Intercultural Competence Development in Higher Education

Interview with Dr. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas, Researcher at the Department of Management, University of Applied Sciences for Management and Communication in Vienna (

Is it only the pull from a fast globalizing business world that has pushed institutions of higher education all over the world to identify cultural intelligence as a key developmental area for their students?

Internationalisation at higher education institutions (HEI) is a relatively new phenomenon. In Europe, it is apparent that internationalisation as a strategic process began with Erasmus 30 years ago. The internationalisation of businesses has also increased tremendously over the last decades, leading to a society that is constantly forging new connections with people from all corners of the world. As a result, the top skill that employers are looking for in graduates is the ability to work collaboratively with teams of people from a range of backgrounds and countries. Intercultural competence has been suggested as one of the three skills that every 21st-century manager needs to have, more important even than their technical or discipline-specific knowledge and skills. In line with this are the results of a recent study stating that cultural differences were the greatest obstacle to productive cross-border collaboration.

This leads to the conclusion that effective cross-border communication and collaboration are becoming critical to the financial success of companies. Hence, HEI must adapt to the changing global stage to equip their students with the knowledge of how to successfully engage with other cultures. International learning experiences appear to have changed from an “added-value side effect to an all-persuasive motive in a market-driven and globalised educational sector,” as sociologist Matthias Otten has said.

What are universities and other institutions doing to promote cross-cultural competence as part of their student curriculum? What measures are they using to identify areas of development and ensure that they reach their objectives?

Universities attempt to create an international learning experience in different ways, mainly by increasing diversity in their student population, so that students interact with people from all over the world and learn in a more multicultural environment. Universities often consider the main source of multicultural diversity to derive from transnational education initiatives, such as the involvement in Erasmus programmes. Another method of internationalisation in HEI is the branch campus, which is a joint venture between two higher education institutions. It involves transporting programs and degrees from one country (the home country) to another (the foreign country). The branch campus model usually involves faculty members flying in from the home country to teach students in the foreign country combined with often mandatory student exchanges. The number of international students has nearly doubled worldwide in the past ten years. Hence, the challenge of HEIs is to facilitate meaningful interactions among diverse student groups.

In my opinion, however, we very often forget and/or underestimate the potential of “internationalisation at home”.

What is the pull from students?

We recently introduced a mandatory exchange semester in all fulltime bachelor-degree programs, and although we still have to evaluate long-term effects, we noticed a rise in applications this year. During application interviews, one of the main reasons students want to study at our university is because we require a stay abroad.

How are university staff impacted? Are they also being measured for cultural intelligence? What support are they receiving to deal with an increasing foreign student population as far as campus integration and class engagement is concerned?

At most universities, intercultural training is already mandatory before students leave for a stay abroad, since it has been shown that, without sufficient preparation, students often return from a semester abroad with more stereotypes than before. Anyhow, it is important to consider that leaving your staff or students without support in the development of cultural knowledge might be more than counterproductive, meaning that the training in cultural intelligence for those who might not go abroad is also imperative.

In most universities, some kind of diversity training is in place; at my university, for example, we offer a one-day course called “the multicultural classroom” that is very popular. Lecturers and researchers are interested in the topic, but clearly there is not much being done in HEIs when we talk about competence development.

Are all students (not just international but also domestic students) engaging in the same way with the push for developing global graduates?

I personally perceive a huge interest in international topics. Courses offering an international perspective are highly valued by our students when we discuss career goals; many of them want to work in an international environment. For example, I am teaching mainly in part-time study programs, meaning that my students work at least 25 hours a week and study in the evenings. Such a constellation makes it more difficult to participate in an exchange program, of course, yet we see a trend of people using sabbaticals for such endeavors. In any case, I think we all underestimate the diversity we have in our classrooms, which offers a huge potential to develop cultural intelligence.

Are the universities taking sufficient advantage of the hybridization between domestic students and international students? What can be done to support this?

Let me offer a few suggestions of ways to improve cross-cultural interactions and foster intercultural competence development at HEI, based on best practices around the globe:

1. Social or cultural activities at an HEI: A recent study has shown that activities aimed at supporting students’ development, fostering social networks, and creating positive conditions both inside and outside of the classroom are more successful if they are organised by students rather than faculty or staff. It seems that when social, academic and professional events, clubs and activities are organized by the students themselves, and therefore based on the students’ preferences and shared interests, they are more likely to encourage cross-cultural network development and knowledge creation. The same is true of experiential learning projects that are integrated into the curriculum.

2. Intercultural mentoring in an HEI: It is of fundamental importance that mentors are well-prepared and that the mentoring process is set up and organised professionally through a department of the university (e.g. the international office). A Finnish study showed that intercultural mentorship is characterised by a sense of mutual learning, concern about the students’ adjustment, pervasiveness of the relationship, cooperation and concern about learning outcomes. Mentorship can be both a rewarding and a frustrating experience, however, so it must be done well.

3. Hire and retain international faculty members and develop cultural intelligence in existing employees: The literature recommends–and I personally am 100% in favour of it—that HEIs extend their efforts to hire and retain international faculty members who are culturally competent and have professional experience in international business, not only to introduce students to global business practices but also to act as mentors and advisors. This approach can provide safe places where students can learn to build and inspire trust and to develop social capital and cross-cultural networks.

In conclusion, a globally embedded approach to teaching intercultural competence that emphasizes the development of expertise over the long term is more likely to be effective than a single course or even a short-term immersion in a cultural experience. Clearly this is a challenging conclusion, but it is nevertheless the mission we face! Universities must have a continuing and strategic approach to internationalisation if they are to succeed.

This interview is inspired by a book chapter written by Barbara Covarrubias and currently in the final phase of publishing. It is titled “Spotlight on Intercultural Competence Development in Higher Education Institutions” and will appear in the UNESCO-IASAS book on student services in higher education around the world. Editor: Roger B. Ludeman, President Emeritus, International Association of Student Affairs and Services (IASAS), Editor-in-Chief, UNESCO-IASAS Book.

Dr Barbara Covarrubias Venegas is a senior researcher and lecturer at the Department of Management of the University of Applied Sciences for Management & Communication in Vienna, Austria. She has worked and studied in Austria, Spain, Italy, Chile and Mexico and continues to work with organizations and executives from global organizations and to teach in Austria and abroad.

Covarrubias was president of SIETAR Austria, as well as communications director and board member of SIETAR Europa for many years and is currently Secretary General of the IACCM (International Association of Cross-Cultural Competence and Management.) She is also project leader for Vienna Global Leaders and other leadership programs, and she coaches, speaks, and offers workshops on a number of cross-cultural and leadership-related topics.

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