Book Reviews Roving Reader

Guests from Overseas

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The Roving Reader Files


Thousands of students are flooding back into Manchester. Here at the Resource Centre we’ve been busy preparing for this enthusiastic new cohort of scholars. Thankfully the Roving Reader has had the time to take a more reflective view of proceedings.

Anyone who hasn’t noticed that Manchester recently exploded with students must have just come from Mars. So for any Martians out there – the academic year’s beginning, lectures are starting, and the buses are full to bursting. Take my advice. Add another half hour to your journey so you get to your destination on time…

But hang on a minute! Stand back and take a closer look. Have you ever thought how many in the fresh-faced crowd are from overseas?

It’s not that easy to be an international student. Sure, nowadays there seems to be lots of help. Here in the University of Manchester there’s a free orientation programme, dedicated web and Facebook pages, whole teams of ‘ambassadors’ scouring the campus for lost souls needing help. There are even tailor-made information packs telling students exactly what they’re letting themselves in for.

Photo of a group of international students
© University of Manchester

But does all that make up for being light years away from family and friends in a foreign land, surrounded by a foreign language, participating in incomprehensible seminars next to fellow students with whom you have little in common?

International students have always had it hard. The Centre’s shelves sag under the weight of several studies which chart what used to be called ‘the overseas student experience’. Dating from the 1960s onwards, they’re interesting reading if you like tiny print, statistics and catalogues of woe. But, hey, you don’t have to plough that far to realise that in the minds of many people in Britain thirty or forty years ago, the words ‘overseas student’ meant either ‘immigrant’ (that fearful monster lurking in the shadows to take our jobs and houses) or ‘recipient of our educational beneficence in raising up the natives abroad’ (usually for a fat fee).

Many in the international fraternity might have been forgiven for thinking they were being viewed rather like a round object with udders. What do I mean? Well, wouldn’t you call an overseas student a bit of a ‘political football’ (the round bit), or even a ‘cash cow’ (okay, I think even you can imagine that’s where the udders fit in)? Together these images create the perfect metaphor to describe international students in the economically-straightened 1970s and 1980s.

In 1963 an influential report on Higher Education had put forward the ‘official’ view that promoting international student education in the UK might encourage some warm and fuzzy sense of ‘international community’ among the nations – as well as increase diplomatic and economic advantages for the UK of course. But international students themselves saw it differently. Forget the warm and fuzzy bit. They prioritised the potential for enhancing their lifelong earning capacity and general material improvement, not to mention their own personal status and that of their families back home.

A diverse bunch from over a hundred different countries, all international students faced common problems, both academic and social. Education in the UK was lecture and seminar based. Yet all those years ago too many students arrived without enough English to benefit from the experience, and without knowing how to guide their own private study. Some hadn’t even received basic information and advice beforehand to ensure they started courses of a suitable type and level when they got here.

Outside of academic life many had financial difficulties, coping with sub-standard accommodation and a chronic lack of meaningful contact with the host community. Very little help was available to smooth the way in a new, bewildering social and cultural environment. And on top of that, many faced racial discrimination, particularly if they were Africans or West Indians.

What a brew! Is it surprising that the collective hopes of student, family and community back home were dashed for more than one in four of these hopefuls? No. Tragic, isn’t it?

I ask you, who’d be a ‘guest from overseas’ in Britain if all the thanks you get is to be kicked around as a political football in times of economic recession, and milked of money like a cow for the privilege, regardless of whether times are good or bad? Think about it.

So next time you’re on a bus sandwiched between too many students, if you’re British do me a favour. Remember that at least this is your home. Think about those who’ve come here from so far away to an unfamiliar place, maybe to an unfriendly welcome. Proffer the hand of friendship. It’s the least you can do.

Some studies I ploughed through and invite you to enjoy include: International Community? A Report on the Welfare of Overseas Students (1967); Problems of Overseas Students and Nurses (1970); Exploring Education. Students from Overseas (1971);  Freedom to Study. Requirements of Overseas Students in the UK (1978); The Overseas Student Question. Studies for a Policy (1981); Overseas Students and Their Place of Study. Report of a Survey (1986);  Homes Far from Home. A Study of the Housing Needs and Expectations of Overseas Students in Britain (1990).


By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

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