Despite a range of teaching innovations displayed, there was a deficit narrative present through a persistent sense among interviewees that international students were perceived to ‘lack’ certain skills. Our participants particularly focused on skills for discussion, teamwork, academic writing, understanding plagiarism, and the use of appropriate subject-specific terminology, the absence of which made it difficult for international students in particular to access the curriculum. Facilitating skills development was, thus, one of the teaching practices adopted to support students’ transitions to UK HE: ‘I tend to think of my curricula more in terms of what the students can do and how they’re thinking’ (Participant 7, Language and area studies, Russell Group).
One of the key skills highlighted was around communication, in particular being able to explain and situate their understanding of the subject matter. In the case of participants in mathematics and sciences, this was highlighted as a way of developing skills for conceptualising and expressing complex applied concepts.
So it’s trying to get them to actually talk maths, rather than doing maths. What, what I tried to do, at least for the first years, get them to talk more and more, and it’s not easy. (Participant 45, Mathematical sciences, Russell Group)
Again, I still think even when I’m teaching math and undergrad has a lot of conceptual understanding of why we’re doing this process. And you know, what’s meant by further transform, describe in applications, you’re describing words, describing pictures, what it is (Participant 41, Physical sciences, Russell Group)
Other participants highlighted the importance of skills development specifically for international students, especially as a tool for encouraging engagement. This was often reflected from a place of deficit, referring to international students’ lack of knowledge about norms of practice in UK HE. Thus, this was one example of the more ‘adaptation’ approach to supporting international students:
And I tend to focus on seminar skills in every class, teaching students to ask questions and to build on students’ ideas, … because international students have never been taught to learn through discussion, nor have home students. (Participant 16, Education and teaching, Russell Group).
It definitely means that we have to help our international students understand why we engage in Socratic dialogue, and to help them through small steps, you know, progressively larger steps to help them engage in it. (Participant 40, Education and teaching, Russell Group)
However, other participants were more reflective about how skills development can be used to mitigate against inherent inequalities of HE. For instance, one participant suggested that this was an important endeavour not because of international students’ deficits, but because of the culture of academic gatekeeping:
I think quite often, in an academic culture, there’s so much gatekeeping, around, you know, and if you don’t know these clues, and symbols, or even when to speak, or how to do it. (Participant 15, Creative arts and design, University Alliance)
The incorporation of skills development into subject teaching was, therefore, seen in this circumstance an important step to making these ‘clues and symbols’ explicit, rather than implicit or assumed.
The ‘default academic essay’ was seen by some participants to marginalise international students, and, indeed, many other ‘non-traditional’ students for whom the genre of Academic English is new. Yet, despite innovations in assessments undertaken by some to mitigate this, essays remained a major form of assessment for many participants. In these circumstances, it was often felt that lecturers are neither trained nor resourced to teach students ‘how to write’, and struggled to find time in the curriculum to build in skills for writing, an attitude explicitly critiqued by some of our participants. For example:
It’s a really interesting idea that some lecturers have about what the pre-sessional course is and what it can do. It’s like a panacea, all students will go through the precession and come out this sort of perfectly linguistically competent students, where it’s actually so much more of a transition, you know that this is an ongoing development of their language. And they often think that it’s not their job, it’s the job of the pre-sessional course. They think that that’s where the language work happens, and they have zero accountability or responsibility for it. (Participant 28, Education and teaching, Unaffiliate pre-1992)
That’s colleagues who don’t think about how they can help the international student or what the international student might need. It is very much seen to ‘Oh, well, you know, if I have an international student that has a problem, I signpost them to EAP’. I don’t know how much reflection is going on about ‘Okay, we’re seeing a large number of international students in my group, similar classes, how do I accommodate them? I don’t think that happens as much. (Participant 22, Language and area studies, Post-1992)
This ‘outsourcing’ of support to the institutional Writing Centre, EAP department, or English Language Teaching Team seems to be a common form of academic gate-keeping and of managing resources in a challenging context. However, as one participant highlighted, this overlooks the role that discipline and subject play in developing norms for academic writing:
British higher education is basically structured on the principle that there is a separation of content from language. Content is what engineers, sociologists, philosophers, mathematicians teach. While the language that’s used to communicate this content is seen as something separate. And that work is devolved to language centre people who are not specialists, philosophers, engineers or mathematicians. The fundamental problem is that it’s an artificial and unreal separation, because you can’t separate the language of mathematics from mathematics. Essentially, we need to think about how what we teach is a discourse in which language and content are inextricably interwoven and see subject teaching in a more expanded way. It’s not just about constructing knowledge, it’s about communicating about knowledge, as well. In other words, module tutors will have to become more responsible for making language visible in their classrooms. I think that would go a huge way to solving the problems that not just our international students have, but also all our students have, because academic communication is nobody’s you know, primary discourse, it’s nobody’s first language. Everybody has to learn it. (Participant 40, Education and teaching, Russell Group)
Several participants similarly suggested that this centralization of language and writing support ignores the importance of discipline- or subject-specific learning. For example, some lecturers argued for lack of recognition for how discipline knowledge intersects with language and academic skills. However, these participants still reflected on difficulties in challenging this perspective, particularly under time and workload restraints.
