Only foreign students and staff need cultural awareness training?

The world we live and work in today has changed and diversity has become a distinguishing feature all around us, in countries, regions, cities, companies, families and in universities and classrooms. Learning to live together ‘as equals and in dignity’ (White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, Council of Europe, 2008) seems to be imperative. In my view, educational institutions, from primary to higher education, are best placed to provide intercultural learning, training or support as an integral part of all individuals’ education.

Unfortunately, at the moment, the reality is far from that ideal. It is, nevertheless, encouraging to see an increase engagement in intercultural education throughout the world. The field of intercultural education is expanding and there is a wide range of aspects for educators and policy makers to address. The purpose of this blog is just to highlight one aspect (the tip of an iceberg?) that I know and I feel needs attention in higher & further educational institutions.

I have been observing with surprise for some time a wide spread practice of providing cultural awareness, intercultural learning or similar support, but only to international students and staff and sometimes to members of home staff working in administration dealing with international students.

At universities, there are offices, services and staff dedicated to international students, Student Unions have international students’ forums, there are specific inductions sessions for members of staff from around the world, and there are also organised events such as One World Week that, if not well-planned, the focus is on international. There seem to be a framework exclusively created to provide support to ‘international people’.

Undoubtedly, some aspects of that framework are not only necessary, but very useful. My reservation is that inter-cultural awareness, intercultural learning, intercultural competence are essential, not only for international students and members of staff, but also for home students and staff. And, to some extent, I believe, home students and staff are left out, and integration of both home and international students and staff is unintentionally denied.

In order to find some answers as to how it can be approached differently, it is important to look at the broad definition of curriculum in terms of formal, informal and hidden and see what role each play in the student’s learning experience and in the creation of an inclusive university culture.

It is widely agreed that intercultural learning could/should be integrated in the formal curriculum of each discipline. Academic staff needs to be encouraged and supported in doing so. This is an active area of research and relevant progress is taking place as we speak. I was fortunate to work on this with other colleagues from University of Brighton as part of an Advanced HE funded project which is now available on their website.

The informal curriculum requires, in my view, careful attention and planning to encourage, facilitate and promote a university culture that expects and values inter-cultural engagement and effective communication among all its members. Integration of such a diverse population needs to be at the core of the informal curriculum. This should be reflected in the aims of all activities organised from Fresher’s Week to Graduation Ceremonies. Activities that encourage and facilitate students to develop a curiosity about otherness as well as thinking about and reflecting on what they can learn from it and how they can put it into practice.

Sharing accommodation with students from all over the world (halls of residence, flats, and houses); hearing and learning languages; socialising with people from many different cultural backgrounds and learning how to deal with unfamiliar values, beliefs, behaviours; facing and resolving conflict; sharing their worldviews and perspectives in lectures; benefiting from having lecturers from many different countries that contribute to a wider and more diverse formal curriculum;  sharing learning and working with other students from different cultural, linguistic, ethnical, religious, and academic backgrounds, are all valuable resources ready to be used to enhance the student’s social and academic experience. They cannot be underestimated any longer.

It is the formal and informal that shape the hidden curriculum. That is, the beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviours that are embedded in our students through the socialization process that they experience during their years in higher education. It is this ‘learned’ culture together with their discipline’s specialised knowledge and expertise that students take away with them to join the global labour market.

An international outlook is no longer a desirable skill, but an essential one.

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About the author of this article:

Pilar Teran

Pilar is a qualified business coach and trainer specialising in inter-cultural engagement and communication with a broad-ranging expertise in teaching Spanish for business in companies such as Arthur Anderson, Barclays Bank, Chubb Insurance and Franklin and Andrews. She is a Fellow of Advance HE with 30 years’ experience in teaching Spanish as a foreign language and Intercultural Communication for the last 7 years to undergraduates and postgraduates at the University of Sussex and University of Brighton. She has also worked on internationalising the curriculum, contributing to a toolkit that is available on Advance HE website. Pilar is passionate about the transformative impact that intercultural training and learning has on both companies, by reducing conflict and maximising performance, and on students by enhancing their experience at university and beyond.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in articles on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIETAR UK.“

One Comment

  1. Thank you Pilar for your contribution. Alarming situation, if you take for granted that “it takes 2 to tango”, hence to integrate. Everywhere in the world the locals are often an obstacle to creating a community with the internationals, but indeed, if no support nor training is offered to the locals, this will presumably slow down the integation process. Any idea why this is now the case in the UK?
    I agree with you that efforts should focus on all 3 formal, informal and hidden curricula. In my lecture during the mini-congress last Sat., I described the Eindhoven experience in creating a local campus community by extending the paradigm from Diversity & Inclusion to Belonging and further to Well-Being. This process can only be sucessful if we indeed integrate both groups. Providing training and support to all members is essential. And of course, one can always stay in a state of denial to culture change and avoid integrating. I’ve sadly seen this at both ends of the spectrum with international students and local staff.
    As this goes beyond the sole educational world, but also includes social and political aspects, we can hope the years to come will show a revival of the international spirit. Or is this too optimistic in light of the current political situation in the UK?

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