6. Supporting International Students of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
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LSE is a world leading university, specialised in the social sciences including economics, politics, accounting, finance, geography, sociology, philosophy and anthropology. LSE has an outstanding reputation for academic excellence with a total of 16 of its alumni or staff having been awarded Nobel Prizes to date, 12 of which are in Economic Sciences.
The level of competition for places at LSE is very high, which makes it the most oversubscribed university in London. Because of its reputation, LSE draws some of the very best students in the world with 150 countries represented. Whilst there is no doubt that LSE is privileged in its ability to attract funding, it can be argued that many effective approaches used in practice to support international students are due to the lively engagement of staff rather than to the availability of funds for particular initiatives.
6.2 Diversity at LSE: a tradition
LSE has traditionally attracted a very high percentage of international students, both at the undergraduate and taught and research postgraduate level. This is comparatively new for many other HE institutions teaching and researching in Economics in the UK.
LSE is described as being a multi-lingual institution, and there are probably more Mandarin native speakers than English native speakers amongst its students. The culture of supporting international students is so embedded in the practice of staff at all levels, that it is sometimes difficult for staff to identify and articulate what it is that they do that so effectively supports international students.
At the undergraduate level, the intake at LSE is approximately 1,000 students, of which the Economics cohort is around 200. Many degrees offered at LSE have an Economics component, so that some of the subjects have a very eclectic mix and large numbers of undergraduates. The primary focus of some of the students in such mixed cohorts may not be Economics and they may choose not to study any other Economics courses whilst at LSE.
The first year course 'Economics B', typically attended by 800 undergraduates, is a relatively technical introductory course that provides a foundation to undergraduates who do not necessarily have a background in Economics, but who anticipate to have more Economics components in their degree. It tends to be compulsory for those on more technical degrees, such as B.Sc. Economics and B.Sc. Mathematics and Economics. In contrast, 'Economics A' is a non-technical introductory course for undergraduates who are unlikely to take further courses in Economics. Courses with Economics that include a Philosophy, Anthropology or Politics core, make classes very interesting and give Economics core students the ability to broaden their horizons. This is because of the type of questions and observations that such a diverse cohort can elicit. Adding the international experiences to this environment can really make some of these mixed courses very rewarding intellectually for students and staff alike.
6.3 Avoiding the domination of the mono-culture group
One of the attractions for international students is that LSE is within walking distance of the financial centre of London, which is known to recruit heavily from LSE. Students from all over the world who apply to study Economics at LSE tend to be very highly career focused. In Economics there is a focus on developing technical and human skills that are transferable to such highly competitive work environments. Therefore, LSE students do not have any problems in being offered internships in their country of origin followed by job opportunities, as LSE is a very sought after institution worldwide.
LSE encourages all students to mix and widen their horizons as part of their employability skills. Because of the very high number of international students at LSE, it is usual to have several people from the same country, or who share the same native language, in the same classroom. Students are made aware of the importance of learning from each others’ cultures for personal enrichment and because of the value that that represents for their careers, as economists tend to work in very internationally diverse environments.
Students come to understand that in future they are likely to work with a diversity of people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and that at LSE they can all contribute to a cultural learning environment. The awareness that people from different cultures have culture-related perspectives and needs, and the willingness to embrace that, entails the development of understanding and skills very much appreciated in the international fast-moving workplace. These skills include specific knowledge of different cultures, cross-cultural communication skills, resourcefulness, openness and adaptability.
During orientation week, there are many activities organised to encourage international and UK students to mix, including games run by the Economics Network, which are very well received by all students.
Another related issue is to ensure that international students use English to communicate with their peers in class rather than other common languages at LSE including Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, French or Spanish. An approach is to make it very clear to all students that the easiest option for them is indeed to speak the language they are most fluent in, but that by doing so they are missing out on opportunities to develop their English language skills.
Working in highly competitive environments, LSE graduates will need to be comfortable speaking in English with people from different international backgrounds, with different accents, and different ways of expressing themselves in English. So the more they practise speaking in English during their degrees, the better chances they have when applying for jobs to show such skills, and the better trained they will be when they start their professional careers. Making all students aware of this, and reiterating it during the first few classes, tends to be enough to encourage the use of English alone during class time and also, frequently, outside class.