I guess what one thing I’ve noticed happening is a centralization and generalization of support. Well, I don’t actually believe or follow the idea of generic language or academic support, because I think research has shown us that that’s fairly…that discipline-specific learning is really key to development. (Participant 9, Computing, Million+)
I don’t think there’s any such thing as skills which can transfer from one area to another. I think they just have to know the subject, and once they know the subject, then you could say, Oh, look, they’ve got good skills, whereas in actual fact, the only reason they’re able to show good skills is because they know the subject. (Participant 20, Business and management, Unaffiliated post-1992)
In some circumstances, perceived challenges around writing and academic language manifested in changes to entry requirements for international students. This was described by one participant as:
They’ve now set up a series of extra support sessions, both academic skills and language, for international students because I think, probably they realised, with the way we recruit with a 2:2 entry point, 7.0 point for Chinese students which is really low. We need extra support for language so that there is a bit available, at least. (Participant 12, Language and area studies, University Alliance)
For others, it meant giving occasional lectures or workshops. For example, Participant 8 (Engineering and technology, Unaffiliated pre-1992) described showing students in real time how plagiarism assessment tools work and how lecturers evaluate assignments for malpractice. Others reflected on developing partnerships with experts in their academic language centres to embed lessons into content-based course units.
We sort of pioneered an embedded approach to academic literacy support with our…cutting edge language centre, where all the stuff they do is really relevant to the things that students need to master, if they’re going to succeed on our programs. It is a matter of essentially transforming literacy practices, particularly to do with argumentation, to do with orchestration of voice, taking sources and interweaving them into an argument. (Participant 40, Education and teaching, Russell Group)
Another participant (Participant 34, Language and area studies, Unaffiliated pre-1992) described having staff from the academic language centre and disability services centre observe her teaching and review her virtual learning environment page to provide advice for being more inclusive for students.
Other innovative examples to embed language skills include one participant (Participant 41, Physical sciences, Russell Group), who developed a glossary for key terms to support with learning disciplinary language in a science laboratory. Similarly, two participants (Participant 9. Computing, Million+; Participant 20, Business and management, Unaffiliated post-1992) described an ‘anti-glossary’, intended to critically evaluate and demystify common terminology used in assessment (‘evaluate’, ‘describe’, ‘explain’, etc.) and how they might be understood differently by individuals. (Participant 26, Education and teaching, Unaffiliated pre-1992) described the use of ‘translanguaging’ in their classroom, whereby students were encouraged to incorporate their linguistic knowledges beyond English into the classroom. A diagnostic assignment for formative feedback, marked by personal tutors, was indicated as another route to supporting students in academic writing. (Participant 12, Language and area studies, University Alliance). Together, these demonstrate innovations that are explicitly designed with linguistic inclusivity in mind.
Yet, a fully embedded approach was by no means the norm, and processes of ‘acculturation’ or ‘adaptation’ remained at the forefront for many participants. For example, induction activities or skills workshops were often described as ‘quick fixes’ to perceived challenges of differentiated skills. As described by one participant:
It’s things like letting people know very early in the programme that we expect them to engage critically with work, to take a contrary view. So trying to be explicit about some of those norms. Some of that is done in our department in a set of workshops, tutorials, as an introductory module in intro week, not assessed as no credit-bearing associated with it, but it’s a, it’s a short module where they do group work, they do some primary research, they have to present and everyone’s throwing together and to do that over a really, really compressed period. (Participant 29, Social sciences, Russell Group)
Together, these myriad approaches demonstrate the tensions between ‘adaptation’ and ‘transformation’, which were often simultaneously influenced by personal reflections of epistemology and the realities of teaching under massified systems with high workloads.