“Our aim is building cross-cultural competences and diversity”
Interview with the Head of International Relations at Bern’s University of Applied Sciences
Peter Eigenmann, a physiotherapist and former physiotherapy lecturer with a Master’s degree in Medical Education, has been the head of the International Relations Office at the Bern University of Applied Sciences (BFH) since 2008. The International Relations Office is responsible for administering and supporting all things international at the BFH: it organises the university’s participation in international education and research programmes, supports the departments in implementing internationalisation, and supports foreign guests and students. On Peter Eigenmann’s suggestion, the BFH joined SIETAR as a corporate member in 2017.
In 2013, Peter Eigenmann suggested that the BFH introduce the Certificate of Global Competence for all students. At the time, the Social Work Department already offered a Certificate for Global Competence to its students and the Business Department was about to introduce one. But Eigenmann felt a university-wide certificate would make sense given the increasing international orientation of its student body. To obtain the certificate, Bachelor and Masters students must fulfil requirements in three areas: knowledge, engagement, and language competencies.
While a few BFH-overarching modules exist, the majority of degree courses have their own, department-specific intercultural competence components for students wishing to earn the Certificate of Global Competence. “It makes sense,” says Eigenmann, “because the intercultural experiences of, for example, midwives are different from those encountered by engineers when they work abroad or with people from a different culture.” For those few degree programmes that do not have their own intercultural communication/competence modules or components, BFH offers modules that can be attended by all students. One example is the five-day “Cross-cultural Communication and Diversity” seminar offered during the BFH’s summer school in September.
Through these overarching or department-specific modules and the summer school seminar, candidates for the certificate fulfil the “knowledge” requirement that allow students to “gain specific skills such as the ability to use conceptual frameworks and methodological approaches to analyse cultural aspects“ in order to “operate professionally in international and transcultural contexts”, as outlined on the BFH’s website.
The second step for acquiring the certificate (“engagement”) involves an activity in a foreign setting or with people from another culture. While most students opt to spend time abroad, those students for whom this is not feasible can gain intercultural experience by, for instance, working with refugees in Switzerland. Students are also required to write a report reflecting on their experiences and on an intercultural challenge they encountered, incorporating the theoretical knowledge they gained during the certificate programme.
Finally, students have to fulfil a rigorous language requirement to obtain the certificate: they have to be able to work in two foreign languages, not including their mother tongue.
In a recent interview, Peter Eigenmann answered a number of questions:
How did a physiotherapist come to head a university’s International Relations Office?
I was lecturing from 1991 until 2008 at the Physiotherapy School in Bern, which became part of the BFH’s Health Department in 2006. Our students all had to do placements during their studies. In 1999 I started sending students to the University Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, twice a year for three- to five-month internships. Organising these placements was my first move into the field of international student and staff exchange.
It was pure coincidence. On a private trip to Ethiopia I visited the hospital and discovered that it has a small physiotherapy unit. As our school was always a bit short of internship options at the time, the idea to try out something quite special and challenging was born on the spot. I never expected the programme would run so successfully for 13 years, offering sometimes life-changing experiences for 80-100 students from different health disciplines. In 2003 I took over the responsibility for the International Office in BFH’s Health Department until I left in 2008 to take up my current position.
The students in the certificate programme have to write about a formative intercultural experience. Can you share such an experience from your own life?
There are many small encounters I remember. One of my favourite happened in 2001 on a weekend trip with a well-educated Ethiopian guide to the Awash National Park southeast of Addis Ababa. At a riverbank we saw a nomad with quite a large herd of camels. Our guide went to talk with this “very rich” man, pointing out that camels have a high monetary value. After a while he returned laughing loudly about this “ignorant” nomad. He had tried to persuade the nomad to sell his herd, because he would get a fortune in return, enough to settle down in a town, buy a nice big house and still have enough money left to live on. But the nomad rejected this suggestion, explaining: “I know how to treat camels, I don’t know how to treat money.”
