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Call for cosmopolitan learning for future leaders

Introducing students to cosmopolitan thinking is the obvious next step in the continuing evolution of the higher education sector, according to a new book.

Cosmopolitan Learning for a Global Era: Higher education in an interconnected world, by ACER India Research Director Dr Sarah Richardson, charts how students can be given the opportunity to experience a truly international education, which emphasises deep cultural exchange rather than mere transactional contact.

‘As higher education institutions grapple with the challenges presented by increasingly diverse student bodies and their need to be appropriately prepared for the global environment in which they will live and work, cosmopolitan insights can help guide and shape the approaches they adopt,’ Dr Richardson writes in the book.

As Dr Richardson explains, cosmopolitan thought is a cultural disposition that values the coexistence of multiple ways of being and hospitality towards our fellow humans.

‘The power of cosmopolitan thinking lies in its simplicity: we are all different yet we are all the same,’ Dr Richardson writes.

According to Richardson, a cosmopolitan approach to education is a response to the need for higher education institutions to help students gain a set of skills and attributes which will stand them in good stead as they become future leaders in a world in which there is an urgent need to view diversity as an asset rather than a challenge.

‘If students can learn to value multiple perspectives and to critically evaluate their own assumptions then their ability to deal with modern challenges will be enhanced,’ Dr Richardson writes.

Issues explored in the book include the internationalisation of higher education, global preparedness and international student mobility.

Internationalisation of higher education

Higher education institutions around the world have arisen from local contexts. But in the 21st century they are increasingly defined by international contexts.

Students have increasing options about the way in which they choose to engage with their chosen institution. Online learning is ever more prevalent and an increasing number of students have little physical contact with the institution at which they are enrolled. Nevertheless, lectures, tutorials, laboratory sessions and seminars continue to define the experience of the majority of higher education students around the world.

Whether higher education occurs literally or virtually, it is characterised by person-to-person interactions. Listening, explaining, talking, debating and negotiating all require the engagement of one human being with one or more others. In this lies the power of educators to help their students prepare themselves for the actualities of the world they will inherit.

Global preparedness

The challenge faced by higher education institutions and educators should not be about whether to impart appropriate global preparedness but how to do so. And this starts with the question of what attributes they need to help students to gain.

When notions of the necessary global attributes of graduates are explicitly addressed they fall into the same category as employability skills. Most educators agree that they are important, but there is less agreement on whose job it is to help students gain them.

Attention must be paid to the process of education, and to aligning the formal and informal curriculum. Educators must utilise the diversity in the classroom as a resource rather than as something that needs handling. And the learning community, the institution, must model engagement with difference.

International student mobility

For too long student mobility has been regarded by institutions as a proxy for their global engagement. Those which admit large numbers of students from other countries are quick to point to the global environment on campus, as if close proximity will lead to cosmopolitanism by osmosis in which cultural practices are exchanged in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect.

Students may eat food from around the world, travel to other countries in their breaks, share classes with students who are different to them in any number of ways and feel that they are in some way ‘worldly’. But unless education explicitly addresses what it means to be a member of the family of human beings, and unless curricula and pedagogy provide students with meaningful opportunities to gain cosmopolitan assets, the ‘multicultural campus’ is nothing more than window dressing which obscures a failure to adequately educate students to lead in a global era.

Simply exposing students to difference is insufficient. Institutions must design educational interventions with a cosmopolitan intent.

Applying cosmopolitan theory to higher education practice starts from the understanding that human interactions are the ultimate expression of globalisation, and that it is not necessary to be globally mobile in order to engage with those who are different from ourselves.

Instead of relying on having the financial and social means to engage in mobility, we must adopt approaches that are democratic in nature, giving all students the opportunity to gain cosmopolitan attributes while they are studying.

It is essential that higher education institutions graduate students who actively promote mutual understanding with all those they encounter. As future leaders of what is increasingly one global society, they need to be equipped with a set of skills which enable them to facilitate goodwill and cooperation. ■

Further information:
Cosmopolitan Learning for a Global Era: Higher education in an interconnected world by Dr Sarah Richardson is published by Routledge and is part of the Routledge Research in Higher Education series.


About the author

Dr Sarah Richardson is the Research Director of ACER India and leads educational research projects in a number of countries that focus on primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education.

More [rd] articles by Sarah Richardson

View selected works of Sarah Richardson

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