6.4 Supporting international students to participate in class
With the large sizes of international student cohorts in some Economics subjects, clarity of what LSE expects from all the students is absolutely essential. So during orientation week students attend lectures that explain precisely what the teachers expect from the students and what the students can expect from the teachers. One of the important topics discussed at length is that LSE expect students to participate in class. For international students in particular, it is essential to support the development of skills that enable them to participate in class. This includes asking questions in general, or simply asking for clarification of points they have not understood; to propose alternatives to the arguments; to express agreement and disagreement; and more generally to contribute with their insights to a discussion. All these communication skills are absolutely fundamental for the success of international students at LSE and for their future careers in international professional environments.
Many international students come from cultures where interrupting the lecturer and questioning what is being said is not the norm, and is even considered rude. Understandably, for such international students to get used to a system where they are being encouraged to do something that would be impolite in their countries of origin, can initially be very difficult. Other international students may be very worried about the consequences of getting their answers wrong in class, or asking questions and making comments that may be considered stupid in front of their lecturer and peers. This may be compounded by the worry of not being able to articulate their answers in clear enough English. Students who are not understood will typically apologise profusely for their bad English and never dare participate again!
Furthermore, international students can easily feel that they are somehow responsible for not understanding their teachers and that their English should be better. For many international students in particular, it is also difficult realising that they might have been the best students in their class before, but that at LSE they are average. This can truly be a culture shock in itself. Many of these students are very reluctant to ask for help as they always managed to achieve very good results without needing any support, so at LSE staff aim to change this attitude from the beginning. Emphasising that the students who get the best marks are the ones who ask for help encourages students to change their behaviour as it reassures them that they too should seek support.
Teachers at LSE are very experienced in teaching international students and are fully aware of the particular anxieties that international students may have in contributing in class both due to cultural conditioning but also due to insecurities relating to the level of English language. Staff know that it is very easy to erode the confidence of international students and discourage them from participating in future classes. So the issue of participating in class has to be reiterated a number of times, and LSE staff are keen to ensure that international students feel comfortable in contributing in class. One of the approaches that staff adopt is to explain how students are expected to contribute, including hand-raising and waiting for their turn to talk. This is important as when they first attempt to contribute some international students interrupt whoever is speaking without first indicating that they wish to talk. Students cannot quite understand why their contribution is not welcomed, and experience frustration and confusion.
Another approach that is very helpful initially in supporting international students is to give all students a set of possible questions that may be asked during the class, so that they can get used to the type of questions and prepare their answers in their own time. When asking international students new questions it is good practice to give them time to think, to write down some notes and to discuss their thoughts with a colleague before asking them to share their answers with the whole class. It is sometimes the case that international students do not immediately answer questions because they simply do not understand the question itself. So teachers need to be sensitive and aware of the language used to address and question students, as frequently what a native speaker may think is a perfectly clear comment or question is not at all clear to international students who then miss the point.
6.5 Stretching exceptionally high-ability international students
LSE staff have an important role in preventing stereotypes and expectations from dominating the discourse as they may impact negatively on the achievement of very high-ability international students. Some international students that come to LSE are not only outstanding in mathematics and quantitative subjects in general, but they can also develop superb written skills and are able to advance very sophisticated arguments in writing. With students that achieve such promising results, LSE staff know how important it is to be very specific in the feedback given about what areas these students can develop to make their work even stronger.
Staff are very keen to stretch the very top students, and to prevent that such students become bored by assignments that they do not find particularly challenging. An approach that can be very effective is the introduction of a notional ‘top amongst the top’ mark for those who are prepared to engage with the subject at a much higher level, and who work and research further. Such students then tend to follow the lectures by asking questions that really stretch their knowledge. Bringing in additional incentives to perform well in written assignments is particularly important for international students for whom English is not their native language.
