Is it time to pursue ‘interculturalisation’?

The international, multicultural attitudes vital for living and working in diverse environments can be developed without travelling abroad, writes Elspeth Jones

September 26, 2019
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We know that “internationalisation” means many different things – from a focus on partnerships and global rankings to counting the numbers of international students in an institution, or of staff and students taking part in mobility programmes. But for an inclusive form of internationalisation that reaches all our students, we need to move beyond the somewhat restrictive thinking encompassed by that word.

Study abroad and other forms of credit mobility have long been the focus for governments, policymakers and institutions as far as students are concerned, and the success of the Erasmus+ scheme has undoubtedly had a major influence on strategy. Mobility also offers a relatively easy measure of success if we are simply looking at quantitative input-output results, and so tends to be favoured by institutional leadership. But counting students (and staff) tells us nothing about what they have gained from the experience. The qualitative outcomes of international mobility are rarely measured.

On the other hand, universities are keen to receive international students, partly for economic reasons. But here we have yet another numerical indicator, with the assumption that the presence of international students in an institution will support internationalisation for all – the higher the number, the more internationalised the campus. Yet there is negligible evidence of this being effective as one study after another finds little integration between international and domestic students on campus.

We do know that international experience can offer significant gains, especially with regard to transferable employability skills. Even short international study, work placement or volunteering opportunities, from as little as two weeks, can develop not only personal and intercultural skills but also those that are prized by employers. And it has been clear for some time that employers are seeking graduates with first-hand experience of living and working among other cultures. But does that mean the experience needs to come from a period abroad?

Internationalisation of the curriculum “at home” seeks to offer similar benefits for the majority of students who don’t go abroad, both in terms of skills development and the wider outcomes of internationalisation. The aim is to involve students in focused and meaningful engagement with cultural “others” in our own locations through teaching, learning and assessment. It stems from the view that international and intercultural perspectives, crucial for living and working in today’s diverse environments, can be developed without the need to travel to other countries.

The driver for such objectives is not merely to provide a holistic education. Higher education has a vital role in countering the populist and nationalist views and movements so virulent in parts of Europe and across the rest of the world.

Indeed, this is true of education as a whole, and leaving it to the tertiary stage may well be too late. Some countries have effective citizenship programmes from primary education onwards, and higher education internationalisation should be seen as an extension of this. Work by the Council of Europe, based on its notion of intercultural dialogue, has resulted in an interesting model of 20 competencies required for democratic culture and intercultural dialogue. The knowledge, skills, values and attitudes identified by this project are entirely in line with values-based rationales for internationalisation and lay the foundation for internationalisation of the curriculum at home.

Using internationalised and “interculturalised” learning outcomes, we can design teaching, learning and assessment processes that involve purposeful engagement with cultural others. This is not dependent on the presence of international students, but it does demand our recognition of cultural diversity in all its forms, meaning those that go beyond ethnic, linguistic or religious divides. We all embody a range of identities and “cultures”, some of which we are born with and others that emerge through the course of our lives and experiences. These differences can create opportunities to extend students’ comfort zones through the relatively safe yet challenging spaces both within the institution and in the surrounding local environment.

Curriculum learning outcomes that require all students to encounter, embrace and explore a broad range of “cultural otherness” can provide them with experiences equivalent to their mobile peers. These should create the potential for students to question their own assumptions, acknowledge alternative viewpoints and to cross cultural boundaries, extending their knowledge and understanding by respecting and valuing diversity as essential for living and learning in a changing society. In this regard, the term “interculturalisation” might be a more effective frame for such an agenda, since the “international” is not essential for students to develop nuanced perspectives, critical thinking and intercultural communication skills that will enhance their personal and professional opportunities while contributing to a more understanding and civilised society.

Elspeth Jones is emerita professor of the internationalisation of higher education at Leeds Beckett University, UK.

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Reader's comments (1)

That's all fine but what about language learning- surely the voie royale to interculturalisation.