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How international arts students are enriching UK arts and culture

Following his recent appointment as Honorary Professor at Beihai University of Art and Design in China, David McGravie Head of the School of Arts / Deputy Dean College of Arts, Humanities and Education at the University of Derby, reflects on the diversity international students bring to the UK and the challenges they face:

Beihai University of Art and Design has 13,000 creative arts students across art, design media and performance areas. Beihai is working in partnership with the University of Derby and my hope is that this connection will support student mobility and progression to Derby.

Respect for international students moving abroad

Throughout my career, I have developed great respect for international students who choose to travel overseas to study, leaving behind family and friends to arrive in a country that is alien to them.

I am equally appreciative and humbled by students’ desires to embrace UK design education with its richness and global importance; and acknowledge the emotional and financial commitment that these students make. I have found that international students embrace the significant challenge of studying overseas, and in particular the UK, with enthusiasm and commitment beyond their years.

The diversity international students bring

It is clear that UK design education offers a richness in its design, focus and challenge, and there are some distinct differences between the UK’s approach to an arts education and that which you would receive abroad. We bring this to the curriculum and our teaching at Derby. We value the student voice and treat our students as partners in their academic endeavour, actively encouraging openness, critical thinking and challenge.

International students seize the opportunity offered by UK HEIs for the very fact that it is different to what is offered in their home institutions. It is important that UK academics nurture this desire and not deny international students opportunities through any preconceived assessment of their preparedness to study on a UK course.

International students are not weaker than equivalent UK students, they are no less committed to their subject, but they do differ in the experience and skills. They are just different. Sadly, too often that point is missed by academics.

In my experience, international students often have some skills that are better formed than an equivalent UK student, for example I have encountered many Chinese students who are superb ‘draughtsmen’ and produce some of the best quality observational drawing I have ever seen. Equally, they have areas that are less well-formed and would benefit from studying with us in the UK.

International students know their strengths and fully recognise their weaknesses and that is why so many international creative arts students apply to UK universities. They want to benefit from our learning and teaching approach, they are interested to learn about our culture and they want to be inspired by our pedagogy that balances critical thinking and a questioning approach to the development of creative work.

Like many colleagues who are actively involved in international work involving transnational education (TNE), whether it’s recruitment and partnerships or often both, I have spent many hours in the air, endured many taxi and train journeys, and contributed to many discussions and meetings all with varying outcomes. I suspect my carbon footprint is greater than it should be but I would balance the negative impacts of TNE with the absolute certainty of the incredible opportunities and partnerships that we create, which for many students, are obviously life changing.

Who would have thought that a new academic, who so enthusiastically embraced the role of admissions tutor in 2003,would end up as an Honorary Professor of a leading Chinese Art & Design University?

I would like to think that Beihai University of Art and Design have in part awarded me the Honorary Professorship on the basis of my strong advocacy for TNE work across many markets and countries over the last 15 years or so. This has necessitated many visits to Russia, Norway, Malaysia, USA, Canada, India, Japan and China to name but a few.

Through this work I can point to some 2,000 plus international students who have been given the opportunity to study creative arts courses in the UK; and with many more given the opportunity to study UK-based courses in their home country through collaborative partnership opportunities. Looking to the future, the partnership with Beihai University of Art and Design promises great things for us at Derby.

In my first professorial lecture at Beihai I spoke about British art and design and the significant contribution that UK art schools have played in the wider arts, society and culture.

I was humbled by the audience, made up of more than 600 creative students, who were engaged and enthusiastic throughout. Attending on a rainy and thundery night with a storm acting as a backdrop, they asked questions that showed an informed understanding of their subject and a desire to know more. Their enthusiasm showed no bounds and resulted in 10 minutes of intensive selfie photos with me!

It is clear that British Art schools have provided the agency of change and challenge, and this has encouraged real diversity in our culture and arts. This change culture is received well by international students and is the key to creative practice, and why students want to study in the UK.

International partnerships

The partnership with Beihai University of Art and Design will be significant for us both from a TNE and a cultural perspective. Importantly, it will also facilitate increased recruitment to Derby and provide opportunities or UK students to visit China.

Incoming international students enrich and broaden the perspectives of UK students. As a country we face an uncertain future in terms of EU recruitment, thus international work will be of even greater significance.

David McGravie Head of the School of Arts / Deputy Dean College of Arts, Humanities and Education at the University of Derby

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