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Internationalisation, diversity and inclusion: What I learned from a Staff Erasmus Training Week.


In June 2019 I took part in an Erasmus Training Week at the University of Porto, with representatives from 10 countries - from Algeria to Norway, from Portugal to Estonia. The Erasmus HR training week was designed to share best practice and discuss emerging challenges. Each participant delivered a presentation centred on a broadly defined people’s (HR) topic. This gave us an opportunity to learn a lot about different country context and approaches to common questions. But it was not only by listening to others that I learned - I also learned a lot from delivering my presentation – which talked about the culture of respect at SOAS University of London. So what have I learned?


British universities can learn a lot


In the UK, we like to think that the character of our British higher education is intrinsically global due to our world leading reputation and multiple co-operations. And yes, our students and staff are very international and our universities are desired places of studying and working for many around the world. But, in my opinion, we seem to be taking it for granted. More than that, many people within HE have a very imperialistic mind-set believing that our education system is superior to others and that there’s very little we can learn from others – unless it’s the US. Perhaps it’s my cynical nature but it seems to me that UK universities treat issues of internationalisation very instrumentally, often reducing it to financial gains – how much additional fee income can we squeeze out of international students and how much international cooperation will improve our league table scores. What I saw in presentations from participants from other countries was a completely different approach to internationalisation. Many universities talked about attracting international staff and student not because of the financial incentive but because it can enrich the campus culture. Their approach seemed to be one of seeing intrinsic value in interactions with people from different countries, backgrounds, institutions, one which celebrates a two-way learning process that can occur through such exchanges of ideas and one that has an unquenched thirst for learning about other cultures and ways of living. It was great to see how HR policies can facilities this process of internationalisation by, for example, having a policy for all staff to participate in language courses.


Internationalisation, diversity and inclusion


It’s very difficult to disentangle issues of diversity and inclusion (D&I) from those of internationalisation. However, I had an impression that in the presentations from other universities the questions of D&I seemed to be somewhat under-discussed. And as much as UK universities can be criticised for often having an instrumental approach to internationalisation (money), we can still add value to the conversations on internationalisation, diversity and inclusion. That’s thanks to our critical view and scholarship on these issues… Perhaps because we love to complain about things (jokes!). For example, while in UK higher education, unconscious bias has been a buzzword for a while, and arguably the concept along with training has reached its saturation and we are now fining improved way to build equality, diversity and inclusion, in universities in other European countries (or perhaps only the ones at the event) this did not seem to have been explored in much depth. Similarly, it seems to me that conversations around ‘race’ in UK universities often go a bit further than in other European countries. That’s not to say that the UK is without its issues. Obviously, each country has a very specific sociological context – but I think that the conversations happening in British universities – not only academic but those among HR and D&I specialists – could enrich explorations of D&I topics happening elsewhere.

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