International Classroom at the UM: more than 99 nationalities?
The International Classroom has much more to do with integration and group dynamics than education. So it is not a synonym for a tutorial group that includes a number of nationalities. It is about much, much more, write Fred Stevens and Jacqueline Goulbourne, authors of the UM memo ‘The international classroom project’.
A smoothly working tutorial group? Better co-operation between the students? Fewer dropouts? These are matters that Fred Stevens – working at the Maastricht O&O department - and Human and Professional Development Officer Goulbourne – working at The University of the West Indies in Jamaica and expert in the field of cultural competences – certainly want to achieve. But their ambition with the International Classroom, part of the Leading in Learning programme that focuses on innovation in education, goes further. They speak of a “process”, so “not of an activity or event”, which should pervade the education system of Maastricht University and in which everyone – students and academic as well as support staff – should participate.
The International Classroom is therefore not a synonym for the tutorial group or (literally) a classroom. It is a virtual concept that stands for a community in which students and staff feel at home, regardless of their background. And one in which they are not so much focused on their mutual differences but on their similarities. Those who can forge such a close-knit group, the researchers argue, will see that co-operation in teaching groups will improve, that the number of dropouts will be reduced, and that graduates will hold their own in an international environment. Maybe the creation of a proper International Classroom will silence the politicians – between Christmas and the New Year, the Dutch papers wrote again that foreign students were costing the taxpayers too much money, especially because they leave the Netherlands immediately after completing their studies. Better integration was the keyword, according to Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for international co-operation in higher education.
Does such an International Classroom exist anywhere in the world? Stevens: “No, the Maastricht problem that the various nationalities – we now have 99 at the UM – do not integrate and that there is far too little interaction between, for example, the German and the Dutch students, is a worldwide phenomenon. Last year, there was an article in The Economist about the well-known London School of Economics, which also faces groups of students who do not integrate. University College Maastricht is the positive exception. They actually manage to do it. But why should it only be possible at UCM? Of course they have a special population of students who are attracted to the liberal arts, a group that is relatively small and has a good mix of nationalities; nevertheless, others could learn from them. Every faculty, for example, should have a common room, set up as an international meeting place.”
After discussions with students, managers and academic staff, Stevens and Goulbourne identified five areas in which the university should take action. “UM-wide. Every faculty may think that their problems are different, but that is not the case. In essence, matters are very similar,” says Stevens.
In the first place, the report says, it is important to build and propagate the UM's identity. “There has to be a code of conduct stating how we should treat each other and which rules apply. We have to initiate people into the university and Dutch culture, along with the prevailing standards and values. We should give them the opportunity to learn Dutch. An example: in the Netherlands – a cold-climate culture – it is important to be on time. In hot-climate cultures, this is less important and everything is about relationships. There are many misunderstandings about this. People from abroad often feel misunderstood. They need to be given the chance to acclimatise, after which you can make demands more easily.”
Furthermore, the UM should strike while the iron is hot. “The Inkom is a crucial phase when it comes to orientation. That is the moment when you can set the international tone,” Stevens explains. He thinks, for example, that there should be a block that runs parallel to the subject-specific programme in which students from various faculties together are initiated into local and national culture. In addition, students and staff should be able to meet each other regularly at (inter)faculty Mix & Mingle meetings, such as the high tea at UCM. One could organise an International Week, theme days, charity events or picnics in the park. “This counters homesickness and depression and strengthens the feeling of being at home and belonging,” the report says. Sports can also contribute, just like faculty excursions and trips.
Training the staff - “in order to get the best out of the groups”- is number four on the list. Lastly Stevens and Goulbourne argue for a “systematic gathering of data and continuous feedback from alumni, present and future students and staff” about their experience of the International Classroom. “We can use this information to improve and expand the Classroom.”
Stevens: “We have now formed workgroups that are dealing with these themes. What is extraordinary is the fact that this project is supported and carried by students. They suffer from the poor integration and wonder what this internationalisation represents: is it the 99 nationalities or is there more?”