Rebecca Maxwell Stuart
Interest in the student experience, particularly student engagement, has grown considerably over the last three decades. Student engagement has essentially become a buzzword across the higher education sector, with researchers, policy makers, institutions and students often using this term to help enhance the overall student experience. Researchers analyse this concept in a variety of ways, with some considered the factors for engagement such as student motivation and effort (Schuetz, 2008; Zepke et al. 2010). Others consider the roles of institutional structures and cultures and their impact on student engagement (Porter, 2006; Van der Velden, 2012). Yet some considers various contexts such as socio-political and environmental factors that influence how students engage (Law, 2005; McInnis, 2003; Yorke, 2006; Zepke et al., 2011). Moreover, some have analysed the benefits of student engagement, such as Ramsden (2003) who declares that it’s benefits include enhancing student learning, retention and achievement. Bryson & Hand (2007) further this notion by saying that improving student engagement is a desire by almost all educators.
If we are to consider student engagement, it is also important to understand the various circumstances that this occurs. For this research, it is important to understand transnational education. Transnational higher education also known as ‘franchised provision’, ‘offshore education’, ‘international collaborative provision’, or ‘crossborder’ education, has become an important part of higher education in recent years (Huang 2007, Naidoo 2009, Smith 2010, and Woodfield et al. 2009). Scholars detailed that there are several drivers that have shaped transnational higher education and its associated quality assurance policies: first is the incorporation of more international elements into research and teaching at universities; secondly, is the ability to enable engagement in the globalized knowledge economy; thirdly, is the growth of transnational higher education in countries that used to have restrictions in place, but no longer due to trade liberalization policies; fourthly, the rise in globalization; and lastly, the capacity-building role assumed by developed higher education systems in underdeveloped or low demand tertiary education in regions (Altbach 2010, Dunworth 2008, Doorbar & Bateman 2008, Ziguras & McBurnie 2008, and Smith, 2010).
Quality assurance and reputation play significant roles when institutions from exporting countries are deciding on transnational ventures. It has been found that some institutions, in the US and UK, have resisted temptation of setting up branch campuses over concerns of reputation and quality assurance, as they feared it would be too difficult to guarantee education of a similar quality as they are reputed for (Olds, 2008). Therefore it is important that for the HEI’s that do partake in transnational ventures, that the quality is of an equal standard to that of the parent institution, and therefore that means ensuring that there is the same opportunity for the level of student engagement as is the norm within the home country. As students are key stakeholders in higher education, it is important to understand the role that they play in all aspects, including ones that study at transnational initiatives. Particularly in Scotland, where there is a culture of student engagement, it is crucial to understand the student engagement aspect of transnational provision.
The overall aim of this research is to advance the understanding of student engagement in transnational education initiatives from a students’ perspective. As the study is based on the Scottish higher education system, student engagement is a significant factor in quality mechanisms at Scottish institutions (Healey et al., 2010; QAA, 2012). Indeed, through the establishment of student associations, the Enhancement-Led Institutional Review (ELIR) and Student Partnership Agreements students are often considered as partners in the sector (Williamson, 2013). Therefore the research questions is as follows:
From the students’ perspective, how do students engage at transnational initiatives of Scottish higher education institutions? As there have been little studies into transnational students’ experiences, this study would give a unique insight into this area. There are many studies into how students are involved at home institutions; but what is lacking, is the knowledge of how transnational students can engage with the HEIs in order to enhance the quality of provision and the overall student experience.
Little et al. (2009) argues that universities tend to emphasise the passive (consumer) role of students during student engagement discussions, rather than considering them as active (partners) in the overall university community. Baron & Corbin (2011) support this argument when debating that student engagement has ‘become a quality control indicator and, accordingly, subject to formal quality assurance mechanisms, rather than a subject of meaningful dialogue’ (ibid. p. 765). This highlights the fine line between paying lip service and purposeful discussions when it comes to student engagement.
It is clear from the literature that in order for there to be effective student engagement which is beneficial to both students and staff, there is a requirement for institutions to facilitate and provide support for students to engage (Bovill et al., 2011; Dunne & Owen, 2013; Healey et al., 2014; van der Velden, 2012). However, it is worthwhile to note that this does not mean a consumeristic approach in which students are perceived as customers of engagement, but rather that they play the role of co-producers of engagement (Trowler, 2010). Kahu (2013) concluded in her research into the different dimensions of student engagement that there is responsibility from all participants (the student, the teacher, the institution, and the government) to improve student engagement.
