Comment & Analysis
Nov 28, 2017

How Universities Can Develop Global Graduates

'Global graduates' and 'internationalisation' aren't just buzzwords, says Helen Spencer-Oatey.

Helen Spencer-OateyOp-Ed Contributor

Recently, a number of UK universities hit the headlines when they got into trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority for making exaggerated claims such as “Top university in England for long-term graduate prospects”. This is a good reminder of the importance of being clear about the bases of claims.

The terms “internationalisation” and “global graduates” have become buzzwords for numerous universities across the world and many claim (explicitly or implicitly) that, through internationalisation, they will develop “global graduates”. However, what does this actually mean and how can they go about it? This question often remains unanswered.

A simple definition of a global graduate could be “a graduate with the skills/attributes to work effectively in different places and with people from different backgrounds”.  According to a recent report entitled “Global Graduates to Global Leaders”, this entails a wide variety of attributes. These include an ability to work collaboratively with teams of people from a range of backgrounds and countries, excellent communication skills, both speaking and listening, as well as a high degree of drive and resilience. An ability to embrace multiple perspectives and challenge thinking is key, as well as a capacity to develop new skills and behaviours according to role requirements.


Diversity alone is insufficient. What is truly essential is that people can mix and learn from each other

Thus, key questions include: are universities developing such “global graduates”? If not, why not? And how can they be sure whether they are doing so or not? According to the latest CBI/Pearson Education and Skills 2017 survey, 39 per cent of employers are dissatisfied with the “international cultural awareness” of their graduate recruits, so this indicates that universities actually need to be doing more to foster global competencies in their graduates. This is because they have typically focused on just one part of the picture.

Many universities have taken a structural approach and have set targets for increasing the number of international students and staff, plus the number of students participating in study abroad opportunities. In line with this, organisations such as Times Higher Education use structural key performance indicators (such as the percentage of international students to home students) in order to rank universities for their level of internationalisation. However, we need to ask how satisfactory such an approach is. As a British Council report on the integration of international students points out, “simply having a diverse student body does not mean the education or even the campus is global in nature”. The report rightly argues that what is really essential is the “inclusion of international students in communities and classes”. In other words, while having a diverse student/staff population is an important foundation for internationalising the student experience and fostering global graduates, diversity alone is insufficient. What is truly essential is that people can mix and learn from each other.

Recent research using the Global Education Profiler in several universities in Europe, including Ireland and the UK, indicates that the majority of students attach great importance to the opportunities they currently have to meet and work with people from different backgrounds, and this is especially true of international students (wherever they are studying). Sadly, though, many feel that their actual experience of such mixing is not as good as they would like. So what can be done?

Firstly, we can engage with difference. The famous anthropologist ET Hall, said: “Most cross-cultural exploration begins with the annoyance of being lost.” Yet many studies indicate that students tend to stick within their comfort zones and make friends with people who are similar to themselves. Mixing with people from different backgrounds is a vital stimulus for learning new things and we need to encourage this.

Secondly, we can organise guided reflection upon this difference. While experiences of difference are vitally important, they are insufficient for truly internationalising the student experience and fostering “global graduates”. Students need to reflect mindfully on their experiences in order to avoid negative stereotyping and so as to gain new insights and intercultural awareness. Help with this through facilitated workshops or tasks is also particularly important.  

An ability to embrace multiple perspectives and challenge thinking is key

The third crucial step, for employability reasons, is for students to learn how to verbalise their new insights and skills. Cheryl Matherly explains it as follows: “It is simply not enough to seek an international experience—the experience itself has little value for an employer. The savvy job seeker must be able to speak about this experience in terms of the transferable skills that he or she developed while abroad and how they can be applied to the workplace. For many students, this can be an enormous challenge.”

All three of these steps need active encouragement and facilitation. It is important, therefore, for universities to plan this strategically, checking how far students are experiencing social and academic integration, and the extent to which they are developing the key skills and qualities of “global graduates” that employers are looking for. This is a crucial but challenging complementary step.

The Global Education Profiler developed by researchers at the University of Warwick is one of the very few tools currently available to do this. This tool also offers the possibility of benchmarking universities’ levels of internationalisation in a way that moves beyond the current structural indicators to ones that probe students’ actual engagement with the opportunities that can foster their “global graduate” attributes.

Helen Spencer-Oatey is a professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick.

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