Monday, 12 March 2012

The challenges of intercultural integration

Last week's Warwick Integration Summit provided a welcome break from agonising over the impact of the latest immigration changes.  Instead, the focus was on the potentially transformative impact of an internationally diverse campus, and whether we are helping both home and international students get the most of such an experience.  I share below my interpretation of and reflections on what speakers said.  Any gems of wisdom are theirs, and any errors and confusions are mine alone!

Helen Spencer-Oatey challenged us to think about what we are trying to achieve in internationalising.  Few institutions have a clear statement on whether, how and why they are trying to promote integration.  We focus on the objective aspects of culture (the tip of the iceberg), and fail to think about the deeper changes (to the subjective realm of norms and assumptions).  Or, distinguishing between products, practices and perspectives, we might think we are becoming more internationalised by issuing a Diploma Supplement (a product to explain our grading system), but are we examining our practices (why do we use a percentage scale but not give marks in the top 25% of that scale), and do we really challenge our assumptions (what are we valuing when we award grades)?  We should aim to explore and respond to difference in order to develop and grow.

Darla Deardorff reminded us that intercultural learning doesn't just happen as a result of coming into contact with others who are different from us.  It needs preparation, a suitable environment and support, and plenty of follow-through.  Moreover, measuring it isn't easy - many instruments are available, but if planning to use any of these, you need to know what you're trying to evaluate, and use a variety of methods.

Ema Ushioda explained that the drive to change comes from internal motivation.  If we are to enable students to engage interculturally we must help encourage the forces that motivate them, and provide a supportive and encouraging environment and raise awareness of the opportunities and benefits available to them.

My own contribution was to encourage participants to think about a whole of institution approach, covering all aspects of the student experience (learning, extra-curricular, social and daily life), within the context of what was needed and possible within their own institutional context.  We need to find ways of measuring whether our effort is having an effect to make best use of scarce resources.  And we must remember there is no neutral space outside of culture.  If contact with other cultures raises questions about ways in which we should change, we shouldn't be defensive about being British, but instead just learn to be reflectively British.

Of course, much of the real work and insight was in the breakout sessions.  While participants clearly face challenges ranging from lack of top-down support to resource and workload pressures, all kinds of interesting work is being done from Warwick's Go Global campaign to Loughborough's Experience the World, and many other examples.  Thanks to Warwick for providing this opportunity to share ideas - this is a conversation we all hope to continue.

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