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The ‘International Student and Staff Experience’ in Higher Education: A Multiregional Narrative Enquiry from Thailand

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Tony Young, Dr Navaporn Snodin



This is the final published version of a conference proceedings (inc. abstract) that has been published in its final definitive form by Association of North America Higher Education International (ANAHEI) , 2018.

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The ‘International Student and Staff Experience’ in Higher Education: A Multiregional Narrative Enquiry from Thailand More than four million people worldwide are studying in higher education institutions (HEIs) located outside their country of origin, and the numbers are growing rapidly (UIS, 2013). Many thousands of internationally mobile academic staff are also teaching and conducting research in HEIs abroad. ‘Internationalisation’ has been framed as the institutional response to this international, intercultural educational phenomenon. There is however, a lack of clarity about how ‘internationalisation’ is actually experienced by internationally mobile staff and students, especially in contexts outside the global west. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the various manifestations of internationalisation currently operationalised by different HEIs in different countries are not in themselves panaceas for institutions seeking to engage positively with the globalizing education ‘market’, and that greater numbers of international staff or students or a higher global institutional ranking do not necessarily result in a more positive and rewarding ‘international student or staff experience’ (Young et al, 2017). In line with government policies across much of South East Asia, Thailand has identified HE internationalisation at national policy level as potentially contributing significantly to economic growth and to its soft power capital. The country has aspirations to become an educational hub in Southeast Asia (Sinhaneti, 2011). The Thai government has set targets to recruit 100,000 international students annually but the number is currently only around 20,000. International students (and staff) for the purposes of this study are defined as those who are working as academics, or are studying at either undergraduate or postgraduate level, in a Thai HEI and whose countries of origin is not Thailand and whose primary education was in a country other than Thailand. Among the students, these are mostly from East and South East Asian countries such as China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, although students from 130 countries worldwide constitute the total ‘international’ student population in Thailand. Figures for international staff are harder to determine, but probably amount to hundreds rather than thousands, with a similarly broad representation of countries of origin. Research investigating the ‘international’ student experience is growing, but remains largely confined to the global west (Young et al, 2017). For internationally mobile staff there is a much smaller research base, and research into such staff working in Asia is in its infancy (Mason and Rawlins-Sanae, 2014). This study therefore aimed to provide some important benchmarking data in a hitherto largely under-researched HEI context. While our knowledge-base is small, it is thought that two main factors contribute to the perceived lack of success in Thailand in the recruitment of both international staff and students. Firstly, a lack of understanding of what the international student or staff experiences are actually like in Thailand, and secondly how these might be enhanced once understandings have deepened. In particular, there is a lack of locally-based research that focuses on the lived experiences and voices of international students and staff as they negotiate the complex transitions to work or study outside their primary culture. Such research could contribute significantly to informing government and HE sector and institutional strategies regarding internationalisation, and so develop and strengthen Thailand’s position. Findings might also inform policy in practice more widely, particularly in SE Asia and more generally across the non-Western world.This present study was funded by awards from the Thailand Research Council and the British Academy, as part of a collaborative, bi-national Newton Fund Scheme which aims to promote national development and international cooperation in the global south. It aimed to address the lack of understanding identified above, and to suggest ways forward. The study therefore investigated the multiple realities of international staff and students in Thai HE, employing an ethnographic approach, focussing on narrative enquiry (Trahar, 2011) and informed by an empirically-derived model of academic, sociocultural and psychological adaptation and adjustment (Schartner and Young, 2016). The main objective was to achieve better understandings of the current phenomenon regarding the challenges of and potential for increased international recruitment and enhancement of teaching and learning in Thai HE. These enhanced understandings could then be used as the basis for guidance to Thai HEIs on how to improve environments in order to attract and retain greater numbers of ‘international’ staff and students. Narrative inquiry was chosen as the principle methodological approach for the project as it is eminently suitable for undertaking inquiries with people from many different cultures whose worldviews may differ significantly from those of the researchers (Trahar, 2011). This approach focuses on ‘the meanings that people ascribe to their experiences, seeking to provide insight into the complexity of human lives’ (Trahar, 2014: 220). It is located within social constructionist philosophical principles, reflecting a belief in multiple realities and the social construction of those realities. Participants were international staff and undergraduate and postgraduate students (N = 40) from a variety of countries or origin, working or studying in Thai universities in three different contexts: Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Maha Sarakham, in respectively