Internationalisation and cross-cultural skills

There are sound reasons to promote a more positive approach to diversity

By Jenny Shaw and Amy Lobl

Most student accommodation is – or has the potential to be – a culturally diverse community. And yet this is still too often seen as a problem to be managed rather than a valuable opportunity. 

There are sound reasons to promote a more positive approach to diversity. A global viewpoint is not only an advantage to students when pursuing a career in an increasingly globalised world but research from the US suggests this global perspective may also bring wider educational benefits. 

These studies have demonstrated that interaction with a diverse student peer group has a direct correlation to the development of:

  •  Critical thinking skills
  • Self-reported gains in intellectual skills
  • General education and personal/social development
  • Self-rated aspirations for postgraduate education
  • The development of academic self-concept

Most research focuses on the application of internationalisation within the curriculum, and for good reason: all students study, but not all live in student accommodation. However, we would suggest that to ignore the potential offered by accommodation to learn from other cultures is to miss an important opportunity. 

In order to be effective, focus needs to be shifted from ‘remedial’ interventions for international students to a more inclusive model which allows all students to share their culture and learn from others. But as managers of student halls know, this does not simply happen by mixing students up and letting them get on with it. In fact this can actually be harmful; causing conflict and reinforcing prejudice. The mix of nationalities within a flat can be a particularly sensitive area, especially if one student becomes culturally isolated.

‘Striking a balance between allowing students to relax and be comfortable within their living space, but also having structured opportunities to interact with people from different cultures is the challenge’

Striking a balance between allowing students to relax and be comfortable within their living space, but also having structured opportunities to interact with people from different cultures is the challenge. This issue is discussed at length in the UKCISA/Unipol publication “Managing accommodation for international students” and concludes that effective approaches involve both a room allocations policy and provision of wider opportunities within the university for students to integrate.

However this ignores the opportunities that could be available, through student accommodation itself, to support integration in a more purposeful way through provision of these wider opportunities.

At a very basic level, it means that any programme of events within student accommodation should take into account the interests and cultural preferences of all students. Although this should be obvious it is not always taken into consideration.

Beyond this, there is an opportunity to draw on the knowledge and experience of students from different backgrounds and offer them the opportunity to share these with their peers. 

For example, Unite Students in Nottingham offered students the opportunity to share Chinese culture with local primary school children. Many – though not all – of the volunteers were Chinese, and worked with a Chinese member of staff to train the whole group of volunteers to deliver a number of activities including calligraphy, games and crafts. All the students gained valuable work experience. Moreover it allowed them to integrate meaningfully with one another’s culture and with the local community.

Such projects, we suggest, only scratch the surface of what is possible. For example student accommodation offers a real opportunity for structured, peer assisted learning on cultural and language skills. As far as we know, and following conversations with the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), this has not yet been tried in an accommodation setting.

The development of these ideas has the potential to give students valuable skills for the future, as well as creating a more harmonious living community in the present.

Jenny Shaw (pictured) is head of student services at Unite Students and chair of the Unite Foundation.

Amy Lobl has worked in the higher education sector for over 5 years, at institutions including SOAS and University of Oslo. She currently lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya as Country Manager for Uganda at Uniserv Education.

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