★ Cultural diversity and ‘troublesome space’: Opportunities for global engagement and the nurturance of global citizenship – Chng Huang Hoon

“Globalisation and the rise of knowledge societies have fundamentally changed the higher education landscape. Universities have a vital role to play in contributing to the future by providing a transformative global education …” (Tan 2011)

“Our graduates must learn to appreciate different cultural perspectives and be able to operate effectively in different socio-cultural and political contexts. To do so, students must learn to value and respect diversity. To be constructive members and leaders of society, we need to inculcate attributes such as moral values, professional ethics and good global citizenship in our students as early as possible in the education process, and integrate these within the standard curriculum.” (Tan 2011)

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has adopted the vision statement, “A leading global university centred in Asia, influencing the future”, which encapsulates not just an institutional aspiration but more importantly, it provides us with a way to think about ourselves and our work, about excellence, our location in Asia and our positioning in the world. Just as we frequently try to imagine what work might be like in the future, as an institution that takes on the responsibility of nurturing a new generation of graduates, we are entrusted to provide strong academic foundations through our curriculum and shape productive and agile global citizens, able to add distinctive value to a global environment that is characterised by change.

In November 2011, and more recently in June 2016, NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan has articulated the important considerations we need to weave into the university curriculum to enable our graduates to be creative, flexible, and responsive to the shifting demands of the 21st century workplace. In the earlier articulation (Tan 2011), Professor Tan outlined the three critical shifts that a transformative global education need to make; namely, shifting from an emphasis on:

  • a “career-for-life” to “a lifetime of careers”;
  • training the mind to the development of the whole individual; and
  • a local to a more global outlook among our students (pp.6-7).

In the more recent articulation, Professor Tan identified four key strategies for institutional growth and development. These are:

  • Agility and drive are paramount for growth;
  • Recruitment and nurturance of world-class talent;
  • Innovation and differentiation of curricular offerings; and
  • Harnessing global partnerships for academic leapfrogging (Tan 2016).

The last, in particular, speaks to the importance of global partnerships both as sites for defamiliarization and also as Leask (2009) said, the “meeting place of many cultures where valuable intercultural learning can occur, where there is the potential for the new, the challenging, and the unfamiliar to be the norm; where the taken for granted can be challenged; and where new ideas and ways of thinking are formed as a result of engagement with culturally different others” (cited in Hounsell 2016).

The global university as a multicultural site is well-positioned for the acculturation of diverse perspectives. NUS currently has 38,000 students across more than a hundred nationalities of from over a hundred countries. We have a well-established student overseas experience programme (semester-long exchanges, year-long overseas colleges, overseas internships, and summer schools) with over three hundred partners all over the world, reaching almost 80% of the student population. Each year, we host over a thousand students from abroad, adding to the multicultural mix on NUS campus. Even if we just focus on the idea of ‘internationalisation at home’, the diversity on NUS campus itself provides invaluable opportunities to promote global engagement and the broadening of student learning experience (see Chan & Chng 2013).

Global citizenship has been characterised as a multidimensional construct with three interrelated dimensions: social responsibility, global competence, and global civic engagement (Morais & Ogden 2016:449). Global citizenship, as Leask (2015, cited in Hounsell 2016) puts it, is “a way of thinking about ourselves and others, awareness of how our actions affect others, respect and concern for their well-being, and a commitment to certain types of action to address world problems”. The four learning outcomes of that can result from global exposure are global outlook (knowledge and understanding), global citizenship (attitudes), cultural inclusiveness (values) and intercultural competence (skills) (see Hounsell 2016). In line with all these, the global competencies that employers value are collaborative/team work, intercultural communication skills, resilience, and global perspectives (see Hounsell 2016). When we actively cultivate global skills, we essentially bring about the outcomes of internationalised learning, which in turn translates into the graduate attributes desired by employers today.

