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This paper presents a model of the learning context for international students in the international higher education environment. I will argue that cultural contextualisation is a fundamental aspect of the learning process for students in international higher education. When institutions are devising teaching and learning approaches consideration needs to be given to students’ being in the classroom (Barnett and Coate, 2005). This necessarily involves considering the cultural context to the international classroom. This is even more the case for transnational higher education programmes, in other words, programmes that require the students to cross national boundaries as part of their programme of study. The research focuses on a particular case of institutional partnership where students undertake periods of study in two countries at Masters level as part of a joint double degree programme. A mixed methods approach to the research was undertaken and the data set for this paper draws on 52 semi-structured student interviews.
One of the central questions that the paper seeks to explore is whether students’ cultural interactions in the classroom are a fundamental aspect of their learning in the international higher education environment. It will seek to explore the ways in which students’ cultural interactions affect their learning and whether ‘additional’ learning results as a consequence of the cultural context of international higher education. So it will consider, for example, whether the experience of the different pedagogies in France and the UK, enhances the international aspect of their course, through the development of a ‘global’ and world view of the subject that they have engaged with. It appears from the findings of this case that students develop skills and abilities to engage with cultures other than their own but that in order for this to take place, the smaller environment presented by a French Grande École is key to their learning experience, compared to the cosmopolitan and distancing environment in London. Geertz’s (1973) classic definition of culture is drawn on here, as culture being the ‘fabric’ of meaning for individuals, to focus on the reality that the students experience in an ‘international’ classroom. The context is as Geertz states that “understanding a people’s culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity” (Geertz 1974:14) thus the environment in France facilitates an international aspect to the classroom on an international course.