The drive to internationalise: Not always a smooth ride

Intercultural awareness and understanding cannot be fostered through language policy or guidelines. The University of Hong Kong has made great progress in internationalisation, but has also found that the reality is often quite different from the rhetoric.

The drive to internationalise: Not always a smooth ride

Internationalisation is the buzzword of the day. One of the pioneers in this field is the University of Hong Kong. Its Professor of English Language and Literature Amy Tsui visited Helsinki at the end of April. Tsui is a member of two international assessment panels, one looking at the University of Helsinki and the other its Faculty of Arts. This was the latter panel’s second visit to Helsinki.

English is the language of internationalisation

Tsui sees an almost intrinsic link between internationalisation and the increasing use of English: at her home university, all lecture courses are given in English. A third of the students come from outside Hong Kong.

In Helsinki, international students account for approximately five to eight per cent of all students, depending on the method of calculation used. The higher figure also includes exchange students.

The University of Hong Kong receives a considerable number of students from other parts of China. Language problems are inevitable as the inhabitants of mainland China speak Mandarin, while those in Hong Kong use Cantonese. When a Beijing native leaves the Chinese capital to study in Hong Kong, it is almost like going abroad. As a lingua franca, English is a good compromise.

Amy Tsui has been one of the advocates of English at her home university. She is familiar with both the official guidelines and stumbling blocks often encountered in international learning environments. She has also conducted a survey of students about their experiences.

Coping with daily stressors can be frustrating

The fancy rhetoric of internationalisation does not help individuals deal with the difficulties they experience daily. Subtle nuances of thought are lost when expressed in a foreign language. Perhaps surprisingly, the students Tsui interviewed found more casual conversation difficult. They are familiar with academic terminology in English, but have a limited vocabulary for everyday situations. As a result, conversation loses its spontaneity, and jokes fall flat when translated into a foreign language.

Cultural stereotypes may also be so deep-rooted that not even a shared language helps. Students from Hong Kong may see their counterparts from China as "academic machines" who concentrate only on their studies. International students, in contrast, have a reputation as cliquey partyers.

To outsiders, the locals appear quiet and passive. The reasons are not always obvious – some may think that giving a wrong answer simply wastes other students’ time, while others worry that their language skills are not good enough.

The weakened status of national languages has also raised concerns in China. Critics of the increasing use of English ask why Chinese literature and culture should be studied in English. Tsui offers a different view: an international perspective helps to expand our cultural horizons.

New educational content

For the University of Helsinki, increasing English-language teaching and international activities is not a goal in itself.

– Do not focus solely on the figures, urges Esko Koponen, the University’s International Education Adviser.

– Our international activities should be based on the needs of each discipline. What can the international dimension contribute to the content of teaching or the methods and processes of learning and teaching, say, at the Master’s level? And how can we attract the right international students with the highest academic potential to the University of Helsinki to pursue our English-language programmes?

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Text: Suvi Uotinen
Photo: Mika Federley
University of Helsinki, digital communications

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