Having analysed the concept of student engagement and the terms that often are associated with it, a conceptual framework has been developed for this study (see Figure 1). It is clear that there are several aspects of student engagement, which could be considered a process where each concept is a certain level of engagement from the students. Having considered models of student participation (see Bovill & Bulley, 2011; Healey, et al., 2014; Rudd et al., 2006) the below framework has been adapted to highlight the various levels of student engagement for this study: university participation level and student participation level. The conceptual framework also identifies four student profiles that are most prevalent in the student engagement literature: consumers (Naidoo & Jamieson, 2007; hooks, 1994; Gibbs, 2012; Voss et al., 2007; Kandiko & Mawer, 2013; Hill, 1995; Athiyaman, 1997), citizens (Svensson & Wood, 2007; Thomson & Gunter, 2005), co-creators (Bovill et al., 2011; Wolf- Wendel et al., 2009; McCulloch, 2009) and partners (Healey et al., 2014; Dunne & Zandstra, 2011; Williamson, 2013; Little et al., 2009; Fielding, 2004). The reason for this conceptual framework is to understand how transnational students engage with the institution and what category they fit into – or if there is a new paradigm. Not only does the framework consider the different levels and student identities within this phenomenon, but it also highlights that student engagement practices can overlap and therefore multi-faceted (Trowler, 2010).
Figure 1. Conceptual Framework
Within the conceptual framework, it is important to highlight that the consumer and co-creator identities are seen predominantly within the micro-level of the university e.g. the classroom or on a specific course. At the meso and macro levels of the university, students are often considered as either citizens or partners; such as the use of Student Charters in the UK which state the rights and responsibilities of students and staff (citizens), or the use of Student Partnership Agreements in Scotland which states the university working in partnership with the students through the students’ association/union (partners.)
The selected research strategy for this study on transnational student engagement is phenomenological strategy. Phenomenological research helps to understand a common experience of a group of people and describe what the participants have experienced, how they have experienced it, and the meanings they make of their shared experience (Moustakas, 1994). Bogdan and Taylor (1975) help to illustrate the this approach when they said, ‘The phenomenologist views human behaviour … as a product of how people interpret the world … In order to grasp the meanings of a person’s behavior, the phenomenologist attempts to see things from that person’s point of view’ (ibid, pp. 13-14). This means that by using this research strategy a greater understanding of the phenomenon that is student engagement will develop through the perceptions of transnational students. The designed conceptual framework has been used in support of this approach by structuring the ‘socially constructed’ student identities that are most known, and relate this to the student engagement phenomena (Denzin, 1994). In essence, the strategy for this research is to understand the experiences and perceptions of transnational students. To do this, the opinions of transnational students are fundamental to this thesis, since students are deemed as experts and their views are valid: “...students are neither disciplinary nor pedagogical experts. Rather, their experience and expertise typically is in being a student – something that many faculty have not been for many years. They understand where they and their peers are coming from and, often, where they think they are going.” Bovill, Cook-Sather & Felten (2014, p.15) In total, three institutions provided contact details of students. To ensure anonymity of the institutions as well as the students, all references to the universities were under pseudonyms. University A provided contact details of students studying at two international centres, in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). University B provided contact details of students studying at a branch campus in the UAE. University C provided contact details of students studying at a franchised programme in India. Therefore, there were three locations and three different types of transnational initiatives used in this study. This allowed for diversity, whilst maintaining similarity through the parent institution being in Scotland and the subject area being business-related. All students that were provided by the institution were contacted via email initially, which included information related to this research project, the MARIHE programme, the interview structure and emphasis that the respondents would be kept anonymous. In total, 18 students were interviewed. All interviews were conducted via Skype and lasted between 40-65 minutes. The interviews were conducted in a semi-structured format, with a list of questions designed around the four main identities of the Conceptual Framework. A semi-structured interview approach was chosen for this study as it prevented pigeon-holing the responses, and provided the interviewee the opportunity to discuss aspects of student engagement that were most relevant to them. The interviews were designed with the purpose of understanding the motives behind student engagement, their perceptions of the phenomenon and how students perceived their identity in higher education. All interviews were audiotaped using a voice recorder application on a mobile phone. Alongside this, additional notes were taken during the interview. The researcher transcribed each interview within a week of the occurrence to ensure that it was still recent, and additional notes could be added. The transcriptions and additional notes were then coded using MAXQDA 10. As Basit (2003, p. 145) notes, ‘coding and analysis are not synonymous, though coding is a crucial aspect’. Primarily, descriptive and in vivo coding techniques were utilised (Saldana, 2012). This then proceeded to categorisation of the codes into the four main identities, however the researcher discovered this did not accurately portray the responses, as the data seemed to signify illustrating the students’ journey of this phenomenon of engagement, and therefore categorisation was redone. The findings are laid out in a series of categories that were discovered during the analysis through coding. They are: (a) Student engagement; (b) Student identities; (c) Quality; (d) Learning and teaching; (e) Support; (f) Feedback. This approach was preferred to dividing the findings into the four student identities that were depicted within the conceptual framework that could signal that the found categories are separate and mutually exclusive. As mentioned in the conceptual framework, it is rather the opposite as these identities are deeply interrelated.
