What is ‘global competency’ for university students?

Francois Ortalo-Magne describes global competency (GP) as (partly) “an appreciation of the diversity of the human race”. Similarly, Richard Yelland says that GP is “to have an understanding that different cultures do things in different ways”.

The above views are not controversial to me. Cultural norms exist and, for an outsider, behaviours can only be understood by reference to the culture in question. Such ‘cultural relativism’ has been accepted in anthropology since the early twentieth century (Franz Boas). However, although knowledge about cultural diversity is an important starting point, one wonders how a higher education institution could prepare its students to appreciate the rich diversity of world cultures while avoiding the pitfall of stereotyping. The solution, it seems to me, instead of getting students to learn about a multitude of cultures at a superficial level, is to equip students with tools of enquiry to learn about aspects of given cultures in more depth as and when they need to do so during their working careers. Competency is thus partly at the level of metacognition; one should have the ability to step back from a situation and question whether there is something that one is misunderstanding, something related to the target culture, and then research it. Healthy scepticism can also be encouraged, too, in case the situation is atypical for that cultural setting.

Otherwise, as Pavel Zgaga mentions, GP is in danger of being characterised in such an abstract, decontextualised fashion that it will become unfit for any specific purpose. If GP relates to the whole world then it can only be relevant to truly global matters. However, that will be a minority of situations. More commonly, one, two or several cultures would be involved in a situation and then GP would be better understood as “relating to all parts of a situation” (Cambridge English Dictionary) or, in other terms, relating to the perspectives of the stakeholders. Incidentally, being able to take differing perspectives into account is an oft cited attribute of critical thinkers.

Let me provide an example. I conducted research (Andrews, 2005) on recently qualified teachers of English who had trained in the UK and had consequently taken up teaching positions overseas. Although they were appreciative of the teaching knowledge and skills that they had acquired during their training courses, a perceived shortfall was the lack of preparation they had received to adjust to different working practices in other countries. Expectations of what made a “good teacher” and “good employee” differed enormously between, e.g. a private South Korean language academy owner and their foreign teaching staff, and could result in conflict. Had the teachers looked into the educational traditions and values in that society, they may have relaxed in the light of their findings, or simply left if they found it unpalatable.

Awareness of other cultures, although an essential foundation, is still insufficient. Competency also implies procedural knowledge, or skills, and appropriate attitudes. At one institution where I was employed, in Hong Kong, the relevant graduate attributes were phrased thus:

Our students are expected to have a deep understanding of Chinese culture and with it a sense of national identity and pride; they should also have an appreciation of other cultures, and with that appreciation also a high degree of inter-cultural sensitivity, tolerance and a global perspective (my emphasis). The Chinese University of Hong Kong


Andrews, P. (2005). Effective online professional development for novice English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers. The Teacher Trainer. http://www.tttjournal.co.uk/

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