LSE100 is a compulsory, interdisciplinary, two-term course that gives undergraduate students an opportunity to gain from the wide-ranging expertise at LSE. The approach to teaching and learning adopted is particularly suited to support international students as the teachers are trained to engage these students and support their active learning. To complement the lectures, LSE100 has small, interactive, task-based classes, where students are encouraged to learn from collaborating and debating with peers from other disciplines and cultural backgrounds. International students in particular gain from the new learning technologies and web resources used as they can access them at their pace, in their own time. LSE100 also invites experts from all over the world to contribute.
LSE100 is taught in the second term of the first year, and the first term of the second year and it is organised as an integrated programme across departments comprising 20 lectures and 20 classes. It aims to expand the intellectual grounding and experience of all students, and their understanding of their own discipline. Students are challenged to engage with six grand themes in three-week modules each using evidence, explanations, concepts and models from different social sciences. The course enables students to develop skills at the basis of social scientific thinking and research including methodological, information and communication skills.
The communication skills training provided, including that on planning and producing structured, well researched, logical and engaging arguments orally and in writing, is particularly relevant in supporting international students as they have to engage with their peers to draw conclusions, develop arguments and debate the positions taken.
6.7 Student Union Societies at LSE
There are over 150 careers, academic, national and cultural student societies at LSE, which play a very important role in supporting international students. Student societies offer many opportunities for international students to develop employability skills that support or complement their academic skills. Training includes team building, applying for jobs and interview skills, leadership and networking.
In addition, the LSE is possibly unique in the UK in the extent to which student societies facilitate for students to meet employers from all over the world. Student societies have very close links with international high-profile employers and are fundamental in enhancing career opportunities for international LSE graduates. Societies organise exchange programmes around the world, and provide career and internship opportunities in countries such as Russia, China, Poland and more extended geographical areas, such as Africa and Asia. These societies are very active at negotiating sponsorships from companies and at inviting speakers to give lectures. The lectures have a social networking component, and students have the opportunity to gain highly specialised insights and to meet and interact with very interesting people who are doing the jobs students want to get into.
International students in particular also have the opportunity to develop networking skills, including how to introduce themselves to people they consider important and how to maintain a conversation in a very competitive environment, since many students are similarly trying to get noticed. The experience of asserting themselves, of asking questions in public and of representing their interests is very good training for real-life situations, particularly at interviews. For many international students this is all very new, and they gain from the highly intense peer environment.
Student societies promote diverse aspects of international cultural awareness at LSE. There are a number of international student-led clubs and events, and one interesting outcome is the collaboration between LSE catering and international student societies, whereby the caterers learn cuisine from different countries and then offer international menus on specified days. The students collaborate with caterers about the menus, in the decoration of the canteens and in choosing background music. This really encourages international students to feel they are not guests of the institution, but that they are very much active participants and are fundamental in supporting the whole LSE community in learning about everyday cultural aspects of other countries.
The Economics Society is the largest academic society and is supported by the Economics Department. It organises talks, lectures, social events and debates and invites world leaders to share their views. It also runs homework help sessions. Students who get firsts in Economics B, can teach first year students. Several graduates of the Economics Society tutoring scheme have gone on to teach Economics B. These are often international students which add to the international feature of LSE, as the faculty and GTAs are equally a diverse group. From the perspective of the international students who have the chance to teach, this is a fantastic opportunity as they experiment and develop their teaching personality and language skills, as well as creative, alternative ways of explaining complex material to first year students. From the perspective of the students who are being taught, this can support retention, in particular of international students who initially may find it difficult to ask more senior teaching staff questions directly and may feel more comfortable asking questions in the more informal environment of these classes.
6.8 International Organisations Day
International Organisations Day allows LSE students to learn about leading multinational organisations, including the UN, the OECD and international development, investment and finance corporations. Senior recruitment and Human Resources staff give talks on career opportunities and the profile employers look for in international staff. Students can apply beforehand to be considered for interviews, with the possibility of being offered internships. This event supports international students at LSE in practising their communication and networking skills, as well as enabling them to widen their horizons in relation to future career opportunities.