Let’s talk about those ‘speak English’ signs at Airthrey Castle

4 mins read
Airthrey Castle.  Credit: University of Stirling

You may have seen by now a number of media outlets reporting on a supposed controversy in our neck of the woods: that international students at Stirling based in Airthrey Castle’s study centre have been instructed, via a notice in the welcome foyer, to “speak English at all times“.

It’s horrible, isn’t it? Who knew Gerry McCormac was a secret member of UKIP?

Well, not quite. This story – to coin a phrase – is a load of old bollocks.

The Stirling Observer caught up with an art tutor visiting the castle, who was outraged, outraged I tells ye, at the terrible sign, admonishing the university in no uncertain terms.

“We’re also currently experiencing the Brexit agenda unfolding and students and staff from abroad may be feeling insecure or experiencing racial discrimination,” he told the paper.

“This notice looks insensitive at the least and unwelcoming at the worst.”

Now, it is not my place to speak for international students based at the castle, and who knows how they feel about the sign. But I hope even international students who don’t like the notice would at least acknowledge that its purpose – its singular, constructive purpose – is to benefit them in their studies.

Lots of students and, more broadly, workers and families who have come here from abroad are understandably feeling insecure, discriminated against and even threatened as a result of Brexit and a sour public mood towards immigration. But the university has pointed out that the purpose of the INTO programme is specifically to help international students feel more secure about being able to undergo their degree successfully.

As a uni spokesperson put it: “INTO University of Stirling, based at Airthrey Castle, is specifically tailored to offer a range of flexible and intensive English language courses, to prepare international students for their degree at the university.

“We encourage INTO students to speak English whenever possible, as it has been shown that this is the most effective way to help them to improve their language skills, in order to meet their English requirements, so that they can progress to a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate degree options.”

This is the reality of going to study in a country which teaches in a different language: you have to know it. It is no different for a UK student going on exchange to a French, or Spanish, university. Indeed, many universities do not provide the kind of support system and network Stirling is able to provide.

I am completely in favour, as editor-in-chief of Brig, of writing and publishing criticism of Stirling University where it is merited. And of course, there is always more that can be done to make international students feel more welcome and to give them greater support.

But if the outraged art tutor had done a modicum of research before ranting to the Observer, he would have found that Stirling – which hosts 120 nationalities on its campus – ranks top in Scotland for welcoming international students, and third in Scotland for international student satisfaction, with 92% saying they are satisfied with their experience here.

The only way this notice can be construed as “insensitive” or offensive is to strip it entirely of all relevant context. Storm in a teacup, folks: move on.

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