It is said that Diogenes of Sinope declared himself to be “A citizen of the World”.
I was talking this morning with one of my PhD students about her research. Her work has involved observing teachers working with children in the early years of their education in schools in the UK. She has then taken some of the teaching approaches that she has learned and applied these in schools in her native Taiwan. Listening to her enthusiastic description of the differences of teaching approach in two countries many thousands of miles apart, and her account of what she has learned, and how she has shared this learning with teachers in both countries, reinforced my belief that there is so much to be gained from working in an international environment.
Later in the day I enjoyed conversations with groups of research students from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Vietnam, China and Colombia who occupy an office in the Centre for Education and Research at the university. Sharing a common commitment to investigating aspects of education, they bring a vast range of professional and personal experiences to the university. In addition, they have significantly different cultural backgrounds that have shaped their interpretation of the world, and are generous in exchanging these as part of their overall experience of being a student in the UK.
Without exception they enjoy being part of this richly diverse community. They recognise that they have an opportunity to learn from each other, to understand the similarities and difference in the education systems of their countries, and to appreciate the varying challenges that these bring. In formal teaching sessions they exchange their views and consider how their learning may be applied to a wide range of educational situations. Informally, they share food, music, literature and ideas from their homes, and thus broaden their understanding of each other’s cultures.
As tutors working with these students, we gain as much as they do from this multi-lingual and international community of learners. Opportunities to hear about their teaching experiences and the conditions in which they live and work in their home countries, and to listen to their aspirations for the future is a privilege that is to be greatly appreciated. We also benefit from a greater understanding of how educational policy and practices evolve in different circumstances, and how we may apply some of these ideas in our own situation. However, in the past year I have also detected a greater apprehension in their conversations than I recall from the past.
Being an international student in the UK, and I suspect in many other countries, is much harder than in the past. The world is in turmoil and the level of trust in the unfamiliar has significantly decreased. Fear of “foreigners” appears to be on the increase and several of our students have expressed a concern that they are sometimes viewed with an element of suspicion. The burgeoning bureaucracy to which they are subjected in order to monitor their movements and the increased difficulties associated with renewing visas has become a source of frustration. Increased regulation from the UK Border Agency, understandably implemented with national security in mind and designed to discourage a small minority criminal and fundamentalist element, impacts upon all non-British nationals. My fear is that those with a legitimate desire to learn may be detered from doing so outside of their own national boundaries in the future.
The students I work with are sensitive to the need for increased vigilance, but also conscious of the apparent negativity towards visitors to this country that they experience in the media, and sadly on occasions, on the streets. Much of this is founded upon ignorance, and I am sure that if some of the perpetrators of these reactions could spend time with these hard working young people, they would exhibit a different range of behaviours. Having visited several of the countries from which these students have come, I have always been received with kindness and generosity and made to feel welcome. I would like to think that this is reciprocated for colleagues who come here.
I am sure that the students with whom I work as they complete their research degrees will make a major contribution to the education systems in their own countries or elsewhere in the world. I hope that as they do so they will take with them many positive memories of their time in the UK.