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A short reflection on a foundational programme, first-time international students and pedagogical uncertainties

Hieu Kieu, Academic English Tutor at Teesside University International Study Centre

At many British universities, foundational and pathway programmes are the generic terms to describe the preparatory courses for international students prior to their UK degrees. A pathway refers to the journey from one place to a destination and a springboard for further movement and success. In the same vein, a foundation implies the necessary preparation for the next layer of learning and doing, and particularly of being a higher education student. Both pathway and foundation concepts have perfectly described the practice of our programmes at Teesside University International Study Centre (TUISC) and many similar programmes in the UK – giving the necessary preparation for higher learning in British higher education institutions. This blog post reflects on challenges for international students and their educators on the foundational programme at TUISC.

In these programmes, students are mostly first-time international students with English as a second language (ESL). Prior to their journey to the UK, the excitement and expectation of a life-changing education might have illuminated the anticipatable challenges of being students in a foreign country. According to Ramachandran (2011), these challenges can be language, academic convention, culture, finance, university administrative procedure and transnational communication. Another challenge is the internal struggles of selves and identities. Learning and living in a foreign country ‘usually gives rise to acute internal tensions because it tends to make people less sure of themselves’ (Najder, 2007, p. 47). Despite the positive outlooks of countless not-yet-nesses, how the future may turn out being a globally educated individual, these outlooks occasionally are minimised to the existential insecurity as described in Bob Dylan’s lyrics ‘How does it feel? To be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.’

‘With the new hybridity of on-campus and online learning, students’ technological knowledge of different learning platforms and virtual learning environments becomes the key to their studies.’

With the new hybridity of on-campus and online learning, students’ technological knowledge of different learning platforms and virtual learning environments becomes the key to their studies. Although students of younger generations are often known as digital natives, their digital capabilities are not something we should take for granted (Li et al., 2021). In our programmes at TUISC, mobile phones were chosen by many students as their virtual classroom spaces. Students joined their classes from all sorts of non-educational settings (such as on a moving bus, in bed, from a farm). From sympathetic eyes, we can quickly agree that ‘students do not know what they do not know’ (Kieu, 2021, p. 147) and that the uncertainty of the post-pandemic university practice is a part of the reason students feel and appear to be lost. Being an international student in the UK, for many students, means being first-time learners with English as the medium of instruction, joining a Teams or Zoom session, and feeling the newness of an international classroom. This list of first-time challenges continues to extend as students integrate into our programmes.

As educators, in addition to qualifications, experiences and training, each of us has different imaginaries of what and how we will teach. Our teaching imaginaries are the nurturation of what we do, have to do, want to do and can never do. At foundational programmes, if we embrace students’ first-time identities and their developmental struggles by giving time to each and every learning point slowly and thoroughly, we might fail to deliver the curricular requirements, and vice versa. We are learning to teach within the pedagogical tension of what and whom to prioritise. As such, a good part of our pedagogy practice is our capacity to accommodate our students – decide among all the things that we might do, do those we most need to do and the action to achieve the goals we have set. Finally, in our foundational programmes, not only first-time international students but also we, the educators, are continually trying to figure stuff out, starting with a genuine interest in understanding our students and the capacity to accommodate their learning diversity.


Kieu, H. (2021). International students in the UK and a sketch of their Englishscapes. In M. Tamilla (Ed.), Cultural diversity in cross-cultural settings: A global approach (pp. 135–150). Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Li, N., Zhang, X., & Limniou, M. (2021). A country’s national culture affects virtual learning environment adoption in higher education: A systematic review (2001–2020). Interactive Learning Environments.

Najder, Z. (2007). Joseph Conrad: A life. Camden House.

Ramachandran, N. T. (2011). Enhancing international students’ experiences: An imperative agenda for universities in the UK. Journal of Research in International Education, 10(2), 201–220.