POV: you are a university with numerous nationalities represented in your student body. Your marketing is tailored to the cultural values of the major regions you target. When these diverse groups of students arrive, however, they are not supported to develop intercultural competence in what must be the perfect environment to learn together.
A wasted opportunity? Definitely. The OECD has set out its model of Global Competence, as a highly desirable skill for the labour market. They make the case that students need to be ready to thrive in an interconnected world, and that the rapid growth of open digital spaces such as the Metaverse makes this even more pressing. They have even set out a handy questionnaire through the PISA Program to help you reflect on your own intercultural understanding; check it out if you have a minute.
Developing Global Competence is a broader model than just intercultural understanding, and also relates to information literacy, such as identifying bias and questioning information. In terms of intercultural understanding, however, they are very specific that institutions must support learners to "prepare for the world of work, which increasingly demands individuals who are effective communicators, are open to people from different cultural backgrounds, can build trust in diverse teams and can demonstrate respect for others, especially as technology continues to make it easier to connect on a global scale".
International institutions are the very best places to take a shared learning journey. We have the desire to get to know our fellow students, and to contextualize that learning process with the additional layer of understanding culture, is just too good an opportunity to miss.
Intercultural understanding goes way beyond reflecting on our own values and those of other cultures. Patterns of behavior, nuances of language, developing true respect and openness for others; the list goes on. A recent research paper from Croatia stated that intercultural understanding is "one of the most important missions of higher education institutions across the world" and that it can help students navigate other cultures and understand which patterns of behavior will help them more in employment in the target culture.
As the mind opens to a growing reflective awareness of our own culture, so we can develop a more fluid and international mindset. Embedded in this are the cognitive skills of self awareness and cultural knowledge, as well as the affective skills of open mindedness and curiosity. This is very much in keeping with the broader skill set needed to face a fast-changing and volatile world.
Global interconnectedness pervades everything around us, and it should therefore be present in all of our learning. That is the simple argument for the first approach, which is for institutions to embed intercultural understanding in their curriculum, strategy, communication, events etc. This is not something which happens overnight, but we have several institutions doing it well.
One of these is the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), in Monterey, California. As you might expect from the name, they take intercultural understanding seriously. MIIS have set up an Intercultural Competence Committee who focus on "curriculum and assessment, providing preparation, resources, and reflection opportunities for domestic and international immersive learning experiences, building intercultural events for students, staff, and faculty, and cultivating partnerships across campus and beyond." Intercultural understanding is embedded in the learning, but can also be taken each year in the form of specific electives, such as "Developing Intercultural Training in Organizations"
Critically, MIIS ensures that all new students have access to learning spaces where their diverse learners can explore empathy, cultural tension, values and norms in a nonjudgmental way, supported by an expert facilitator. Their interactions from then on as a diverse student body also provide an experiential learning and reflection opportunity.
The second approach is perhaps a good first step for institutions looking to provide better intercultural understanding support, before they can work towards fully integrating it across their curriculum and strategy. The UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate School in Dublin, Ireland, offer an Intercultural Development Program to all students. They state that the "ICD program will strengthen your CV and give you an edge over graduates from other Business programs in the global job market, "which seems like a solid point.
The ICD, you see, does not isolate intercultural understanding, but fuses it with the development of critical thinking, team working, conflict management, critical thinking, creativity and more. These are the magic words to employers who want teams that can work across cultures, respect and value diversity, and be open to critical reflection. Inclusive companies are nearly twice as innovative as their blander, vanilla counterparts.
Students go to higher education institutions to gain skills and knowledge that will help them with the careers and passions they have set their sights on. Since the pandemic, the prevalence of digital and flexible working models has increased sharply, and according to a PWC report, this makes intercultural understanding a mission-critical employability skill. The British Council found that IU was as important as formal qualifications for employers.
The future-proof institution really needs to get both hands around the provision of intercultural understanding. Start with a dedicated course for all students, and a chance to learn together. Build in an international perspective to all courses from biology to engineering, because no profession is immune to collaboration across cultures if it wants to serve a modern society. Work with employers to see how internships and graduate feedback can be used to improve the intercultural understanding provision, and build the capacity of staff (academic and administrative) in intercultural understanding before building partnerships outside.
This takes time, but if we have learned anything in our work with institutions around the world at geNEOus (formerly NEO Academy), there is a whole community out there ready to support and advise you. To talk to us about broadening your international reach and tailoring your marketing in diverse cultural markets.