According to the students of this study, there are two distinct aspects of student engagement: student-led and staff-led. The findings illustrates that student-led engagement is predominantly on learning and teaching, and the level of commitment and belonging of the student in regards to their education; staff-led engagement expands to encompass the whole student experience. In addition, the literature indicated that student engagement occurs at all levels of the university (micro, meso and macro) (Healey et al. 2010), yet for the students of this study, the concept generally focuses on the micro level, in learning, teaching and research. In summary, the literature has expressed a variety of levels associated with student engagement, but for the most part, transnational student engagement is low and passive, an example of this is, ‘we spend very little time with the university, so we are not part of the university.’ The only students that have reasonably active levels of engagement are the ones that are in some sort of representative role. However, transnationally, there is no comparison as to what occurs in Scotland, as previously mentioned.
For this objective, the literature that was reviewed helped to create the Conceptual Framework (See Section 2.2) which highlighted the four main student engagement identities that are most known: consumer, citizen, co-creator and partner. The two most common identities in the literature, consumer (or customer) and partner, were also the two identities that the students of this study recognised and identified with.
The other two, citizen and co-creator were not acknowledged in the findings, indeed there was very little evidence of co-creation according to the respondents.
The findings show that there were four key factors in relation to the identity ‘partnership’: cooperation, belongingness, student voice and advocacy. Some examples of this are the following: ‘I do not view myself only: if we grow, we grow together’ and ‘you are a partner when your opinions matter’. Only a few students deemed themselves to be partners with the university. Considering the literature and the findings together, it can be concluded that these four factors are not being met.
Summarising the students’ definitions of the identity of consumer, we can see that it has two significant characteristics: that education is a product, and that there is disengagement. For example, one student said, ‘The university is proving me with something, and I am accessing it and using it and consuming it. So it basically makes me a customer.’ This aligns with Scott (1998) and Naidoo & Jamieson (2007) who reflect on the passive nature of student customers due to the rise of neo-liberal governance and marketisation of higher education in recent years.
The key finding, in relation to student identities, is that the majority of transnational students that participated in the study felt resigned to the identity of consumer, although they were reticent to use it. This evidences that students want to be considered as something more substantial and be more engaged, but there is a distinct lack of opportunities and support to help develop this, for example one student explained, ‘It just feels like a transaction … if there was more engagement and contribution from the university towards me I would feel like I want to actually recruit students to [the] university’.
There were several significant findings that highlighted the transnational student views on student engagement. The first, detailed that postgraduate students are likely to be the most passive of students due to external commitments: ‘Well, I’m not a full-time [student] I have a life outside the university so it hasn’t completely absorbed my life. It is something I do outside of my job.’ Another reason for low engagement from postgraduate part-time students is due to the lack of services catered for this type of student, as one student representative explained: ‘This is the blunt truth okay. Postgraduates are the most ignored student population on the campus.’ This correlates with the idea that student engagement is staff-led or that someone else other than the student should lead it. If services are not available to postgraduate students then they will not get involved with extra-curricular activities or they will feel that they are not part of the overall community.
Another key finding evidenced that the students associated challenging studies as being of a high quality. In terms of consumerism, where students are often portrayed as wanting easy assignments and rote learning, the majority of students do not want this, which signifies that passivity is not necessarily linked to easiness. Furthering this notion, students often referred to aspects of their engagement around the concepts of self-efficacy and transformative learning.
