On diversity as a resource for learning

Is it exploitative to view international students as a learning resource for home students?

There is in my view a problematic tension inherent in the concept of diversity as a good thing. On the one liberal multicultural hand, diversity (linguistic, cultural, experiential, social) is a sign of an inclusive egalitarianism.  But in resisting racism and other forms of discrimination, there is a particular discourse that talks about the benefits of diversity. And whilst I don’t doubt that those are real, I think they have some nasty hidden effects. Here’s my argument.

International students are a sign that universities are internationally prestigious, open and welcoming, and culturally diverse. Those are all things that universities need to be in order to create their “brand”. So firstly, universities need international students to create this image. But the place where I start to have a real problem is the concept of students as a resource of pedagogical diversity. More diversity in the classroom means that students from different countries will bring to bear different knowledge, interpretations, ways of thinking and analyses. Therefore, British students can learn to be globalized international cosmopolitans in their own back garden, by interacting in the classroom with these global ambassadors for different ways of thinking. So, just like with gender roles, this creates a script that UK institutions expect international students to follow: they are to contribute their ‘different’ experiences and knowledge, and educate their peers, and sometimes their teachers. Research has already documented that UK students can feel burdened by imposed intercultural group work and this discourse of the educational benefits to the institution and home students brought by international students runs the risk of creating the same dynamic.

Only this is not why they have come to the UK – they have come to learn, not to teach. I think at some stage a conflation has happened between showing respect and interest in their knowledge and actually expecting a substantive contribution. Now this is perhaps only unfair if British students are treated differently, which I don’t have any personal experience of and I’m sure that most lecturers tread this line very carefully.

But the rhetoric is problematic. It assumes that a Chinese student, for instance, will have knowledge of ‘Chinese business practices’ (assuming there is such a thing in such a huge country), will think ‘like a Chinese person’ (ignoring the impact that globalization has had particularly on younger generations, and the possibility for individuality), and yet will be willing, in a rather Western idea of the modern classroom, to share their knowledge and experience. Isn’t it possible that some students might feel under pressure to perform in an area that they are not confident about and might be worried about exposing a lack of knowledge or not giving ‘the right answer’? If we’re talking about mature students on an MBA course, for instance, this is different. There we know that all students do have some experience and it will all be different and as professionals they are likely to be a bit more confident about expressing their views and knowledge. And I’m sure that most lecturers don’t pressure shy undergraduates unnecessarily.

On an institutional and a national level the rhetoric of considering cultural and international diversity a classroom resource that benefits UK students essentialises the difference between international students and home students. It sets them apart – for apparently good reasons. The counter to this, I know, is that only by having a frank and open dialogue about difference can we overcome them and communicate across them. Isn’t it possible though by constantly discussing difference, even when we do it positively, that we reinforce it?

Then there’s the problem of how this sits with a vision of students as consumers. If students are paying for education as a service, what are their responsibilities and how can these be  imposed / encouraged? How can you have a student as consumer and a citizen participant?


I am an early career researcher, recent EdD graduate from the University of Sheffield, and a Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the Institute of Education. Previously I was an Academic Practice Tutor at the University of Northampton. My research focuses on critical analysis of national policy on international students in the UK. Follow me on Twitter @SE_Lomer

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