To Whom it May Concern: Reflections on an international staff exchange

Introduction

I learned a lot about UK Higher Education in 2009 by being far away from it. I was working as an educational developer in Stockholm, Sweden and, in many ways, my Swedish job resembled the one I did in Oxford: it was based the same sort of unit; it involved a similar workload of teaching, writing, and collaboration with teachers and students; and it was concerned with my longstanding areas of interest. For 12 months, I concentrated on helping the Royal Technical University (KTH) deter students from plagiarism and improve the learning experiences of their many international students by developing teachers’ skills. I worked in English and lived in another of the world’s most beautiful cities. Nevertheless, I always knew I was somewhere different. This article sets out some of the differences I observed and outlines what I learned from them.

In Stockholm, I was constantly encountering things in the almost-like-Oxford context that surprised me, both at work and outside it. Some of the work based surprises were small. For example:

  • The university library closed at 5.00 pm on Friday and reopened at 9.00 am on Monday.
  • Our unit had a large basket of fresh fruit delivered every week and we were not asked to contribute to the cost.
  • Anyone who needed to collect children or stay home with them simply left work with no questions asked.
  • People charged the University for taxis to the airport, which was 45kms out of town, even though (spotless) high-speed trains ran there every 15 minutes.

The contrast between these practices and my previous experiences called my attention to such issues as how my UK colleagues are expected to juggle family responsibilities, to protect their weekends, to take responsibility for their personal health, and to cope with travel.

When I was in Stockholm, I tried not to judge which way was better, theirs or ours (whoever ‘we’ might be). Although there is much to envy about the Swedish way of doing things, I did come back feeling that we have much to be proud of in our UK approaches. Of course, both types of conclusions are only my personal impressions. Nothing I observed changes my gratitude and appreciation for the dozens of people who helped make my year life-changing and thoroughly good. My advice to anyone who has even thought about organising a staff exchange is to jump at the chance and, with luck, you will have a year as wonderful (or wonder-full) and ‘learning-full’  as I did in 2008-09.

Lesson One

My first pedagogic insight from working in a Swedish university concerns how independent (or otherwise) we expect our UK-based students to be. Independence and autonomy start early in Sweden. I rarely saw a parent hold a child’s hand and never – not once – saw a parent walk so fast that the child had to trot to keep up. Instead, groups walked at a pace suitable for the person with the shortest legs. I regularly saw three-year-olds exiting buses on their own (despite a considerable gap between bus and curb) while Dad waited on the pavement, confident his child would make it. They always did. Eight-year-olds took themselves to school, and teens had individually designed study programmes in state schools. Once at university, the assumption seemed to be that the institution was pleased to have these young people as students. The State covered the costs (no one paid fees and education was a right). Teachers expected hard work. I was surprised by the lack of specific skills teaching within programmes. The University employed very few people in student support roles. Teachers taught content and examined it at the end of the semester. It is true that courses were gradually being more explicitly described (probably because of the demands of the Bologna process), but discussions about the necessity of assessment criteria and learning outcomes reminded me of those carried out in the UK 15 years earlier. Back then in the UK and now in Sweden, teachers saw a short syllabus as offering sufficient information for a module and a three-line brief as explaining an assignment. In the UK, students now have detailed handbooks and assessment briefs and, at Brookes, there is a growing assortment of ways to develop and monitor students’ academic skills. In Sweden, on the other hand, I met teachers who seemed genuinely disturbed when I suggested providing such help, since this could be seen as a lack of confidence in their students.

Most of the Swedish students managed to find their way through their studies, perhaps equipped by early lessons in autonomy. Many thrived on the atmosphere of assumed competence. The same ‘no hand holding’ approach was less successful when applied to postgraduate students arriving from around the world to study (also without paying fees). International students, a group making up more than half of all postgraduates, often found themselves in a world that was inexplicable and apparently painful. Many failed exams or failed to complete courses. People worried about students cheating (a tough concept for a culture so rooted in their own version of honesty) and about plagiarism. They reported students for both, even though the penalties were harsh. Students charged with these offences often had to wait up to a year and then appear before a disciplinary panel consisting of the Vice Chancellor, a retired judge and several lawyers. Yet, in many cases the reported students clearly had no idea what was expected of them. Many arrived without appropriate academic skills for Swedish university study (and more than a few without adequate English), only to find few or no mechanisms to recognise or address their needs.

The lessons for the UK? Our universities need to maintain their focus on skills development, explicit information and organised support for students because this approach probably matches the expectations and skills of all our students. Where the gap between what students expect and what we offer is likely to be very great (as, for example, with some international students), we are justified in providing even more explicit information and teaching. I might wish (and I do) that UK parents treated their children more like co-travellers in life and less like someone who needed hurrying and jollying up all the time.  I might wish (and I do) that schools followed suit and placed

responsibility on students and created a system where failure was safe.  But neither is likely in the UK.  So, since UK pre-university practices are unlikely to change, we need to make sure that university and outside world experiences and expectations mesh . Cultures change slowly. I spent the year trying to convince the Swedes that it might be time to rethink old ways, if not for their Swedish students than for those who have not practiced the skills of quietly getting on with things. It was frustrating how little progress I made.