So, how do we foster global citizenship at home? In NUS, we have long recognized that the mere presence of international students on campus does not translate automatically into intercultural and global engagement. In fact, the presence of international students has in many institutions sometimes triggered an ‘us vs them’ mentality, constructing what has been called “a troublesome space” (Montgomery 2010:132). Paradoxically, while many students are prepared to invest in an overseas exchange, many fail to value the diversity on home ground, often viewing the international student’s presence on campus as a curiosity and sometimes as competition, rather than as an opportunity for gaining intercultural understanding. To be fair, too many aspects of an undergraduate learning experience are not well-connected in many universities’ curriculum. As Felten et al. (2016:142) has pointed out, rather than leave a potential source of positive engagement to chance, and subject students to a less-than-connected curriculum, institutional leaders need to align vision/policy, with priorities, and backed these up with appropriate actions. In our pursuit of internationalisation and a global campus culture, we therefore need to connect this vision with relevant curricular design (e.g. in the General Education curriculum (or Common Core Curriculum in HKU) or in the Year 1 cohort/common experience module), and further translate this vision into the activities we promote on campus that bring all students together for global engagement. In such an alignment of vision, curricular and co-curricular activities, the diversity on campus will be more consciously harnessed. What is perceived as a ‘troublesome space’ in constant need of remedy may then become an invaluable site for intercultural engagement, at home. In short, internationalisation at home treats “diversity itself [as] a curriculum resource … [that enriches] the students’ learning. (Harrison 2015, cited in Hounsell 2016), which will in turn allow students “both ways [of] cultural learning” or what has been termed “double knowing” (Singh and Shrestha 2008, cited in Hounsell 2016) of both the self and others.

What the above wishes to emphasize is that far from necessarily being reduced to sites for “intellectual tourism”, with proper scaffolding and integration of goals and activities, study abroad for both the students going out or coming in on exchange can be a fulfilling lesson in global citizenship, in gaining exposure in “double knowing”. The question is: how can we actively make this happen through the curriculum? I offer three possibilities here.

One, we can optimize on existing General Education (or GE) platforms, where global skills are central learning outcomes (see Zou & Cheung 2016). We can ensure diverse participation in GE courses, a university-level requirement in the NUS undergraduate curriculum, and consciously integrate the learning outcomes of GE into the main curriculum.

Two, through academic advising that is targeted not just at home students but also at international students. Like the Felten et al. emphasis on integration and alignment of institutional vision and practices, Pang (2012) has also made essentially the same point about connectivity:

“if higher education is to reflect the reality of campus diversity, it must take the idea of academic ‘connectivity’ more seriously than it does at present (p.27).

Pang has proposed a model for what he calls a “conceptual organiser model” (p.32) that seeks to promote “mutuality” (p.39) and urged us not to think of international students as people operating from a deficit mode – as deficient speakers of our own language and who are in need of rehabilitation – but as students who have competencies in other languages. Building on a common course platform like GE and focusing on international students as a resource potential rather than as a problematic group will go a long way in encouraging positive, intercultural engagement.

And three, the most important of all, we need to integrate our internationalisation vision with the goals of our university curriculum (both academic and co-academic) through intentional reinforcement of essential outcomes that we have identified as priorities for the 21st century workplace. While integration is challenging, it is extremely important to ensure that the learning experience is well connected and coherent, and this coherence requires the consolidated effort of all institutional stakeholders.

NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan has said, “for universities to excel and contribute in deeper and more enduring ways in the future, we need to increase our ability to adjust and reinvent, to both pioneer and lead while becoming increasingly relevant to the communities that we serve” (2016). As Leask also said elsewhere, “Intercultural competence is a state of becoming rather than a destination” (2015, cited in Hounsell 2016). As leaders in universities, we have a very important role to play in ensuring this growth and transformation in our student body.


Professor Huang Hoon Chng
Professor Huang Hoon Chng

Associate Provost (Undergraduate Education)
Office of the Provost
National University of Singapore

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