Are international students being disadvantaged?

Dr. Yvonne Moogan
Dr. Yvonne Moogan, Salford MBA Director

As global mobility rises there is an increase in the diversity of the learners creating challenges for both the learner and for the educator. International students are often seen as problematic, but, is it really their fault?

In the interests of equality and given internationalisation of the curriculum with the influx of international students to the UK, we have a duty to ascertain whether or not a traditional MBA course design is biased to the home student (UK) and prejudiced against the international student.

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have a responsibility to ensure that all students accepted onto their courses have an equal opportunity to succeed and more needs to be known about the variables affecting international student performance and integration within the class room. Culture shock can be massive for all new students but particularly international students who are away from home for the first time in a foreign country where English is not their first language and they are not used to the UK HE learning environment and the culture of their new country.

Internationalisation of UK Higher Education

international studentsInternational students MSc Marketing and Salford MBA – 17th March 2015

Internationalism is an inspiring experience for students and staff but it creates challenges such as language, academic and cultural problems with varied student expectations. However, the emphasis on internationalism should be on creating a relevant curriculum with a global view that supports the international student by providing them with the skill set to adapt to their new learning environment and to enhance their learning journey on a longitudinal basis throughout their programme’s duration. Therefore international students should be supported throughout their programme of study rather than just at the start of their programme like at their induction event.

Making the transition from overseas into the UK HE system requires support and adjustment to the different learning and teaching environments particularly international students who often find it difficult to make this transition. Induction and support during this transition period which may last several months and not just the first week, is vital to ensure that all students are familiarised with academic expectations and are provided with early opportunities to feedback so that they develop in their learning ability and hence in their confidence. Students are often unclear what to expect and in turn what is expected from them.

The question needs to be asked if there are variations in performance between international and home students and if so, to examine possible causes of and practical responses to, performance differentials.

Advantages of international students

  • Developing life-long learners from across the globe
  • Increasing diversity within the class room
  • Enhancing the student experience for staff and students
  • Sharing global knowledge and experiences
  • Financial contributions
  • Religious and political diversity
  • Sharing of culture

Disadvantages of International students

  • Cheats- higher levels of unintentional plagiarism
  • Differing cultures- issues of punctuality and time keeping
  • Religious and political diversity
  • Differing learning styles- eg) Rote learners
  • Prior expectations and experiences
  • Individual expectations- new to reflective practice of learning
  • Poor language skills- difficult to communicate
  • Preference for individual tasks rather than group activities

MBA courses background

The MBA comprises of an Executive MBA (predominantly part time mature local students- UK) and an International MBA (predominantly young overseas students) which is only for full time students. The International MBA is a relatively new programme which was set up in 2005. Semesters one and two comprise the taught element of the programme whereas semester three is the dissertation and independent learning stage of the programme. The Executive MBA students tend to take two years to complete the programme whereas the International MBA students could finish in approximately half this time.

The credit size of the taught modules on the Executive MBA are all 15 credits whereas the credit size of the taught modules on the International MBA are mixed with 30 credit sizes and 15 credit sizes. The Programme Director set up weekly study skills classes (one hour duration) for the first semester (12 weeks) which were compulsory for the students on the International MBA but optional for those students on the Executive MBA. Such PDP sessions incorporated critique of the literature, structure of an assignment, how to write reports, examination technique, how to reference, reflective learning, methodology, case study analysis, classroom etiquette, and so on.

How did we get to our conclusions?

Quantitative data was collected from 2,159 students with 3,609 course works, 2,560 exam scores and 1,345 which were hybrid of written and oral work over a ten years period from 1999 to 2009. The mean course work scores were measured over each module and depending upon the module credit size, collated and averaged.

Qualitative data via an open ended questionnaire was distributed to fifty of the international students asking them about their experience of the HE UK system and the impact of the longitudinal induction programme during the year of 2008/09.

What are the results?

With a 15 credit module size, the UK student typically scores nine points above the international student whereas with a 30 credit module size the UK student scores only five points more than the international student. The performance differential on larger credit size modules is therefore better for international students. Reasons for such differences may be due to the staggering of ‘more bite size’ assessments over the module’s duration which is possible on larger modules, whereas 15 credit size modules tend to have fewer assessments (most 15 credits size modules are on the Executive MBA), which are more practically related course works.

Such course works allows this type of mature student to bring their experience and to apply their knowledge within the assessment. This thirteen point differential for course works was reduced to a four point differential for examinations meaning that international students perform better with examinations which may be due to their ability to rote learn or due to their experience of surface learning from their prior studies.

Semester one scores would be expected to be lower than those towards the end of the programme since there is a period of adaptation where international students may not be integrated as swiftly into their new environment due to the barriers they face. They may be unsure how to take notes during a lecture or they may be ignorant of case study analysis and how to write reports or to reflect upon their learning process. They may also have little experience of group work and they may not have an understanding of the importance of attributing their reference sources. Consequently the compulsory PDP weekly workshops of semester one facilitate a ‘dripping tap’ approach whereby students acquire the necessary transferrable skills.

Rote learning consequences?

Reasons for the variances in all of these scores especially during the taught elements of the programme (semester one and two) could be that international students are not as intelligent, or are more likely to be surface learners due to rote learning from their previous environment where there is a heavy reliance upon examinations rather than group course work. It may be because their English (written or spoken) is poor or it could be due to the UK learning culture being very different to their expectations.

However, it could be that there are other variables at play here and that assessments can contain hidden prompts that are advantaging UK students such as the linkage of theory to the working environment (of the part time mature students) or the inclusion of group work assignments with reflective reports that international students may be new to.

International students also had to perform oral presentations in groups and this was new to the majority of them. As some of the students said; “we have never done team work before” or “we felt less confident at the start of the year as we didn’t know what to expect and how to ask for help,” or “it was hard to get used to only having a small number of lectures and tutorials since we used to be in 9am to 5pm with our undergraduate and being told what to do” or “referencing was completely new to me and I found it difficult”.

Since the introduction of the longitudinal (weekly) study skills sessions the incidence of plagiarism declined substantially, retention improved, marks for oral group presentations rose and generally the confidence of the students increased. It is worrying if these compulsory study skills had not been introduced as part of the research methods module, the challenges facing international students would have been even greater.

So, are international students all cheats?

Although previous experience seems to be an advantage earlier on in the programme (semester one) the gap reduces by the end of the programme perhaps indicating that the international students have finally adapted to their learning environments and that they have taken on board all the study skills classes from their first semester benefiting from this longitudinal induction scheme of work.

By highlighting ‘expectations’ in terms of what the tutors expect from their students and vice versa, seems to help keep the playing field level. Hence the international students obviously appear to play ‘catch-up’ and fortunately get to the same point as the UK students although it is doubtful if both groups have experienced the same journey.

For the full article, please read:


  • Fantastic piece of research, Yvonne, especially as UK business schools have seen a large increase in international student numbers revently. Good to know that as a Business School, we are introducing measures to help international students catch up more quickly with their UK counterparts.