Lesson Two

A second lesson that I learned was about the privilege and responsibilities of speaking English as a mother tongue. In twelve months and thousands of encounters right across Scandinavia, I did not meet a person who did not (almost always happily) switch to my language when it was clear I could not speak theirs. I have been in meetings where 59 people spoke Swedish and one – me – did not speak Swedish so well. Everyone in attendance spoke English. For 8 hours. In visits to dozens of universities, I scanned office bookshelves and saw that half or more of the books were in English. Colleagues wrote papers for UK/US journals and were sometimes apologetic when asking me for language help. I once bought buns from an eight-year-old running a street stall to raise money for a school trip. The whole transaction took place in English and he neither flinched nor looked worried as he took 10 seconds to work out an answer to my question. Speaking English is assumed to be a skill that people acquire, and they make the effort. I, on the other hand, had both an unfair advantage and an opportunity to think about how I used English. I began to tailor my language (note: did you spot the metaphor? I now notice them much more often). I learned to speak more slowly without sounding like I was doing so. I developed ways to describe complex ideas in simple terms and to cut the content of lectures without cutting the meat (a metaphor?). I did this despite knowing that my listeners had English far more sussed than almost anyone else I had met in my travels around the world.  Nevertheless, I learned to watch listeners’ reactions and to give them breaks for using Swedish in planned discussions and activities. I paused more often. All this meant that I finished most lectures – even those on the most familiar of topics and, in some cases, those which I had given literally hundreds of times – with a headache. Monitoring my language, though painful, increased my empathy for those who listened. It also meant that I was actually applying all the advice I give UK teachers about how to lecture to help students learn (‘Slow down, repeat, give them time to think…’).

My conclusions from operating as a language outsider for a year? It seems likely that the amazing rise of English as a lingua franca (if this was Sweden, I would consider my choice to use this term) will continue, and that ever more diverse cohorts of students will arrive at Brookes to study. This puts an onus (once again, is this was Sweden I could consider my word choice) on native speakers to master a new language, too. Many refer to International English as a way of describing how people all over the world use English to understand each other and to be understood. Native English speakers, no matter what version they use, need to participate in promoting understandability rather than expecting to be understood. Since coming back, I have started watching our native English speaking Brookes students in their (sadly not all that frequent) exchanges with students who are using English as an additional language (EAL). Few of the former seem sensitive as to how their message is being understood and, often, there is no need; the other person is accustomed to doing all the work. But where one person (usually the EAL speaker) is clearly having trouble, I almost never see the native English speaker adjusting. Maybe the value of understandability cannot be taught but, if it can, then we need to add this to the growing list of cross cultural skills that our home students at Brookes need to acquire.

Lesson Three

A third insight (and the final I explore here) comes from operating for a year in a climate of generous resources. Generosity was the norm for life in general and at the university. They funded me as an additional member of staff for a year. Once I arrived, the sense of being more than comfortable was ubiquitous. The per diem they charged other universities for me to go there and run workshops made my eyes water. Prices were 50% higher than at Brookes, yet dozens paid up with hardly a murmur. Campus buildings at KTH were solid, often grand (I photographed a floor in one newly-built classroom because the it was so beautiful!). Colleagues travelled to several international conferences a year and some took significant time off (with fees paid) to gain PhDs. Quality was important, so managers organised frequent away days in posh hotels where the catering was wonderful. I once did a lecture on a course for teachers that took place in a seventeenth century chateau approached down a long drive submerged in butter-yellow autumn leaves. Once inside, I was greeted by on-the-house coffee and a smorgasbord of treats ‘while you are waiting’. Ten minutes rarely passes so pleasantly. It all seemed a far cry from what I had known in Oxford, but Swedes still complained. In fact, you could record colleagues in either place describing their own context and levels of support and you might not be able to say which was which.

The lesson? Apart from platitudes about everything being relative, I would say that additional resources did not seem to make people more content, but they did make life more comfortable. It helped that Stockholm was a lovely place full of stylish people and careful public planning. Coming back, I find Brookes in the midst of recreating their physical spaces (great!) but also facing possible budget cuts. I think being away has sharpened my sense of what constitutes minimal requirements for good working conditions and for work/life balance. Brookes does sometimes fall below both. I learned to distinguish between situations in which people and complain and those which genuinely are not ‘good enough’. The only thing I didn’t learn was to how to turn those insights into action. Maybe I need to go back and learn some more…. I hope so, though I might wait until the glorious Scandinavian summer when all that waiting through all dark days is rewarded. It was true what the Swedes promised: summer was magic.

Thanks for listening. And thanks for the opportunity to look back and think, ‘So what did all that mean?’ I imagine the process will continue for some time yet.

Biography

Jude Carroll is a Principle Lecturer at Oxford Brookes where she works as an Educational Developer in OCSLD.  She contributes to professional qualification programmes at Brookes and delivers events across the UK and internationally relevant to student plagiarism and to teaching international students.  She published  A Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education (2007;   and with colleague, Dr Janette Ryan, edited Teaching International Students: improving learning for all (2005).  Jude and Janette lead a national project based at the Higher Education Academy called Teaching International Students which aims to enhance students’ experience of UK study by focussing on HE teachers.

Contact

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