the Centre, the North and the North East of Thailand. The same phenomenon was investigated across these multiple locations to address the following research questions:1. What attracts/motivates international students and academics to come to Thailand?2. What are their perceptions and experiences in Thai universities? What adjustment experiences (academic, sociocultural, and psychological) do staff and students have?3. How do the different universities across Thailand frame and practise ‘internationalisation’, and how does this relate to the actual experiences of ‘international’ staff?Narratives were derived from staff and student participants in response to these research questions. Focus groups of staff, and of students, were then used as follow-ups in each location, to add further detail and nuance. Narratives and transcripts of focus groups were subjected to thematic content analyses (Boyatzis, 1998). These divided staff and student data detailing their academic, sociocultural and psychological adjustment experiences into two broad analytical categories – comments related to broadly positive elements of the experience of working or studying in Thai HE institutions, and comments related to negative aspects of the same experience (Young et al, 2013). Overall findings indicated a generally more positive than negative framing of adjustment among students and staff who has chosen to work or study in Thailand. In the broadly positive thematic data, there are a number of powerful ‘pull’ factors attracting staff and students to Thailand, and helping to contribute to generally positive perceptions of the experience of Thai HE. These include the relatively easy availability of employment and scholarships, and generally very positive word-of-mouth referrals from peers and/or co-nationals who have experienced Thai HE. Geographical and cultural proximity to their home country are also important motivating factors. Other considerations include the perceived attractiveness of Thai cultures and people, and better opportunities to improve proficiency in the English language and in international communication skills than was available in their home countries. Among postgraduate international students, strong research support in some disciplines was noted and commended. A key positive for both staff and students was that academic life is ‘personalised’ in Thai universities, and that interpersonal relationships are perceived by international staff and students in many cases as being valued and fostered by local staff and students. Findings indicated there are two main negative themes emerging from the research. Firstly, difficulties for some staff and students with the Thai language, and with local, regional varieties, which tended to exacerbate social isolation and so cause difficulties in adjustment. The second main issue related to the difficulties associated with government and HE institutional bureaucracy, which was generally perceived, especially among staff, as confusing and over-officious and so an impediment to effective practice. Findings also indicated that ‘internationalisation’ as framed by Thai HE Institutions tended to be defined in terms of recruitment and retention, although an apparently increasing emphasis was also being placed on making the experience culturally and academically rewarding, although the framing of ‘culture’ did tend to be essentialised. The insights gained from this research project may influence strategies and practices to enhance Thai HE’s reputation and effectiveness, and our presentation for Glocer will show how positive aspects can be enhanced and disseminated, and negative factors mitigated. This advice will be made accessible free to all via web-based dissemination of aspects of good practice, and recommendations to Thai HE institutions. This should contribute positively to both recruitment and to the degree of positivity in the experience for non-Thai staff and students. It was also contribute to a wider understanding of how international staff and students in non-Western contexts like Thailand adapt psychologically, socioculturally and academically to the demands of HE, and so inform ongoing international debates about how best to approach, understand and enhance the ‘international experience’. ReferencesBoyatzis, R. E. 1998. Transforming Qualitative Information: Thematic Analysis and Code Development. 2nd ed. London: Sage. Mason, C. and Rawlings-Sanaei, F. (2014) Academic Migration, Discipline Knowledge and Pegagogical Practice: Voices from the Asia-Pacific. Singapore: Springer.Schartner A. & Young T.J. (2016). Towards an integrated conceptual model of international student adjustment and adaptation. European Journal of Higher Education. doi.10.1080/21568235.2016.1201775. Sinhaneti, K. (2011). Emerging trends of Thai higher education and case study of Shinawat University in coping with global challenges. US-China Education Review B 3: 370-381.Trahar, S. (2011) Changing Landscapes, Shifting Identities in Higher Education: Narratives of Academics in the UK. Research in Education 86, 1, 46 - 60 Trahar, S. (2014). ‘This is Malaysia. You have to follow the custom here’: narratives of the student and academic experience in international higher education in Malaysia. Journal of Education for Teaching, 40, 3, 217 – 231. UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) 2013. Global flow of tertiary-level students., T.J., Handford M and Schartner A, (Eds.) (2017). The Internationalising University – An Intercultural Endeavour?Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. Young, T. J., Sercombe, P. G., Sachdev, I., Naeb, R., and Schartner A. (2013). Success factors for international postgraduate students’ adjustment: Exploring the roles of intercultural competence, language proficiency, social contact and social support.” European Journal of Higher Education. doi: 10.1080/21568235.2012.743746

Publication metadata

Author(s): Young TJ, Snodin NS

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Published

Conference Name: Global Conference on Education and Research

Year of Conference: 2018

Print publication date: 09/02/2018

Acceptance date: 21/01/2018

Date deposited: 27/04/2018

Publisher: Association of North America Higher Education International (ANAHEI)