How do students feel about studying in a culturally diverse Higher Education environment?

Author/Producer Dr Fiona Hyland
Published in Autumn 2008 newsletter
Date Published 24 November 2008
Pages 2


Fiona Hyland writes about internationalisation, the integration of an international dimension into all activities of a university, focusing on the student experience


In the early 1990s when I studied for my undergraduate degree in psychology, you could count the number of international students on one hand. The picture now is rather different with large numbers of international students studying in the UK. I regret I was unable to experience learning in a multi-cultural environment. I never considered going abroad to study – it wasn't the ‘done thing’ for the ‘UK student’ then, or even perhaps now. The concept of Internationalisation at Home (IaH) is the idea that most students' exposure to cultural diversity will take place whilst studying at ‘home’ in their native country. So, now that we have an international Higher Education (HE) landscape, what do students make of it?

In spring 2008, ESCalate, in conjunction with the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS) and Dr Sheila Trahar (Bristol University) as academic consultant, ran 15 focus groups with students and staff from a range of HE institutions and disciplines around the UK. One of the aims of the project was to ask students about their experiences of internationalisation.


Many students said how much they appreciated having peers from around the world on their courses and in their institutions. They talked of internationalisation providing them the chance to learn about other peoples and places, and the opportunity to form lasting and valued friendships.

Barriers to forming multi-cultural relationships

Despite students appreciating the value of their multi-cultural environments, several remarked that there was not as much mixing of cultural groups as one might have hoped. The students did not express any great sadness or regret about this, more an acceptance of the way it was.

Several themes emerged to describe the kinds of problems preventing a more dynamic mix of students.

  • Cultural cliques

Many of the students felt that students from similar cultures and nations had a tendency to socialise together within ‘cultural cliques’. However, some stated that this was often just because it was easier to do so, as illustrated below.’s not about rudeness or about people disliking each other, it’s just the natural groups that people tend to form with people from their own countries. Sometimes people prefer to speak in their native tongue as well... (Home Student)

  • Language

Unsurprisingly, students said that languages were a barrier to multi-cultural relationships. Some international students explained that the resulting tendency for them to remain in their cultural cliques only exacerbated the problem since this resulted in limited opportunities to practise their English.

  • Cultural differences in socialising

A small number of international students said they found making friendships with British students difficult because they socialised in different ways. One Chinese student said that the culture of ‘going to the pub’ and ‘parties’ did not exist back at home. Only a couple of students mentioned alcohol as an issue and when a group of international students was questioned on this, one replied:

Student: I guess we didn’t mention it (alcohol), because it’s so obvious, it’s just there. Student … my interpretation of the word sociable is: helpful, supportive, friendly, maybe patient, things like that. It turned out to be different here. Moderator What is it here, your perception? Student As experienced in my hallway, it means being able to drink more than 10 pints of beer an hour. If you can do that, you’re very sociable. Otherwise, you may be intermediate.

  • Institutional and degree-course barriers

Some international students expressed disappointment that they did not get to meet home students. Reasons given for this included: (a) courses designed especially for international students attracted mostly international students, (b) home students chose part-time courses (allowing them to work to pay fees) and international students full-time courses (often because UK visa restrictions required this), (c) some international students found themselves housed in year-round accommodation whilst the home students were in term-time only accommodation.

  • Making the effort

Both home and international students acknowledged the part they played in making friendships, but speaking in a home student focus group, one student said:

We don’t do it actually [make the effort to get to know international students]. I mean that’s the problem. It’s also our responsibility to find out and we don’t actually do it, we find so many excuses, like ‘I have to do this, and this, and this’. (Home Student)

Home students were asked if they felt any responsibility as ‘home students’ to help international students. This student's response was typical:

I don’t think I’d ever thought about going out of my way to specially help somebody. I mean I do what I can when asked, but beyond that there’s not really anything there. (Home Student)


All of the students spoke of the value of cultural diversity in their institutions. However, from many students there was an acknowledgement that they were not deriving as much from their multi-cultural environments as they could. The focus groups illustrated that the reasons for this were complex.

At the heart of the problem is perhaps the assumption by institutions and departments that intercultural learning will happen automatically just by having a multi-cultural environment. Of course, great strides have been made by many UK institutions to encourage intercultural learning and much has been written to inform teaching practice (e.g. Trahar, 2007; Turner & Robson, 2008; Carroll & Ryan, 2005). However, this study illustrates that in 2008 the UK has still some way to go to make Higher Education the powerful intercultural learning experience it could be for all staff and students.

The full report of this project including the staff experience, recommendations from participants for internationalising the curriculum, and good teaching practice will be available at from November 2008.

This project was jointly funded by the Higher Education Academy and ESCalate, and carried out by Dr Fiona Hyland, Dr Julie Anderson and Anne Anderson of ESCalate, Dr Sheila Trahar of Bristol University and Alison Dickens of LLAS.


Carroll, J. & Ryan, J. (Eds) (2005) Teaching International Students. Improving learning for all. Oxon: Routledge.

Trahar, S. (2007) Teaching and Learning: the International Higher Education Landscape – Some Theories and Working Practices. Discussions In Education Series. ESCalate. Available online at:

Turner, S. & Robson, S. (2008) Internationalizing the University. London: Continuum.