culture [I come from] we respect ... the teacher a lot, so we’d never argue... Even if we don’t agree sometimes!... The lecturers, they saw me... passively learning, but actually, I can do everything by myself ... you need to get some guidelines a little bit, and then just let us do it, yeah. But now, I think I am in between, so I can... I can be independent now, but I still respect the teacher as... I couldn’t get rid of the old culture I have, and I think it’s good to respect older because they’re teachers, because they give you some knowledge.
And another international student refers to his efforts to remain connected to his network of relationships at home:
In a sense, I’m in a different... I’m in the UK, but this is just for my education, but I still belong... So it’s that whole question again of negotiating and navigating, because they are two different places and two different sorts of cultures... There’s a network of relatives who, you know, call for holidays, the holiday periods and everything – those are key, and obviously my family. I’m on Google Chat with my brother almost every day. I phone my parents... The need to be grounded, for me, is the most important thing.
Ideas and tools
The UK's Quality Assurance Agency have produced, jointly with the National Union of Students, The UK doctorate: a guide for current and prospective doctoral candidates. This document explains doctoral qualifications available in the UK in terms of the nature of the degree, routes into doctoral study, funding and finance, and the experience of doing a UK doctorate. Of course, it will be useful for UK-based students as well as international ones.
See Ideas to help international students (52kb), which offers a number of suggestions for dealing with common difficulties.
Supervisors of international students may find it useful to arrange opportunities for these students to meet regularly with their other students, as a means of supporting one another emotionally, intellectually and practically. These meetings might take the form of lab group meetings, methodology meetings or research skills meetings.
Where a supervisor does not have enough students to develop a reasonable group size, it would be worth joining forces with another supervisor for these meetings or seeking support from the Director of Graduate Studies.
International students may be helped to anticipate new ways in which they will be expected to work in the UK with these Being an international PhD researcher resources on the Apprise website.
See the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity. As well as the English language version of the Statement, the website includes translations into a number of other languages.
The University’s Student Information and Advisory Service can provide individual advice and support to international students on visa issues and other related problems.
Information on what plagiarism means within the Oxford context is available on the University’s website, and includes a Frequently Asked Questions section.
The Research Skills Toolkit offers two online courses to help you to gain a better understanding of plagiarism and how to avoid it. Follow the link, click on Go to Toolkit, and use the A-Z list to find Plagiarism 1 and 2. Oxford Single Sign-on is needed to access these materials.
Information is available about English language resources, including support for those who wish to improve their English, particularly for academic purposes.
Oxford University Student Union can also provide advice and support to International Students through their Student Advisory Service. The Vice President (Graduates) is the point of contact for all international students (firstname.lastname@example.org). OUSU also oversees the International Students Campaign which holds social events as well as raising awareness of issues affecting international students.
International students may find that finances become a problem, particularly if they are taking longer to complete than they expected. Departments and colleges may be able to offer advice and hardship loans or grants, and there is information on Other sources of funding available on the University web site.
Insights from research and literature
International students are generally highly motivated, many choosing the UK for their doctorate in order to have a degree ‘from the West’. Many international students, especially from low to medium income countries, have a Masters degree from the UK or their home country, but need a PhD from the West for promotion.
International students are expected to adapt to academic and cultural practices and environments which are often unfamiliar to them. Consequently, they can face a number of intellectual challenges whilst studying in their ‘host’ university. Whether they perceive the changes they make in response to these challenges as temporary and strategic in order to finish their doctorate, or to be used to transform practices in their ‘home’ academia, the challenges have to be negotiated. For many their motivation arises from a commitment to using their doctorate to contribute to the advancement of their home country. Nonetheless, the challenges can leave students feeling uncomfortable, disempowered, or struggling for an identity.
For some, a key area where these challenges arise is in being critical. The Western approach to education is one which requires an individual to be critical – to question texts and ideas, to challenge other people, to construct arguments, to have an opinion. For international students from a non-Western background critique may be an unfamiliar concept, something for which they are not well-equipped and, consequently, something which can be difficult for them to adjust to, for a variety of reasons:
- Students may not be used to being independent learners. In many cultures international students will have studied in an environment where they have been told what to do and how to do it, where they have been relatively passive receivers of knowledge, rarely arguing about their subjects.
- Critique may contradict the values emphasised in their previous education experience. To disobey or contradict what a teacher or supervisor recommends could be considered impolite and to subject the work of well-known and established academics to critical scrutiny could be considered disrespectful.
- Critique may violate codes of language and social conduct. In some cultures ‘saving face’ and maintaining political and racial harmony is extremely important and hence any criticism of ideas has to be offered in a roundabout, indirect way rather than the more direct, up front approach advocated in Western education.
- Critique may be a politically or academically dangerous thing to undertake. Some international students come from a home culture or situation where taking a critical stance, even when abroad, is risky and might impact upon their academic reputation or have political repercussions.
- Critique may not take place in their first language. International students may readily be able to critique in their first language but doing so in English may be the problem. When writing or discussing in English they may lack sufficient ability to express themselves or to structure their words with an order that is appropriate to the English language and, therefore, conveys the meaning they want to get across and enables listeners and readers to understand what they are saying.
- Supervisors and tutors may have well-defined views of what constitutes good writing e.g. critical analysis, evaluation, synthesis, but are unable to explain exactly what is meant by these terms.
