Higher Education and Research

Intercultural dialogue through the eyes of students
Olav ye, the European Students’ Union

Increased intercultural dialogue is one of the results of student mobility. The fostering of intercultural dialogue is also one of the reasons that public and private institutions should support student organisations in their international work. This presentation will have two main approaches: First, we will look at individual students as active citizens and how one can make this a reality when integrating international students. Second, we will look at how student organisations’ contribute to intercultural dialogue.

Students: citizens, future workers or both?

ESU believes that students should not merely be viewed as future labourers, but also as active citizens. We believe that higher education has a responsibility for preparing students for a life as active citizens in democratic societies. This was also one of the views of the Council of Europe’s forum on Converging Competences: Diversity, Higher Education and Sustainable Democracy, which took place October last year.

If a higher education institution has any ambition of fulfilling the maximum of its potential, it must embrace the idea that it must do more than simply make conveyor belt programmes that provide the labour market with working hands and minds.

While not forgetting that the “average student” is an increasingly irrelevant phrase in terms of age, we can look at higher education as a space where young people often meet, for the first time, people with a significantly different cultural background. Students take their perceptions with them when they go home, and discuss with their families, their friends, and with other people they meet during their studies and within their social circle in general. The behaviour and attitudes we learn during our studies are the ones that we will most likely keep throughout our professional and private life later on.

Mobility + language skills = intercultural dialogue?

One of the discussions at the CoE seminar in March 2008, on intercultural dialogue on the university campus, concerned whether student or staff mobility and language learning more or less by themselves create intercultural dialogue. Like the general rapporteur of that event, I would argue that this in itself is not sufficient.

Before they leave home, students going abroad should have the opportunity of taking language courses. But also they should also be made aware of what it means to be part of the student society and the wider society they are entering. Language courses should include this information, or be accompanied by separate courses on the cultural and historical situation of the country or region they are studying in.

Even if, for example, English is the language of teaching in the course or programme, foreign students should still have the possibility to take a language course in the language that is used by the local population. This does not only enable students to say hi and how are you, but breeds curiosity and possibilities of understanding written and spoken communication that one finds outside the programme and outside the campus.

While it is important with language courses before and at the beginning of a stay abroad, language tuition should be available throughout the whole study period abroad and it should be seen as an essential element of the study period. In order to avoid barriers to mobility and in order to promote successful integration, language tuition in all periods of study must be free of charge.

Furthermore, it is necessary to offer sufficient information on the academic system and requirements as well as local student culture and activities. This information can for example be offered in multi-language student handbooks produced by student unions in cooperation with the respective HEI.

Dialogue within one’s own group, and with the rest of campus and society
When students are enabled to study abroad for a semester or for a whole degree, higher education institutions need to make sure that the visiting students have the possibility to meet not only with other international students or with students from their own country. The role of international students on campus is connected to the contribution of student mobility to intercultural dialogue in the wider society. This is particularly important because the social composition of mobile students today is mostly representative of students with relatively high socio-economic backgrounds. If international students only meet other international students, they will never get a hands-on experience of the discussions that take place in the rest of the community they are living in.

We often see that international students are far from fully integrated even into the student life on campus. Sometimes foreign students are put in student housing ghettos, separated from the local students, by design or by chance. A better integration of foreign students into both a campus society and the wider society is a prerequisite for more intercultural dialogue.

The Council of Europe’s White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue says that “Developing a political culture supportive of cultural pluralism is a demanding task”. The paper also says that that this political culture must entail “an education system which generates capacities for critical thinking and innovation, and spaces in which people are allowed to participate and to express themselves” (article 79). Some of these spaces can be found within student organisations, and this area is the main topic of the second half of the presentation.

Student NGO’s: debates, political fights and intercultural dialogue
Not only individual students contribute to intercultural dialogue. On regular basis, student organisations meet each other across the national borders and regions. ESU tries to build bridges between students and student organisations in Europe, and holds at least four major events each year where students from across Europe meet and discuss the situations in their own countries and for Europe as a whole. Some of ESU’s cooperation partners, like for example the Erasmus Student Network, the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations, and the school student organisation OBESSU, contribute to intercultural dialogue through their ordinary activities, such as conferences, trainings, and general internal discussions on political, cultural or educational issues.

In January 2009, ESU brought together students from all over the world to debate the current and future challenges for students. The meeting was a preparation of the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education in July. If we can raise the necessary funds, ESU will also organise a follow-up meeting after the World Conference in order to explore the possibilities of a more firm cooperation between the regional student platforms of the world.

One of the things that surprised me at the meeting we had in January, was how few difficulties we faced when we tried to reach consensus. While the situations in Ghana, in Nepal and in Australia are very different, we saw that it is possible to discuss and agree on major topics and priorities. It was even easier than reaching agreement at our own internal meetings. The reason might be that the level of abstraction was pretty high, and that the outcome of the discussions can be said to be not very controversial. But I also think it was something else: students often have some fundamental traits in common; we are curious, we are flexible and we are not easily impressed by the established authority structures or cultures that exist.

Students can change both our immediate campus surroundings as well as our society at large. This view is one of the driving forces behind much of the student representation that takes place today, and the differences in this basic view are not very big from one continent to another. If you read the newsletter from ZINASU, the student union in Zimbabwe, you will notice that they often have the same issues and use the same rhetorics as unions in Europe or Latin America. (Albeit the conditions they are working under are much more difficult than the situation of the average student union in Western Europe.) This notion of a common goal is what drives many a student cooperation, and it allows us to have an “us” without having to define a “them”, which often is a problem with identity building.

Obstacles to international student NGO work
What can be done to improve this NGO work? Funding is most often the main obstacle to international cooperation. The Council of Europe (CoE) already does a good job of funding many projects . Some of the latest CoE-funded examples from ESU’s side: a student union development handbook that allows the various students unions of Europe to compare each other to similar and dissimilar organisations and practices; and a conference, in January this year, on student empowerment and cooperation on all levels of student participation, from the local to the global.

Student unions are dependent on funds for day-to-day and year-to-year activities, and a substantial part of the budgets often rely on varying amounts of project funds. More stable funding would mean more possibilities for pro-active work rather than the sometimes re-active approach that organisations need to take because they are dependent on project funding.

Another measure that would facilitate international student cooperation would be to ease visa procedures for students who attend international meetings and conferences as part of their representation duties.

To conclude: Whether we discuss students and intercultural dialogue from these two or other perspectives, we should keep higher education as a space that is conducive to reflection, active debate and challenging one’s perceptions and prejudices. It is important that higher education is acknowledged as a public good, and that higher education institutions actively take up responsibilities that go far beyond the restrictive view of only being a supplier of skilled professionals for the labour market and the economy.