The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

1. Motivating international students learning Economics in the UK: the context

Many international students come to the UK to study economics attracted both by the history of economics in the UK and the excellent teaching and research reputation of many Economics departments. The following quotes* suggest that international students enjoy the intellectual challenge of studying in institutions with a high reputation and believe that Economics will give them the opportunity to pursue a wide range of good careers in either the private or public sector:

  • ‘The opportunity to study at a prestigious institution of international repute, and the promise of intellectual stimulation.’
  • ‘I wanted to be part of one of the most appreciated educational systems in the developed world.’

When asked about the best aspects of their Economics course in the UK, students include the quality of teaching and the international environment*:

  • ‘Excellent teachers: have a deep knowledge of the subject and know how to transmit it to the students.’
  • ‘Meet different people from all over the world, being independent.’
  • ‘Meeting international students and learning more about other cultures.’

However, international competition for quality and cost-effective Economics education is rapidly increasing, and the sector faces new challenges in its attempt to remain an attractive destination for international students (see for example, Sastry and Bekhradnia, 2007). In recent years, many UK HE institutions have attempted to raise their international profile by recruiting a larger share of international students. The increase in the number of international students provides benefits but also poses challenges. UK Economics lecturers have varied responses to the growing number of international students in the classes, with some considering this as beneficial to students’ learning and others highlighting the challenges created+.

The importance of motivation in academic learning is recognised by many authors (for recent examples see Maclellan, 2005 and Lanzt, 2007). So, what is motivation and why should we consider it within the context of international students in Economics? As a working definition, motivation can be considered as ‘that which gives purpose and direction to behaviour’x;and motivating, as ‘providing incentives’. x

When we ask cohorts of international and UK lecturers and teachers ‘what constitutes a good lecturer or teacher?’, the responses show that irrespective of cultural background, there is an expectancy that the lecturer or teacher is fundamental in motivating students to learn. There is a shared understanding of the characteristics of a motivational lecturer or teacher that includes being passionate, enthusiastic and inspirational, combined with being knowledgeable, clear, structured, available and approachable. Even choice of a particular career direction (apart from status and money!) can be influenced by a motivational lecturer or teacher. Equally, a number of postgraduate students choose to do research with the academic they find to be most motivating – including having an appealing website or writing in a manner perceived to be enthusiastic. In our experience, no subject in Economics is inherently impossible to make interesting: any subject can be made clear, interesting and motivating or, conversely, confusing, boring and de-motivating.

As lecturers and teachers we are potential role models to all students, and our behaviour ‘can have a significant impact on students’ Lantz (2007). We can therefore mediate openness to diverse ways of being, and contribute to developing and sustaining academic environments where international students feel valued, included and motivated. However, we may inadvertently propagate unhelpful stereotypes regarding other cultures.

Previous to their arrival in the UK, international students will have been successful learners; their skills, knowledge and command of English are to the level required by UK admission criteria, and they will have received advice regarding the challenges of living and studying in the UK. But the challenges encountered when they arrive are often manifested in such unexpected ways that students may struggle to settle into their academic lives. The opinions of individual international students are very important since those who are motivated by the learning and research environments they experience in the UK can become excellent ambassadors and in turn motivate others. This is implicit in the following quotes:*

  • ‘I have always loved the British culture, history and the English language. So for me it was the only place where I wanted to study.’*
  • ‘(…) I already had friends studying in the country.’

Students can now share their thoughts in web-based discussion groups, blogs and websites aimed at ranking the quality of lectures and teachers, hence influencing the choices of other students.

Whilst UK universities have for many years organised activities specific to welcoming international students, particularly the induction week, there tends to be a separation of the social from the curricular, in that the presence of international students is visible and explicit in specifically designed social occasions, but invisible and barely implicit in learning and teaching contexts. Regarding this issue it is interesting to comment on the findings from the 2004 and 2008 Alumni Survey (Economics Graduates): the perceptions of alumni regarding their own awareness of cross-cultural issues has increased markedly from 2004 to 2008, but their perception of the role played by the degree itself for awareness of cross-cultural issues has not changed much. These results strongly suggest that there is a lot that can be done within learning and teaching of Economics to further support cross-cultural awareness and fluency of Economics graduates.

By developing an understanding of international students that acknowledges them as able, experienced learners who have been successful in other learning contexts, we can work from the constructive premise that the challenges faced are a result of conflicts between the expectations of the parties involved and their actual experience. Developing adequate approaches will facilitate the learning of international and UK students alike and nurture collaborative relationships that are beneficial for all. International students can be an invaluable asset if we facilitate and value their participation in the learning community. Staff and students alike can gain wider, richer and internationalised perspectives of Economics, and of personal and social choices linked to culture.

Motivating international students requires that we shift our thinking and practice to anticipate, differentiate and respond to their needs. International students can then benefit consistently from equivalent opportunities available to UK students, are more likely to feel valued and included, and are thus more likely to succeed. If we attend to the particular requirements of international learning contexts, we can develop understandings and skills to motivate all students studying or researching Economics in the UK.


* Quotations marked with * are drawn from Economics Network (2008) Economics Network Students Survey 2008, available at

+ Quotations marked with + are drawn from Economics Network (2007) Economics Network Lecturer Survey 2007, available at

x Quotations marked with the symbol x are drawn from