No more lost in transition

4th January 2008 at 00:00
Overseas students in Scotland now have a college to bridge the gap between school and university. Douglas Blane reports.

Transitions are tough in education. School to university is perhaps the toughest of them all. Throw in a foreign language, an unfamiliar culture and a location a long way from home, and it's not surprising that young people from abroad can sometimes struggle when they come to Scotland to study.

Too many international students return home prematurely to face a disappointed family and pick up the pieces of a learning adventure gone wrong. This could often have been avoided with more support and understanding of the challenges they face here. A new institution, run jointly by Glasgow University and Kaplan International Colleges, is offering overseas students a helping hand over the barriers to higher education.

English language is the most obvious and perhaps the most forbidding of these, says Liming Zou, 24, who came to Glasgow International College from Dalian in north-eastern China to study for a business masters degree. And vocabulary is the most difficult aspect of the language, he adds. "I don't feel the grammar is too different. But there are a lot of new words to learn."

Improved confidence and fluency in English is one of the objectives of the curriculum at Glasgow International College, but its entire compass is much wider, says director Jackie Main. "Students who successfully complete the foundation course go straight into second year at Glasgow University. So we are teaching them the subject-specific knowledge and skills they need."

The third and critical component - besides English language and subject knowledge - is academic skills.

"We prepare them for their studies at a UK university," explains the director. "We show them how the university works, how to use the library, to structure and reference an essay, to avoid plagiarism.

"They learn what they can expect from the university - and what the university will expect of them."

This can come as a surprise even to Scottish school-leavers, so young people from other cultures can find themselves grappling with alien ideas. In some cases, what a UK university requires is diametrically opposed to what their own society would insist upon.

"We have quite large numbers of students from China," says learning support tutor Katy Fisher. "They have a hard time at first with our insistence on critical thinking."

Respect for established wisdom is deeply embedded in Chinese culture, so young students would not presume to question a lecturer or an academic source. "But Western universities demand that students analyse and criticise. It is only now, at the end of two months here, that my students are starting to speak out in class."

On the other hand, students from some Arab countries are perfectly happy to argue, discuss and debate, says Ms Fisher. "But they can be less keen on writing. In Iran, the writing seems to be very poetic, so I have to ask our Iranian students to work at keeping it simple and straightforward."

In a college that has almost 20 nationalities among its first intake of 100 students - the target is 1,000 by the year 2011 - this sensitivity to cultural mores might seem to place huge demands on staff.

- The teaching is intensive and demanding, admits Ms Fisher. "But being aware of how people are learning, and of the differences among individuals, is something you are always doing as a teacher."

Differences are less apparent among the students when asked for their first impressions of the country that will be their home for the next few years. "I thought it was cold," says Reema Reema, 27, from the Punjab in India. "Another thing I'm not used to is most places closing after dark. At home we would all go out in the evening, and there would be lots of people around." Other students nod in agreement.

Daytime in Glasgow is a different matter, says Reza Torabi, 20, an undergraduate from Iran studying architecture and engineering. "If you ask somebody the way, they don't just tell you, they come with you to make sure you get there. "

Educational differences are also apparent, with a great deal being expected of young people elsewhere as soon as they leave school, say the students.

"I studied for a time in Dubai, and they told us to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for the very next day," Iman says. "I had never done one before. So what we are getting here is very useful."

While making progress in scaling the language barrier, the students encounter another in the structure of an academic essay. What they are being taught at Glasgow International College - which is what the university will expect of them - often differs, they say, from what they have learnt elsewhere.

Combined with the large classes common in regular university first years, and the limited individual tuition these allow, this helps explain why able international students can sometimes struggle with assessments, and not know why.

"Regular one-to-one contact is a key aspect of what we provide," says Jackie Main. "Small classes - 20 to 30 students - are another." It is a balance: if we provide too much support - if the college is too different from the university - then we are not really preparing them for that. It is a balance that I think we have got about right."

The emphasis at Glasgow International College is on learning and teaching, says Katy Fisher, but there is also a pastoral element, particularly in the first few weeks. "We move in close initially. Then, as the students gain confidence and skills, we gradually step back from them. Quite soon they are independent and doing fine."

Glasgow trailblazer

The partnership between Glasgow University and Kaplan International Colleges is the first of its kind in Scotland. Two others opened in Sheffield (2005) and Nottingham (2006). Subjects offered at Glasgow International College are science, engineering, business, law and social sciences.

Students complete three terms - two if their International English Language Testing System scores are high enough - before entering undergraduate second year or a masters programme at Glasgow University.

Entrance requirements, tuition fees and application procedure at

Kaplan Colleges www.kaplan. comaplaninternational.htm.

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