Nul points for our global tune

June 15, 2007

Culturaldifferences affect learning and teaching, but UKuniversities plod along without taking this into account, says Susan Bassnett.

In the days after the abysmal British performance at the Eurovision Song Contest there was a great deal of self-righteous whingeing trying to find an excuse for why we did so badly. One line of argument was that Eastern European countries voted en masse for one another and that this was patently unfair. Another lot argued that the countries that came top were actually naive enough to take the whole event seriously and try to win. How un-British is that?

The song we entered was very British - a camp ditty full of innuendo about the shenanigans of airline cabin crews. It has done well in the UK with an audience that obviously enjoys double entendre . But who ever imagined that such a song could work anywhere else, least of all in a song contest that is indeed taken seriously by millions across the Continent?

The discussion about why the song failed in Europe highlights the gap of understanding that exists between how the British perceive themselves and their culture and how they perceive others. It needs addressing because understanding more about other cultures is the key to operating successfully in today's globalised world.

As our universities internationalise, we need to ask whether we are providing students with the kind of education that will enable them to become global citizens. What are we doing to prepare UK students, most of whom have no knowledge of any language other than English, for a world in which millions of people can operate comfortably in two, three or more languages? And how are we enabling those students who come to study in UK universities to understand the peculiarities of this culture?

We are not doing nearly enough. One of the biggest shocks for students coming to study in the UK is the paucity of contact hours with tutors, combined with the assumption that all students will know how to engage in independent study. If you come from a hierarchical system where you have been trained to follow your teacher's instructions to the letter and where contact hours can mean 30 classes a week, it is terrifying to find yourself in a system where you are left alone for most of the time and expected to start thinking for yourself. In addition to language and academic writing courses, all universities should provide cultural orientation programmes for international students. They should also provide intercultural awareness training for UK students. As language teaching in schools has collapsed, we have students with no means of accessing other cultures directly.

The business world has long recognised the need for this kind of training.

People may appear to be the same all over the world, but cultures differ radically from one another. In some, punctuality and meeting deadlines is a virtue, in others it is irrelevant. In some cultures, politeness means reticence and not expressing an opinion, in others it means showing enthusiasm by interrupting and engaging actively in debate.

All such differences affect learning and teaching, yet most British universities plod along without taking account of cultural difference at all. If we are going to create genuinely international universities, we have to provide all students with the tools that will help them function internationally. Right now I give UK higher education nul points for recognising that this is an important strategy for a global future.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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