Although the English language ability of international students for whom English is not their first language will be required to be of a certain standard, there will often be certain nuances of English which cause linguistic problems. One such area is the use of metaphors, that is the comparison of one object with another in order to describe it. Requiring culturally-based knowledge to interpret successfully both the context and meaning or connotation of a phrase, metaphors are frequently a source of difficulty for international overseas students. If they lack the requisite underpinning knowledge, students may not only not understand a metaphor but may also misunderstand them, to the extent that they make an interpretation which may make sense to them but be wholly different from that intended by the speaker. Such difficulties with metaphors can seriously affect a student's perception of the speaker's stance towards the topic under discussion and even send the student off in an erroneous direction.
Other areas where the challenges of adaptation can be experienced by international students are:
- being ethical – see Integrity and ethical practice in the conduct of research
- fitting into the department – see Intellectual climate
- supervisory and other face-to-face meetings – see Student-supervisor relationships
- concepts of time – see Clarifying expectations
- publishing – see Publishing during the doctorate
Further, there are considerable practical challenges to be faced. Financial support is often dependent on employers or home governments, or competitive scholarships from the British Council. Otherwise, such students may be using gifts and loans from their extended families. Most are experiencing a substantially lower standard of living than they are used to during their doctorate - even those who continue on their previous salaries (funded by their employers) are faced with the higher cost of living in the UK. In addition, many are facing separation from their families in addition to other forms of homesickness.
It appears that international students from different regions experience discrimination in varying degrees; for instance, students from the Middle East and Africa report greater discrimination than those from other regions. Additionally, even if efforts are made to avoid discrimination within the students’ institutional experiences, it needs to be borne in mind that students often will be experiencing discrimination in their daily lives beyond the academy.
International students can be surprised to discover the relatively lowly status they hold as a research student. According to Leonard (2007, p3), "They expect to be treated differently from other students as a mark of their superior, doctoral student status... there is seldom recognition of/ knowledge about/ interest in their home country, nor does anyone except their supervisor know what (sometimes prestigious) jobs they hold at home.”
For peer support, international candidates tend to choose other international students, especially where English is their second language. However, it appears from the research that to successfully negotiate their new personal and academic environments they need three sorts of 'peers': co-national, multi-national and host-national.
- Co-national peers, that is those from their own country, are particularly important for emotional support. Being able to talk with someone who has a shared culture and language is critical when one is going through a stressful emotional period.
- Multi-national peers can provide important social opportunities, as there is a shared 'sojourner' experience which can often help with coming to terms with one's new environment. Doctoral students often report that it is easier to speak and understand English with other international students than with domestic students.
- Host-national peers are important in assisting international students to understand how to negotiate their new academic environment and, in particular, ways of relating with supervisors and other staff involved in working with them on their research. It is through relationships with domestic peers that international students can learn the 'tricks of the academic trade.'
The above text was based on the following research:
Furnham, A., & Alibhai, N. (1985). The friendship networks of foreign students: A replication and extension of the functional model. International Journal of Psychology, 20, 709-722.
Hanassab, S. (2006). Diversity, international students, and perceived discrimination: Implications for educators and counselors. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10(2), 157-172.
HEFCE (2010) Research Degree Qualification Rates: Full-time students starting in 2002-3. Accessed: 15 February 2011.
Kiley, M. (2000). "Providing timely and appropriate support for international postgraduate students". In G. Wisker (Ed.), Good practice working with international students (pp89-108). Birmingham: SEDA.
Leonard, D. (2007) Early Career Academics' Doctoral Experiences (49kb) paper presented at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Higher Education, Brighton.
Findings from the International Student Barometer Summer Wave 2009, data provided by Student Information and Financial Support, Examination Schools, High Street, Oxford.
Student Barometer, International and Domestic, Autumn 2011.
University of Oxford, Student Statistics.
Cadman, K. 2000. ‘ Voices in the Air’: evaluations of the learning experience of international postgraduates and their supervisors. Teaching in Higher Education, 5 (4), pp. 476-491.
Cargill, M. 2000. Intercultural postgraduate supervision meetings: An exploratory discourse study. Prospect, 15 (2), pp.28-38.
Flowerdew, J. 2001. Attitudes of journal editors to non-native speaker contributions. TESOL Quarterly, 35 (1), pp. 121-150.
Furnham, A. (1997) "The experience of being an overseas student", in McNamara, D. and Harris, R. (Eds) Overseas students in higher education: Issues in teaching and learning. London: Routledge.
Kaplan, R. B. 1966. Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural education. Language Learning, XVI (1&2), pp. 1-20.
Garton, S. & Copland, F. 2009. ‘I want to make friends with different people in different country’: creating social opportunities for international students. Presentation at SRHE Conference 2009, Wednesday 9th December, Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, Wales.
Lea, M.R. & Street, B.V. 1998. Student writing in Higher Education: an academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23 (2), pp.157-170.
Maunder, R., Di Napoli, R., Borg, M., Fry, H., Walsh, E. and Jiang, J. 2009. Acculturation into UK academic practice: the experiences of international doctoral students and academic staff at two research-intensive universities. Presentation at SRHE Conference 2009, Wednesday 9th December, Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, Wales.
Morita, N. 2004. Negotiating participation and identity in second language academic communities. TESOL Quarterly, 38 (4), pp. 573-603.
Okorocha, E. 2007. Supervising international research students. London, Society for Research into Higher Education.
Robinson-Pant, A. (2009) Changing academies: exploring international PhD students' perspectives on 'host' and 'home' universities. Higher Education Research and Development, 28(4), 417-429.
Seagram, B., Gould, J. and Pyke, W. An investigation of gender and other variables on time to completion of doctoral degrees. Research in Higher Education, 39(3), 319-335.