ERG SES H 11, Globalisation and Education
The number of international students worldwide is increasing. In this era of globalization, there is a growing demand for higher education (Garbanzo, 2007). Some countries have modified their legislative frameworks to increase their attractiveness as a place to study and as a strategy to attract and retain international students (Mayer et al., 2012; Li, Chen, & Lin, 2010). Despite an expanding research literature on international students, gaps in the existing research literature persist (Eze & Inegbedion, 2014). One of these gaps is that student success is frequently explained by using academic indicators measured through academic achievement only. Also, there is a lack of consensus about the identification of influential factors affecting success in educational settings and limited qualitative research on international student success in higher education. Existing research uses quantitative methods and has focused on factors traditionally believed to be influential, while other personal, social and institutional factors have been less dominant.
This study seeks to contribute to the literature on international students through exploring success at university from the perspective of international students and concentrates on five research questions:
- What does it mean to be an international student?
- What does it mean to be successful at university?
- What are the understandings that international students have about their own level of success at university?
- Which factors, and to what extent, influence success?
- Why should we be concerned about international student success?
The study subscribes to a relativist ontology. Relativism is the idea that there is no absolute truth, but truths constructed by what individuals perceive and believe. As Guba (1990) argues, ‘realities exist in the form of multiple mental constructions, socially and experientially based, local and specific, dependent for their form and content on the persons who hold them’ (p.27). Correspondingly, the goals of this study align well with a constructionist epistemology and interpretive theoretical perspective. Constructionism rejects the idea of an objective external reality and takes individuals as active actors in the construction and development of meaning (Crotty, 2003). Interpretivism lays emphasis on the importance of understanding what is significant or meaningful to the individuals by focusing on their personal frames of reference or interpretations (Gerring, 2007). The role of the research was to engage with international students and explore their construction of what it means to be an international student and successful at university.
Now in its second year, the study is providing a basis for helping international students reflect on their own perspectives and experiences. The results will provide a basis for helping lecturers and university authorities reflect on their expectations of international students and find better ways to maximize these students’ chances of success. This research work generates qualitative knowledge useful to encourage future analysis, policies, and actions based on a comprehensive approach that addresses distinctive educational needs, and therefore helps students develop to their full potential. The issues addressed in the study are of broad relevance and interest internationally. The degree to which universities identify and meet international students’ needs could determine if they maximize or increase these students’ chances of success, and ultimately whether they will continue in the international student market (Rhodes, 2001). A better understanding of what success at university comprises, knowing about factors perceived by students as influential to international student success that could result in strategies for the improvement of the student experience is of utmost importance to higher education providers.
The research questions guiding this study requires an in-depth interpretation of international students’ perspectives of success at university. This study takes the view that success is multidimensional. There are multiple and interrelated factors influencing success and evidence suggests that the general consensus is that the mixture of factors may vary from one setting to another (Vasquez et al., 2012; Mlambo, 2011). A qualitative research design has been developed to gain insights into the phenomenon under study. It provides the opportunity to explore students’ perspectives, making them available to help connect and develop themes surrounding the guiding research questions. Additionally, a qualitative design was seen to be a good fit for this doctoral work as although plenty research has been done on international students, there is a lack of qualitative data on international students’ success in higher education (Montero, Villalobos, & Valverde, 2007; Eze & Inegbedion, 2015). Interpretative hermeneutic phenomenology was used as research methodology to gain an in depth understanding of the lived experience of international students, seeking for meanings that emerge from examining the text (conversation, written words, images), and using the researcher’ experience related to the phenomenon under study, conceptual beliefs and presuppositions (Van Manen, 1997; Reiners, 2012). Students were supported to articulate their lived experience, and detailed thematic analysis is used to draw out tentative understandings. In-depth semi-structured interviews were used to generate data with a purposive sample of thirteen international undergraduate students who are in their second year (or above) of study and were selected from diverse disciplines at the University of Canterbury (New Zealand). Participants were interviewed between two to four times over a 1-year period. Interviews, conducted in English, lasted on average about an hour and took place in naturalistic settings. Participants were also invited to use pieces of art or writing to help express their ideas. The use of different types of methods for data collection helped make the study engaging for the participants, inspiring them to share information while capturing their genuine experiences. Interviews were transcribed initially verbatim, and then as saturation was reached, with less detail. Data is interpreted using the hermeneutic cycle, a framework for the interpretation of a text which implies a continuous process of reading, reflective writing, and interpretation (Laverty, 2003). In this study, the criteria to ensure ‘trustworthiness’, based on the constructs proposed by Guba and Lincoln, are credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability (Morse et al., 2002).
The study is still in progress but preliminary findings indicate that success at university includes, but is not limited to, academic performance. For example, those international students who reported facing minor challenges studying abroad typically come from a similar cultural environment, are native speakers of the local language or fluent non-native speakers. They defined success at university as being able to both obtain good grades and extend plans beyond university duties, engaging with local community, developing interpersonal skills, etc. On the other hand, those students who come from a markedly different culture with a different language, reported to find it difficult to cope with life living abroad and perceived success as mainly related to obtaining good grades or academic achievement. Also, the official designation of being an “international student” is based on visa status and hence enrolment status and the cost of fees for tuition. But the students have different understandings of the status “international student”. From the perspectives of these students, being an international student is determined by a student’s background and the type of challenges they face in the host country rather than their legal status in the host country. There are distinct segments of international students. Not all international students are the same as they have different backgrounds, set of skills and abilities, knowledge, expectations, experiences, etc. These differences translate into differences in what they look for during their university life and their chances to succeed. Finally, it seems like multiple and interrelated factors - personal, social and institutional - influence success.
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