What struck you about this encounter?
On the one hand, I was struck by the differences in value orientation between these two Ethiopian men, one urban, the other rural. I also noticed the difference between my interpretation of the nomad’s response and the guide’s. What he considered “ignorant” I thought was not only appropriate but also wise.
You suggested that the BFH join SIETAR as a corporate member. How do you hope the BFH will benefit from this membership?
There are various individual lecturers, administrators and professors interested in intercultural issues. An American study listed intercultural competence as one of ten required work skills for the future labour market. Our task is to take this information into account as we prepare our graduates for a successful career. With the corporate membership we give this topic a certain visibility. We also hope that it will help build up a community of experts in this field at the university.
As an institution we believe that networks are more and more important for positioning our university nationally and internationally. The membership underlines our development in this field. And last but not least we hope to profit from the teaching and research expertise of other SIETAR members.
The BFH’s Certificate of Global Competence is now five years old. The university’s enrolment stands at about 6’700 students. So far about 70 students have been awarded such a certificate. Did you anticipate that less than 10% of the students would be interested in getting this certificate?
We are very happy with the response to this new offer, even without a lot of promotional activities. It is also important to remember that the students’ priority remains to succeed in their Bachelor or Master programmes. The BFH offers the students a number of different add-on certificates, aside from this one. Generally, the question is what value the certificate adds to a student’s profile when he or she enters the job market after graduation. There is still some research to be done to form a sound basis for promoting the Certificate of Global Competence.
How do you ensure that the competences the students have gained while earning the certificate are relevant to the realities they will encounter in the workplace?
As mentioned, further research needs to be done. Recent studies from abroad have shown that employers list intercultural skills and exposure among the important competences a graduate should have (as described in the 2013 report from Demos, Helsinki, “Hidden Competences”, Centre for International Mobility). We have defined the general conditions students have to meet in order to get the certificate. The faculties of each department set out the concrete criteria of how these conditions can be reached. As a matter of fact, the specific strength of Swiss universities of applied sciences lies in their close collaboration with the field of professional practice, by requiring professional work experiences of their teaching staff and a strong link to their fields. This guarantees the relevance of the curricula and their adaptation to the developments in the respective professional fields. The same applies to the Certificate of Global Competence.
You mentioned that you work together with the Zurich University for Applied Sciences (ZHAW). Can you describe the nature of this collaboration?
We work together in an international network for developing quality management mechanisms for the internationalisation in higher education. Within this network we have performed peer test assessments, and we meet regularly to exchange good practices. In addition, a senior lecturer from the ZHAW Health Department teaches at our summer school seminar on Cross-Cultural Communication and Diversity.
The BFH launched this summer school seminar in 2015. Why?
First, to make it possible for interested students from all disciplines to acquire the Certificate of Global Competence, which requires students to earn four credits in the European Credit Transfer System in courses with international or intercultural orientations. Not all our study programmes make such a study plan possible.
Second, the topic is highly suitable for a multi-professional classroom. Realising how different terminologies, value orientations, and professional cultures exist among the different disciplines is quite enlightening. It’s a unique opportunity to have future business managers, social workers, wood engineers, nurses, midwives and communication designers in the same classrooms during the five-day summer school.
Is the summer school only open to BFH students?
The course is offered to our students as part of the certificate. But as the BFH’s aim is building cross-cultural competences and diversity, our policy is to give one-third of the places to students from abroad. These are often exchange students who then stay in Bern for the following semester. Previous guest students commented that the course was a very nice introduction to the Bern University of Applied Sciences and facilitated their integration during the semester.
Christina Stucky has worked as a journalist in the United States, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and South Africa, where she lived from 1994-2007 working as a reporter for local newspapers, as a correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and as a freelance journalism and communication trainer. Until 2017 she was a communication officer and trainer for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Bern. In her 10 years at SDC she ran more than 35 communication and writing workshops for SDC staff from more than 40 countries. She is now a freelance trainer and communication expert living in Bern.