Last week, Times Higher Education World University Rankings named the University of Hong Kong as the most international university in the world. This is due to the high participation of students in study abroad trips and its student make-up: about 10,000 are categorised as international out of about 30,000 in total. As vice-president and pro-vice-chancellor Ian Holliday commented, internationalism is not an end for HKU, but a means “to augment core missions in teaching and learning, research, and knowledge exchange”.
Internationalism undoubtedly brings benefits to higher education. Collaboration in international and multicultural environments enhances critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as more perspectives are available for reflection and analysis.
Internationalism can also benefit universities that support global justice and equity, as mobility of students and faculty offers opportunities for study, professional development and academic training and employment to many people, instead of just a small global elite.
Yet, for international students themselves, internationalisation is often a mixed bag. Certainly, they benefit from meeting peers from Hong Kong and around the world. As one student from Indonesia remarked to Times Higher Education, studying at HKU enabled her to “collaborate with talented people” and “draw upon others’ wisdom and valuable insights”.
International students particularly appreciate being able to learn from world-renowned scholars in their field, which may not have been possible in their home countries. Moreover, going to a new country is inherently educational. Students learn in diverse groups even after class, when they introduce each other to regional cuisines and pastimes.
However, international students also face challenges. At the institutional level, HKU does not provide strong support for their family and housing needs. My international students in the Master’s programme receive little housing support from the university, which has led in some cases to their being exploited by greedy landlords, made to sleep in public living spaces, and more. Housing benefits depend in part on whether students are in government-supported programmes. Nearly 4,000 are in taught postgraduates programmes, which are normally self-funded.
Even for those in government-funded programmes, access to comfortable housing is in short supply. In research I conducted at HKU with Dr Lucy Jordan and Dr Gizem Arat, at the Faculty of Social Sciences, and my PhD student Yulia Nesterova, non-local research postgraduate students emphasised challenges related to housing throughout their studies.
Residential hall activities, designed to enhance a sense of community, are sometimes experienced as culturally alienating, while rules on visitors and alcohol can seem demeaning. Some reported leaving behind partners and children, leading to increased stress, and sometimes family problems. In our survey, nearly half the non-local students reported being unsatisfied with the hall admission process and the availability of housing. Studying in another country is already stressful. That international students are distracted from studies by continuous housing challenges creates an additional, unnecessary hurdle to their overall development.
The general atmosphere in classrooms and on campus itself may be diverse, but is not always experienced as welcoming. Earlier this month, Teele Rebane, a student from Europe, noted in a column in the Post that despite lip service given to internationalism at HKU, she was treated as an exotic oddity by students, who asked to touch her hair and called her “Barbie”.
Postgraduate non-local students in our project also reported feeling stereotyped for coming from other countries, and excluded in formal and informal university events conducted in Cantonese. Students from the mainland, who are counted in official statistics as international or non-local students, also experience social exclusion.
Leaders and teachers at HKU are to be commended for their efforts to internationalise and diversify the university. But we must also recognise the hard work that accompanies internationalisation from the perspective of the students. International students do not only want to be part of a university marketing campaign, but also wish to realise the benefits of internationalisation at a personal level.
This means they need a safe and comfortable space to live and study, in a welcoming campus community. By ensuring international students have a positive experience at HKU, the university can enhance its larger aims of recruiting the best and brightest from around the world
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