The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

1. International students learning Economics: the UK 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*(note 1) 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.’

International competition for quality and cost-effective Economics education is rapidly increasing. UK HE strives to remain an attractive destination for international students, and even expand international recruitment, but faces deep challenges (see for example, Sastry and Bekhradnia, 2007). Despite evidence of the UK’s competitive advantage in international education at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels (Universities UK, 2015, 2016), politically-driven restrictions are also shaping the sector's international reputation (Pells, 2016; Adams, 2016; Beall, 2017; Conlon, Ladher and Halterbeck, 2017).

International students in UK universities provide many benefits, with EU students alone reportedly generating £3.7bn for the UK economy and supporting in excess of 34,000 jobs (Universities UK, 2014). But there also a number of challenges posed by international students. UK Economics lecturers have varied responses to the number and diversity of international students in classes, some seeing this as beneficial to students’ learning and others highlighting the difficulties.(note 2)

The importance of motivation in academic learning is recognised by many authors (for examples see Maclellan, 2005 and Lanzt, 2007). 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 expectation 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 the choice of a particular career direction can be influenced by a motivational lecturer or teacher (apart from status and money!). 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.

Prior 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 highly motivated by their experience in the UK can become excellent ambassadors, in turn motivating 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 on social media, thus 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. 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.


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

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