Internationalisation must embrace intercultural living

A fundamental need for growth seems to be pushing universities towards embracing non-traditional models of higher education.

Universities are not only developing sophisticated recruitment infrastructures to attract students from across the globe but also innovative strategies to take education services directly to students – study-abroad campuses and massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are just two examples.

Although universities have for the most part been the dominant actors on the higher education stage, they may have to hand over some traditional education responsibilities to non-traditional actors, to meet growing demand.

This is already happening. For example, the number of companies offering professional development workshops has increased, and language schools around the world continue to grow. Considering the language requirements of most universities' admissions departments today, interest in the services of language schools will probably continue to develop.

Developing global citizenship

Universities may also need to consider exchanging zero-sum education principles for non-zero-sum ones as a way to prepare students for an increasingly globalised world. Zero-sum education principles are those that focus primarily on the local implications of education while non-zero-sum principles are those that embrace a position that prizes global citizenship.

When viewed through non-zero-sum lenses, the mobility of human capital, as in the case with international students who return home after graduation, is not necessarily a loss per se because the world is interconnected – and actions taken, no matter where, can have global implications.

In this age of increasing human capital mobility, it is unrealistic to expect that all students will stay put after graduation. While some do, perhaps the next best thing is to help students develop a global outlook.

To a large extent, internationalisation has been offered as a vehicle for this. The logic is that if you get enough students to go abroad and if you also recruit enough international students, ensuing interactions in and out of the classrooms will naturally help students develop a global point of view.

There are, however, several challenges that are understated in internationalisation discourses that may sabotage this vision.

For instance, exchange programme initiatives, international student-recruitment strategies and arguments for internationalisation of the curriculum are becoming central themes in internationalisation discourses. But the need for conditions in and out of the classroom that nurture self-determination, encourage inclusive community-building teaching practices and civil faculty-student and student-student relationships, is still not given enough emphasis in internationalisation discussions.

This is a serious mistake given that students, faculty and staff sometimes don't leave behind or eliminate prejudices and biases when they enter university communities. Furthermore, it is conceivable that challenges such as racial profiling, gender discrimination, sexual harassment and power misuse in the classroom have impact on the learning and teaching experiences of individuals.

It is precisely for this reason that internationalisation should not be discussed apart from the politics of identity. The reality is that factors related to personal and cultural identities can impact on the learning and teaching experiences of individuals.

Intercultural living

Besides these barriers, another understated challenge that may subvert the internationalisation aspirations of universities is the problem some students have relating to individuals outside their own culture. For example, numerous scholars have noted the lack of interaction between domestic and international students.

Although a lot has been said about increasing international student stay rates, not a lot of attention has been given to preparing students and faculty members for intercultural living.

As international education expands and demographic shifts continue, the need to encourage progress from a lower level – or internalised understanding of the intercultural perspective, characterised solely by a central objective of merely understanding intercultural matters – to a lived-out or higher-level intercultural perspective that embraces and values understanding and opportunities to practise intercultural living, will become more and more necessary.

In short, both the theory and practice of intercultural living will become inevitable as the stay rates of international students increase.

In this sense, social conditions that support the practice of intercultural living are as important as encouraging the development of intercultural perspectives, because although the development of intercultural understanding is important, the ability to live out the changed perspective is just as critical.

As the international activities of universities continue and the stay rates of international students increase, it is imperative that considerations of how personal and cultural factors impact individuals' learning and teaching experiences be included in internationalisation discourses.

* Abu Kamara is a PhD candidate at Dalhousie University in Canada, with interests in internationalisation, international students, intercultural education and identity politics. Twitter: @Abu__Kamara.