Wednesday, 29 August 2012

'What's in a welcome?' - Intercultural experiences

“What’s in a welcome?”
Intercultural Learning from Internships and Study Abroad

Helen Spencer-Oatey, University of Warwick

If you were starting a new job or a new course, what kind of welcome would you count as “warm”?  Students on the MSc Intercultural Communication for Business & the Professions (run by the Centre for Applied Linguistics, CAL, at the University of Warwick) were in for some surprises when they went on their four-week Experiential Placement module in the summer term. This optional module offers students the opportunity to work or study in a ‘culturally unfamiliar’ setting and to put into practice many of the things they have learned during their master’s course.

Six of the students went to CAL’s partner university in Beijing, the University of International Business and Economics. Their welcome was extremely formal. Seated around a very large mahogany table, the Dean of the School of International Studies (SIS), Professor Dr Wang Lifei and the Party Secretary of the SIS Communist Committee, Ms Zhang Cuiping, gave formal speeches to welcome the students. In response, they were expected to give return speeches. The welcome meeting was followed by a sumptuous banquet. The students were overwhelmed and hugely impressed by the grandeur of the events. 

In contrast, many of the Chinese students who undertook work placements in local UK organisations were welcomed quite differently - their boss offered to get them a cup of tea to help settle them in. Here are their reactions: “This wouldn’t be possible in China. The first meeting must be formal and serious so that managers can show their authority and new staff can show their respect.” “In China subordinates take initiatives to meet the needs of their boss. Letting superiors do things for subordinates is disrespectful and shameful.”  When asked what impression it conveyed if a boss made tea for a newcomer, their response was immediate: “Something serious is about to happen, like being fired!”  In fact, such a negative meaning is conveyed in a Chinese saying: The boss invites you to drink tea.1 Fortunately, the students were sensible enough to realise it was a cultural difference and not to get too worried!

All students were required to keep an ‘Intercultural Learning Journal’, drawing on the intercultural theories they had learned during their course to help them reflect on and analyse their experiences. They were unanimous that they had grown immensely during their placement. One explained it like this:

‘How can s/he behave like this?’, ‘What’s wrong with her/him?’, ‘S/he must be crazy, I would never do such stupid things.’ For a long time I had those ideas when I experienced something different from what I thought it should be. The first time I got a low grade for my assignment during the course, I asked what was wrong with the British grading system. The first time I had a misunderstanding with my Indian flat mate, I questioned how he could behave like this. … My reaction echoes the words of Shaules (2007: 73) 2:  “When our environment is different than what we are used to, we automatically seek to explain, justify or criticize unusual phenomena in order to maintain our sense that we operate in a meaningful world. … we are not far away from being prejudiced.” However, with the passage of time, and accumulation of this cultural experience in the UK, I found myself being less judgmental and more tolerant and open towards differences.

As another put it, “a precious experience to promote further understanding”.

1 老板请你喝
2 Shaules, J. (2007) Deep Culture. The Hidden Challenges of Global Living. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Towards a Canadian international education policy

Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has just published the report of a working party on producing a national international education strategy.  If you're surprised that they don't already have one, bear in mind that education is controlled at provincial, not national level, and while provinces such as British Columbia have had active policies for more than a decade, others have evolved more slowly.  

For a UK reader, International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity will have echoes of familiarity for those who remember the Prime Minister's Initiative (the panel even says that it "sees the Prime Minister as a unifying champion for international education").  In places there are even explicit references to aspects of UK international education policy which the report reccommends Canada learn from: such as the "complex and multifaceted bilateral agreements with priority countries" (presumably UKIERI and UK China).

However, before anyone in the UK is tempted to bask in reflected glory or assume the Canadians are just playing catch-up, there are some important issues here.  A central message of the report is that the UK (and US, Australia and New Zealand) are currently facing some significant challenges, and that Canada is well-placed to step in and claim greater market share (the suggested target is to double Canada's 240,000 in 2011 by 2022).  It "define[s] Canada’s value proposition as one of offering high quality at affordable costs in a safe, multicultural environment."  A key issue here is that Canada is not just looking for international students to come, study and return home.  With significant issues about meeting future labour market needs, this policy is as much about skilled migration as it is about exports and soft power. 

A second issue is that while Canada is becoming more strategic in its approach to international education, the UK has been steadily losing focus on this issue.  Current tensions between the Coalition government's immigration policy objectives, and its economic and educational objectives are currently impeding any joined-up (or as the Canadian report calls it "aligned") policies.  And whereas in Canada the lead is coming from the department responsible for foreign affairs, here the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is far from leading, while BIS and the Home Office try to reconcile their differing objectives.

On a more positive note, all those who believe more UK students should be encouraged to study abroad (something on which David Willetts and Damian Green can no doubt agree, though probably for different reasons), will be heartened to see that the Canadians are recommending that "substantial resources" be invested in maintaining mature markets such as the UK.  So although on the one hand it's tempting to shout "The Canadians are coming!" in relation to their increasingly active international education policy, let's hope we can balance it with "And the Brits are heading over there in response!".  After all, international strategies shouldn't be all one way.