Language development for female students abroad

Language development for female students abroad EAIE Forum

The number of international students attending higher institutions in Ireland has surged in recent years, with Saudi Arabia’s Scholarship Programme undoubtedly contributing to the upturn. The financial impact on the economy is clear to see, however, the impact on these students moving to a non-segregated society is less clear, especially the females. As an academic English teacher, I have worked solely with Saudi Arabian students on foundation year programmes in Dublin. So observing their cross-cultural transition was part of my daily life. This transitioning process appeared, from my observations, to challenge females more so as they faced greater obstacles, both academically and socially, in comparison to their male counterparts. Consequently, developing their English language skills and mastering proficiency was inhibited due to their cultural beliefs that shape their behaviours.

This blog aims to illuminate the problems of Saudi females abroad. It also asks if more can be done at a policy level to enhance their language proficiency, learner experience and academic outcome in order to further enhance internationalisation.

Ireland’s Education strategy 2016-2020

In 2001, I sat among 300 other Irish students in lecture halls, but today’s demographics are dramatically different. Ireland’s Education Strategy 2016-2020 reflects on the success of international education and outlines 24 specific actions to promote the sector further. Driven by economic incentives, the strategy measures success quantitatively and depends on financial gains. Unquestionably, growth is welcomed, however, it should not be at the cost of educational outcomes and integration practices. Ireland has experienced an 85% increase in non-EU students between 2010-2011 and 2014-2015 with a significant proportion arriving from Saudi Arabia; a gender-segregated country with low English proficiency.

As the sector and class sizes grow, the needs of students will alter. The strategy reassures us that the content of the curricula has become ‘more comprehensive’ and internationalised, leading me to question what content has been adapted already. Rather than outlining policies to internationalise the curricula, we need to integrate the language needs of the students into the curricula. Expecting an Arabic speaker with an intermediate level of English to have the same level of comprehension as a native English speaker is outlandish. Although institutions offer extra English classes, students are often expected to pay extra and the teachers have little experience in the student’s discipline, resulting in low attendance.

To be a driver of quality in international education, policies must be included that actually consider the needs of the changing student body.

The costs of gender on education

Studying in a foreign language and integrating into a new society is difficult. Arriving in a liberal mixed-gender environment that aims to promote your voice when you have never known this before is even more difficult. This may often be overlooked as we can place false expectations on students. Perhaps we expect females that arrive in a liberal society to be liberated and easily find their voice. Expecting them to sit at the front of the class, to ask questions, to engage with males without anxiety and to confidently walk alone on our streets. None of the females I taught were able to achieve any of these tasks easily.

Privately tutoring siblings, I saw how gender impacted their language development. Salimah lived with her younger brother and chaperone, Sultan, and avoided going to the shop or making phone calls for fear of encountering a man. Sultan adopted all of these roles and although he was not studying English as long as his sister, his fluency developed rapidly. Salimah wore a full veil which also hindered her in class as it removed the teacher’s ability to read facial expressions and body language to gauge if there was a problem. After two years of studying English in Ireland, Salimah entered university and dropped out six weeks later.

When teaching interview skills, the females laughed at our custom of shaking the interviewer’s hand. I had completely overlooked the fact that they could not shake a male’s hand. One female student had already experienced this; pulling away from the male interviewer, she felt embarrassed, did not explain her reasoning on religious or cultural grounds, forgot everything, ruined the interview and her opportunity at that university.

Monitoring international students in Ireland

The Irish Student Survey of Engagement (ISSE) measures the student experiences of first, final year and postgraduate students. In 2017, 27.2% completed the survey. With 40 pages of results, the answers to just seven questions drew my attention and raised my concerns.

Table 1 and 2 below are adaptations of the ISSE (2017) report and present the percentage of respondents that answered ‘never’ and ‘very little’ to questions asked.

Table 1: Percentage of students who answered ‘never’

Table 2: Percentage of students who answered ‘very little’

(Adapted from the ISSE report, 2017)

Table 1 shows that over 2000 (10.6%) of first years did not engage at all verbally in their learning environment. Furthermore, over 20% received ‘very little’ feedback on their work and almost 40% never discussed their academic performance. This can hinder a student’s development, especially a non-native student.

The need to measure the student’s experience is more important now. One in six students are reportedly dropping out of first year and an ‘essay mill’ epidemic is occurring in the UK with students buying essays and academics writing them. Unfortunately, the ISSE report seems to be the most comprehensive analysis of student experience, yet it categorises students as ‘male’ or ‘female’ and ‘Irish’ or ‘non-Irish’. By not cross-referencing country of origin and gender, danger exists for problems to persist. When asked to recommend improvements in teaching, a female student wrote; ‘Clearly identify assignments when we are first given them.’ This is one female student’s voice with origin unknown.

Improving internationalisation policies for females

The UN’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal is to ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. This needs to be for all women in all societies who are facing challenging times. Strategies must contain actionable policies that allow females to develop their language proficiency and their voice. It is important that their voice can be heard so that they become advocates for education, for studying abroad, but more importantly, advocates for gender equality the world over.

To achieve this, the government and educational providers need to enhance their monitoring of the student’s experience and allow for continual feedback cycles. Engagement will highlight problem areas and give the institution a chance to resolve persistent issues so to improve retention rates and academic success. Female-only discussion groups with a female teacher or counsellor would further allow students to ask questions and present their problems beyond the academic context. Additionally, female students could be partnered with native English females within their academic course to offer learning support and aid integration.

Overall, none of the recommendations herein require large budgets or years of planning to implement. Education strategies that include actionable policies to improve integration and a student’s transitioning process will undoubtedly enrich the learner’s experience and enhance internationalisation in education.

This post is part of Forum Week on the EAIE blog, where we share additional articles not included in the magazine. Be sure to check in the rest of the week for more great content on gender in internationalisation.

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Niamh Kelly
HippoEdTech LTD, IrelandNiamh Kelly is Co-founder at HippoEdTech LTD in Dublin in Ireland.