Migration and Academic Acculturation in Higher Education

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Dr Steph Fuller reviews an event on the experiences of - and how best to support - self-defining 'migrant' academics.

Migration and Academic Acculturation

Society for Research into Higher Education, 19 April 2018

 Our team does quite a lot of work to support academics who are working with international students to help them think about ways in which to enhance their learning and wider experiences while at QMUL.  However, we less frequently consider ways of supporting international academics who come to work at the university.  I recently attended an event at the SRHE which looked specifically at this issue and explored how ‘migrant’ academics might be better supported by universities and raised some interesting proposals.

The event brought together a series of personal narratives from academics who had worked in different international locations.  They highlighted a number of challenges but also benefits of experiencing what the event termed ‘academic acculturation.’  Across all of the narratives the fact that teaching is a culturally situated practice emerged strongly.  Speakers emphasised the difficulties they faced coming from educational systems very different to that in the UK and having to adapt to issues like small class sizes, providing pastoral support to students, students as fee payers, students being willing to challenge teachers and student evaluation of teaching.

Speakers felt that the UK institutions expected them to already be familiar with the UK HE system and the expectations of lecturers within the system but that this was often entirely new to them and involved a very steep learning curve.  This reminds me of the ‘hidden curriculum’ that David Killick identifies as a major challenge to international students.  He argues that the hidden curriculum affects international students particularly because they are unfamiliar with the customs, processes and procedures within UK HE.  The messages which students receive hidden within the formal curriculum and from elsewhere within the university also present a particular culture or approach to HE which excludes some students.  For example, through the academic staff profile where there may be few international, female or BME colleagues, or ‘through the predominance of case studies situated in the dominant culture, citations and references drawn mostly from the “white, western, male” canon, or a restricted interpretation of “good” academic writing.’ (2016, p. 21).

Killick argues that to tackle these issues – which affect not only international students, but the development of ‘global students’ whatever their background – we need to:

‘pay much more attention to the hidden curriculum than is commonly the case and that […] much can also be achieved (negatively or positively) by how we ensure the hidden messages in our own learning and teaching practice align with the aspirations (philosophy, objectives, learning outcomes, etc.) set down in the formal curriculum.’ (2016, p. 23)

 One way of beginning this might be to start questioning the language we use.  For example, the word ‘international’ itself can carry negative associations when opposed with ‘home’.  At the SHRE event too, it quickly became apparent that choice and use of language was a difficult issue.  While the event hosts apologetically used the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘native’ academics within their research, many of the other academics speaking did not feel comfortable using this language, some finding the words to be explicitly pejorative.  As discussions progressed these categories were problematized and began to break down – how can you classify ‘migrant’ or ‘native’ in a non-reductive way?  What about different levels or layers of migrant-ness?  What was there to gain from this kind of classification?  Similar debates play out in discourse around home / international students – is there a way to begin to break down these barriers while recognising and celebrating difference?

The event concluded with a panel discussion around recommendations for better supporting international academics and enhancing the benefits of a diverse staff population.  Many of these ideas would contribute to a closer examination of the hidden curriculum and supporting colleagues new to UK HE to become more acculturated to it:

At an institutional level:

  • Creating regular spaces for talking about practicalities of teaching – for all academics
  • Facilitate discussion around differences and expectations around research and teaching for new international staff
  • Support social side of acculturation and settling-in for international staff
  • Involve international staff in work around internationalisation, and invite their feedback on it

International academics:

  • Develop formal and informal support networks and be bold enough to engage with them
  • Reach out to intercultural exchanges
  • Value and make use of your experience of migration and/or academic acculturation to provide support to international students

UK academics:

  • Facilitate discussion around teaching and research with international colleagues
  • Be interested in colleagues’ backgrounds and experiences
  • Don’t make assumptions about international colleagues’ knowledge of the UK system and support them to understand how it works

As a team we will be considering how some of these suggestions might be taken forward in the future in order to better support international academic staff at QMUL.



Killick, D. (2016). The Role of the Hidden Curriculum: Institutional Messages of Inclusivity. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 4 (2): 20-24.

Enjoy this article? Check out this lecture on Rights, Realities and Rebellions in International Higher Education