Cultural guide: Advice for international students doing a UK MBA

Many MBA students – like Hajime Sudo from Japan who is blogging for the FT about doing our MBA in Perugia, Italy – find that studying abroad gives them the opportunity to experience a different business culture.

Now more than ever employers are looking for international experience. MBA study abroad is a fantastic opportunity to gain real insight and understanding of a range of different cultures from both the country you’re based in and the international students and staff you’re exposed to.

At Bradford University School of Management, we have developed a particular expertise in helping international students get the most out of their studies. This is especially important for our MBA and MSc students who come from all over the world and are only with us in the UK for a year. The quicker you settle in, the more value you get from your significant investment.

We used all this experience to produce a guide packed with case studies, insights and tips from our academics, students and companies who work internationally. Here are the guide’s top tips for international students doing a UK MBA

1. Creative thinking

In the West, the education system encourages people to think for themselves. When you are examined on a subject, you are expected to refer to what you have learned but also add your own thoughts and ideas. It is very normal to challenge a teacher, manager or mentor and ask questions about the thinking of a subject and not necessarily to agree with it.

When studying for an MBA in the UK

  • You will be expected to offer ideas and experiences. Some of your ideas will be accepted, some will be ignored, some initially debated and then dropped – and some developed and improved
  • Ideas do not have to be right. You can disagree with other people’s ideas and even change your mind about your own idea!
  • Offering an idea that is not accepted is part of a creative and discussion process and often triggers other ideas in other people
  • No-one should be offended if other ideas are chosen over theirs. It is OK to point out why you do not agree with an idea but you must respect everyone’s contribution
  • Be open to new ideas – it helps to read around a subject, listen to ideas on the TV or radio that could be adapted to a project you are doing, cut out snippets from newspapers, search the internet, do research with people you know

2. Team working

Teamworking is a fundamental part of working and studying in the UK. Often a task will be discussed and agreed by a team and then different tasks allocated to individuals. It is often the performance of the team that matters and not the performance of individuals. When working in a team, make sure you agree what has to be achieved and who will do what. Set deadlines and meet regularly and discuss any problems you have with your team.

You will be expected to keep an eye out for how other people are doing, be interested in what is going on around you and offer support if a colleague has a deadline that you could help with.

If you do not join in with your team, you are losing a valuable opportunity and experience to work with other people.  You may also cause frustration among others in your group if you do not contribute actively to the success of the group project.

3. Group discussions

Group discussions are an important part of MBA study. People in some cultures tend to be very polite and wait to be asked and don’t want to seem pushy by offering their ideas. In other cultures, people tend to offer their ideas whether they are wanted or not! Westerners will often dominate an international group discussion if the group leader does not control this.

When taking part in a group discussion, offer your ideas and encourage others to speak up. You can disagree with people whilst still respecting their opinion.

4.Defining success and failure

Different countries have different views on what is a success or failure. Students in many countries expect to get nearly 100% if they are achieving well. Marks of 68%, considered to be very good in Britain, can be regarded as low in other countries.

Equally, some cultures see ‘failure’ as the way to improve. They see something going wrong as an opportunity to learn and change processes or products – and perhaps gain a competitive advantage.

Discussing ‘failures’ is fundamental to the UK process of problem solving. You have to agree there is a problem and there is room for improvement before you can go on to solve the problem. There is a tendency for Western cultures to be very upbeat.  So ‘problems’ are always ‘challenges’, ‘disagreements’ are ‘issues’!

5. Loss of face

People in different cultures are embarrassed about different things. Many cultures do not like to admit they do not understand or do not want to say ‘no’, because it appears rude.

In some countries, people can feel uncomfortable turning down invitations because it feels unkind. They would rather say ‘yes’ to please the person and then just not turn up.  Other cultures would be more upset at not turning up – they would rather the person had said no in the beginning!

When you are working in a team with people from different cultures, ensure that everyone really understands what it is you are saying by testing their knowledge rather than asking ‘do you understand?’ For example, ask ’can you show me how you would do that?’ or ‘how would you put that into practise?’ Try to avoid suggesting it is the individual who is ‘wrong’ but find a new angle – such as going back to a manual or text book – to discuss new information that could help improve performance and understanding.

6. Language

When communicating in a language which is not your first language, we all share some natural concerns:  a lack of confidence, a fear of getting things wrong and the potential for misunderstandings or confusion. In the UK we prefer to try to communicate and smooth out problems as we go along, rather than not communicate at all. Debating issues and presenting ideas is a key part of business and academic life in the UK.

Do not apologise or be embarrassed to say if you do not understand. No one will be offended and you can learn from mistakes. Also read English newspapers and magazines, watch TV and listen to English radio. They are all good ways of broadening your use of the English language

7. Plagiarism

Plagiarising means deliberately to take and use another person’s invention, idea or writing and claim it as your own work. In areas such as science, academic or literary ideas, plagiarism is the equivalent of fraud or theft.  Plagiarism is treated very seriously and blatantly plagiarised work is usually disqualified.

There are four main forms of plagiarism

  • copying another person’s work, with or without their consent, and claiming or pretending it to be your own
  • presenting arguments that use a blend of your own and the actual words of the original author without giving credit to the real source
  • paraphrasing another person’s work, but not giving proper acknowledgement to the original writer
  • colluding with other students and submitting identical or near identical work.

Quoting, applying, analysing and criticising other people’s work is perfectly reasonable and acceptable providing you always

  • Attempt to summarize in your own words another person’s work, theories or ideas and give acknowledgement to that person. This is usually done by citing your sources and giving full references
  • Or
  • Use quotation marks to distinguish between the actual words of the writer and your own words. Once again, you must acknowledge your sources in references

8. Socialising – feeling as if you belong

When you are away from ‘home’ where everything feels comfortable and familiar, it is easy to feel lonely and isolated. There are many different social and cultural etiquettes which often take time and effort to understand, but once appreciated can help you to feel you belong!

Socialising at work and in education is encouraged in the UK to build teams. Joining sporting, social and cultural activities is one of the quickest ways to make friends and understand how to fit in. Student unions tend to be at the heart of socialising for students in most universities. However, ‘intimate’ relationships between work colleagues and academics and students are usually discouraged because they can create tensions and compromise professionalism.

Etiquette around time keeping can be complicated. You should always be on time for business appointments, lectures, classes and meetings with academic staff and work colleagues. But when it comes to social life, arranging to meet to see a film at 8pm means arriving at 8pm whilst it is acceptable to arrive between 10 and 20 minutes late for dinner at someone’s home. If going to a student party an invitation for 8pm probably means anytime from 9.30pm onwards!

For more advice and insight from academics, students and professionals download our cultural guide.

Have you studied or worked abroad? Tell us what surprised you most about the cultural differences?

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