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The changing cultural landscape of The Bartlett (and of UCL)

23 May 2013

Carmel McNaught, CALT's Visiting Professor of Higher Education, discusses the challenges and opportunities offered by the diversity of UCL's student body.

UCL's Dr Rachel Rees gives a student feedback

This week I had the good fortune to attend a Bartlett Learning Lunch, titled ‘Workshop on Interculturalism in The Bartlett’. The Learning Lunch series aims to explore ideas, issues and innovations that will add to the richness of students’ learning experience in The Bartlett.

The scene was set by Alexi Marmot and Jane Robb from The Bartlett, and Jenny Marie from CALT. International students from outside Europe now form 45% of The Bartlett’s student population. For example, MSc statistics for three of the schools in The Bartlett – Bartlett School of Graduate Studies, School of Construction and Project Management, and School of Planning – over the last five years show that the proportion of local students has decreased from about half to approximately one-fifth. The European student intake has remained stable; however, the student body from other parts of the globe has more than doubled in proportion and now forms about 60% of this student group. Significant numbers of students come from China, India and Singapore. This highly international student body works with an increasingly international group of staff.

This diversity undoubtedly adds vibrancy and multiple perspectives to the learning and teaching that takes place in The Bartlett, and really provides a space where individuals have splendid opportunities to develop a range of cultural understanding and competencies. This is great! However, a diverse environment brings challenges. How does one grow an awareness of cultural views and mores across so many cultures? Is it possible to prevent cultural cliques developing? Usually based on language differences, such groups are entirely understandable, but certainly limit cultural horizons. Does a focus on ethnic identity downplay other important cultural factors related to gender, age, financial position, etc., etc.? Big questions – but how do we evolve answers?

Most of the workshop was skillfully led by Caroline Selai from the Institute of Neurology who is leading a project called ‘Understanding intercultural aspects of teaching and learning’. She introduced some background concepts: components of culture; notions of migration and feeling 'at home'; and how the complexity of culture and the constant flow of students in the phases of their journey – joining, living in, and then leaving UCL – must all be considered if we are to achieve graduates who are, in the words of UCL’s Education for Global Citizenship manifesto, “sensitive to cultural difference and able to appreciate its value in intellectual and social contexts”. I will return to how Caroline achieved success with the audience at this Learning Lunch after a small personal digression.

What is ‘interculturalism’? The definition provided by Jane was “recognising the culturally diverse nature of our students and developing a dialogue between these cultures that allows inclusivity in teaching and learning and enhancement of the student experience”. The key words are diversity, dialogue, inclusivity and enhancement – to my mind without consciously working with ALL of the first three of these elements, we are under-utilising the potential of our current student mix to enhance learning. In my own career, I can remember contexts where the lack of one or more of these three elements was a serious barrier to student learning:

  1. In the relative homogeneity of Hong Kong’s schools and universities there is very little diversity and large sums of money are invested in exchange opportunities; however, in my decade of experience in Hong Kong, it is not the same as daily interaction with a diversity of views and experience.
  2. I have some experience of teaching in the Middle East where dialogue – especially across gender boundaries – was extremely difficult to achieve.
  3. In ten years of living and teaching in pre-independent South Africa, the lack of inclusive educational environments was a constant sledgehammer to opportunities for growth across all groups in the nation.

So, my career across many continents and cultures has made me envy UCL in this current phase. Yes, UCL’s cultural diversity does bring challenges, but also so many, many opportunities.

To return to Caroline. She described a number of challenges that students have shared with her: not understanding the accents of other students or of the teacher; feeling excluded and bemused by ‘ice breakers’ that were designed to build community(!); being embarrassed by jokes; not wishing to socialise in a pub, etc. Caroline suggested alternative ways to build dialogue in an inclusive fashion by not putting students on the spot without time to prepare; by having the support of a peer ‘buddy’ system; by thinking carefully about the appropriateness of activities and examples; by having food-related and not only alcohol-related social events; etc.

None of this is rocket science but the really clever teaching strategy that Caroline used was to ask us to remember and unpack a context or an event where there had been some cultural difficulty. The group around the table was culturally diverse and, as we told our stories and shared our experiences, and others added comments and ideas, we built a community of understanding in that room in The Bartlett. We left after two hours with possibly some more academic knowledge but the real gift of the event was that we had been immersed in a diverse, dialogic, inclusive experience that, speaking for myself, enhanced my own awareness of the potential of UCL as a Global University. Teaching is not just about ‘delivering’ content; it is about the construction of a learning environment where the content is a vehicle for learning discipline knowledge and skills, and also for gaining the whole raft of capabilities that come from sharing a range of views, experiences and multiple understandings; from consciously juxtaposing one’s own views with alternative frameworks. In this way, cultural diversity can and should add value to the development of all UCL students and their teachers.

Professor Carmel McNaught

Carmel McNaught

Emeritus Professor of Learning Enhancement, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Visiting Professor of Higher Education, CALT, UCL

Page last modified on 23 may 13 16:49

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