Managing multicultural teams to raise teaching and research standards

Over the past 10 to 15 years, internationalisation has had a great impact on European universities. This development was assisted by the Bologna process. More and more universities offer trainings and project groups where scientists can talk about their experience and fictitious sample cases so that they might develop strategies to handle intercultural situations and to stimulate their students’ intercultural awareness. What is more, some 38 institutions in 27 countries have teamed up in 2012, to create the IntlUni Erasmus Academic Network , which aims at defining, by 2015, the quality criteria that should characterise teaching and learning in these new so-called Multilingual and Multicultural Learning Space. They also make adequate recommendations to facilitate teaching and learning in such a context.

All countries do not have the same experience of internationalisation. “The British and the Americans have always had a long tradition with international students,” says Dietrich von Queis, former head of scientific and educational qualification at Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, Germany, and author of a guidebook on intercultural competence for university teachers.

“In other countries like Germany, France or Italy they were exotics before and compose now up to 20% or 25% [of students],” he adds. “University teachers in Germany, for example, who are used to independent students,” von Queis notes, “are much more often confronted to students from Asia or Eastern Europe who have been socialised in more ‘authoritarian’ university systems.”

The need to establish quality criteria for teaching in multicultural environment is becoming more and more pressing. University students and lecturers are not always conscious that they do not necessarily share the same conceptions of good students, teachers, teaching or academic practices. This, in turn, may bring discontent or even conflicts. “There are big differences between academic cultures,” notes Elke Bosse, scientific assistant at the center of higher and further education at Hamburg University, Germany.

International student, she believes, are likely to answer differently than local students to the following questions: Are students and teachers familiar with chalk-and-talk? Or with interactive teaching? Is student participation in the class room desired? Should students reproduce what teachers say? Or should they learn to develop their own ideas? How is a good and correct scientific argumentation characterised? Are the assessment criteria revealed transparently? Are university teachers available for student consultation and what does that mean?

Bosse is convinced that intercultural awareness helps to manage potential conflicts and to raise satisfaction between teachers and international students: “Lecturers cannot know the variety of different university systems but they should be conscious about the heterogeneity in class rooms and teams. They should realise when international students cannot keep up and they should be informed about special courses and helpdesks that exist at their institutions.”

Multicultural differences between university systems might not only affect the teaching, but also the research. “When conducting a big research projects that involves many scientists from many different countries you have to decide how to handle the different languages and scientific cultures, the resources and the question of power,” explains Matthias Otten, who works at the institute for intercultural education and development at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne, Germany.

The types of issues that may arise are multiple and add to the complexity. “Maybe you cooperate with big institutes in Great Britain and France, but also with smaller ones in Czech Republic or Portugal. And there may also be interpersonal problems when Asian professors are for example irritated by the relaxed atmosphere among their German colleagues. And finally you have to keep in mind that the scientific problem itself is also affected by national, regional and cultural conditions,” Otten points out. For example, he refers to education systems or the field of social work. This is a challenging job and the responsible scientists are often young and unacquainted.

The clash of different university systems can be a challenge for scientists, but – regardless of their professional expertise – it also gives them an opportunity for personality development. “Scientists will not abandon their scientific standards in order to integrate international students but university teachers should help their students to reach these standards,” von Queis says, “The confrontation can also help to reflect the own system and the own idea of different systems. Many university teachers are convinced that their teaching style is the only effective one but they will find out that there are often very good students, who are socialised in totally different systems.”

Experts are convinced that scientists are in charge of creating intercultural learning situations in universities: “Scientists should not only handle their experiences of difference but they should also use them in order to initiate learning processes for other people and relate it to the particular scientific subject,” Otten says. Von Queis concludes that scientific standards might rise in intercultural teams. “Students often complain that they get worse marks when working in intercultural teams. That is the case when the intercultural learning process is not considered by the teacher. But in order to find good solutions for difficult tasks it is absolutely necessary to include different methods, theories and perspectives.”

Featured image credit: jurec via

Janna Degener

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