The final significant finding, showed that there is very little in the way of student representative structures and a significant lack of communication between students, staff and the university at transnational initiatives, according to the interviewees. Since the students mainly engage within the classroom and their overall studies, there is very little participation at higher levels. This may be exacerbated due to the lack of representation and communication. Students are not aware of practices that engage them, but what is clear in the findings, is that students want these opportunities and want to engage more.
A recurring theme throughout the analysis of the interviews was apathy. This meant that there was student apathy, as they ‘did not care’ about getting involved. Apathy, in this case, also refers to lack of engagement. However, there was also implied apathy from staff and the university, as perceived by the students. Since the majority of the students considered student engagement to be staff-led, student apathy will be high if there is little interaction with staff. This means that if students do not have sufficient levels of interaction with their teachers or they do not find out how feedback is used etc., then they will not actively participate in activities other than passing their courses. For example, one student said that communication between students and staff was ‘discouraged… other than essentials.’ As the research has found that there is an element of alienation in regards to transnational students, this indicates that because transnational students are so far removed from the parent institution, there will be low interaction and this will exacerbate student apathy since there will be a level of disconnect from the overall university community. Moving on from student apathy, staff apathy will occur if students are not actively participating in classes. For example, several students mentioned that on their course there is very little debate between students and academics. Additionally, the use of ‘flying faculty’ means that there is less opportunity for rapport to develop between students and staff. This will signify that staff have little time to develop relationships with the transnational students and will, inevitably, spend more time on the students in Scotland due to extensive contact between the parties. Furthermore, staff apathy will become apparent when there is rigidity in the curriculum. As most of the respondents indicated that there is little flexibility in the curriculum due to it being designed in Scotland, teaching faculty appear to have little room for innovation, which may lead to apathy as creativity is stifled. Through the Quality Enhancement Framework, including the work of sparqs and the Enhancement Themes, universities are under pressure to develop and enhance student engagement practices. In regards to transnational initiatives, the students of this study mentioned feeling alienated from the parent institution. Thus, the university will pay more attention to students in Scotland and little emphasis is on transnational initiatives. Developing this notion, this means that if there are not effective feedback mechanisms in place between the university and transnational students, there can be a sense of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This study has shown that students perceptions of communication between staff at transnational initiatives and the parent institution is lacking, which will imply that pressure on the university to improve student engagement practices is insufficient.
Having created this apathy cycle from the findings of this study, the key question that arises is: who has the power to break this apathy cycle? How can this apathy be transformed into engagement? The findings indicate that transnational students’ feel that they do not have the power for change. Rather, students’ define student engagement as staff-led, ergo they look to the staff (and, arguably, the university) to put in effect student engagement practices. At first, a solution to this cycle of apathy should be for the three stakeholders to commence meaningful discussions on what support is needed from each other, and how they all believe engagement should increase. Another consideration is that the power to break this cycle may be with a stakeholder that is not in this cycle, such as government, students’ associations and the Quality Assurance Agency. Ultimately, meaningful dialogue between all stakeholders – inside and outside – of the apathy cycle needs to take place, to acknowledge this apathy and work towards developing engagement.
There are two possible opportunities to expand on this research. The first is to obtain a more in-depth knowledge of transnational student engagement by interviewing staff and university management. Additionally, research could be undertaken to find out what perceptions there are about transnational students at the parent institution, to compare the results on alienation and apathy.
The second opportunity for further study is to expand on this research on student perspectives on student engagement. The design of the interview questions and the conceptual framework were created for adaptability, so that they can be applied to research on any type of student, not just transnational. Therefore a comparative work could be employed to find out how different students’ perceive student engagement differently, either across HEIs or systems.
In conclusion, what I have tried to accomplish in this research is to shed some light on a small, almost invisible, type of student – transnational – as well as consider how actual students define student engagement. Eighteen transnational students, from various backgrounds and level of study, participated in in-depth individual interviews to examine their experiences related to student engagement. The majority of transnational students’ consider student engagement to be staff-led, and it has been found that there is very little engagement between students, staff and the parent institution at transnational initiatives as illustrated in the Apathy Cycle. One student expressed that, in hindsight, she wished she had studied her programme in Scotland rather than transnationally. Let’s begin the conversation so that this student would choose the transnational programme again.
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