Existing research that portrays the socio-cultural experiences of international non-native English speaking students in a negative light has not explored the relationship between those experiences and English usage. In this study, the English language usage as experienced by a cohort of Chinese postgraduate Masters engineering students in both academic and extra-curricular settings has been documented over a 10-month period. The experiences of students on two Masters programs were compared: (1) a Masters by Research on which Chinese nationals were the only students and; (2) a taught course which included a minority of other non-UK students.
Opportunities to use English and to interact with native English speakers were minimal in extracurricular contexts. Consequently, social integration was discouraged and most students became dependent upon the programs for opportunities to improve their English. The chief opportunity arose in a group design project which successfully encouraged students’ speaking skills but details of implementation had unexpected effects. Different measures and assessments of students’ English language proficiency, including the students’ own opinions, indicated improvement over 10 months. However, the lack of opportunities to use English in extra-curricular settings was associated with a lack of confidence and supported research that emphasises the link between cultural and linguistic knowledge and competence.
The findings raise issues concerning who holds the responsibility for international students’ social well-being and echo the contemporary debate in the higher educational literature reflecting conflicts between consumerist, managerial cultures and the liberal educational tradition that encourages independence of thought and action. These issues are discussed and recommendations are proposed which assume that responsibilities are shared amongst a variety of stakeholders. As the case study approach limits wider generalisation, the recommendations principally relate to the research site, although similarities of context may encourage a degree of generalisation and applicability to other settings.