My scouring of the education press this week has produced this article on foreign students in the UK. British university undergrads were recently asked to complete a questionnaire about living, working and befriending students from overseas. As the article makes clear, the questions, the format and the underlying assumptions of this document have been exposed as being significantly flawed.
The intention was good: it was to ensure that students from abroad were made to feel welcome and to identify ways in which that could be improved. Instead, it has been shown that the data could easily be manipulated and used negatively. Many senior university staff members have expressed their unease, while some comments made by students themselves are overtly critical, and apparently with very good reason.
As a student and teacher of English, I am frequently surprised at the naive ways in which the language is officially employed. Questionnaires and pro formas are a minefield unless the creator is perceptive, and aware of the potential pitfalls of ambiguity, misunderstanding and generalisation, to name but three.
A good example would be from my days in the Arab world. A UK consultancy group had been hired to encourage Saudi students to read more in English. Instead of doing their homework, the researchers took an existing questionnaire which had been given to European students to assess their reading habits and simply had it translated into Arabic. I was told by local colleagues that the translation itself was excellent. The content, however, was another thing entirely. Divorcing questions from culture and context is always a very risky undertaking and so it proved here. One of the questions asked: What kind of books do you prefer to read, fiction or non fiction? The next was: What book are you reading at the moment?
Two facts need mentioning here. Arabia generally is an oral/aural culture. Reading is not part of it and there is no literary tradition. Indeed, most households will only possess one book - the Holy Qu'uran. The concept of reading for pleasure is alien to most people, so these two questions were not only inappropriate for the majority of candidates, they were unanswerable.
Returning to the article above, it is clear that misreading the findings of the questionnaire plays into the hands of the anti-immigration lobby. Some years ago there was a scandal in Britain of people obtaining student visas and then on arrival, promptly entering the black economy and never attending college. Typically, this affected vocational colleges rather than universities, but a government clampdown ensued in which all areas of tertiary education came under the microscope. Thank goodness KYUEM students are heading to prestigious universities where this kind of thing rarely happens, so the acquisition of a British student visa is relatively straightforward.
Nonetheless, the stats employed in assessing the validity of the experience foreign students have of the UK need some careful realignment if they are to have any meaningful effect on living and studying overseas. One can only hope that wiser counsel will prevail in ensuring that this eventually happens.