Cultural Intelligence and Higher Education

Published on October 22nd, 2021

Culturally intelligent graduates

In 2011, the Guardian newspaper in the UK published an article on the purpose of higher education. There were a surprisingly wide range of answers, but the key response was that of the National Union of Students: 

“…students are fairly clear about why they want to go to university – and for the vast majority, it is about getting a better job and having a successful career” 

This view is not confined to the UK, but it does challenge a more traditional view of universities aiming to create and share new knowledge. Universities have moved from public institutions that have intrinsic standalone value to an extension of high school education – preparing young people to enter the workforce and take their place in society.

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Global citizens with interpersonal skills

In addition to the technical skills required for a specific job or function, businesses are increasingly recognizing the needs for interpersonal skills – sometimes called soft skills; skills such as problem solving, collaboration, communication, influencing, empathy and decision making. As implied by the category, these skills center around interactions with other people and understanding their motivations and reactions.  

Not only are universities global institutions, but the workplaces that graduates are entering are global, and that means that culture has a central role to play. If universities are to develop desirable skills in their graduates, then cultural intelligence (CQ) must inform interpersonal skills. We cannot afford to expect simple exposure to international students to stimulate the development of specific work-related, culturally informed skills. CQ development must be focused and intentional.

Cultural intelligence for graduates 

Developing cultural intelligence relies on having the right attitude, awareness, knowledge and skills. 

The first stage – attitude – is easy. Students are in the right environment to encourage an open mind; and in many cases looking to widen their perspective is a motivating factor to go on to higher education – a taste of independence and responsibility and a new perspective on life. CQ needs openness to new experiences and ambiguity. 

Secondly, students need to develop an awareness of culture. It is often said that your own culture is invisible to yourself; but until you are aware of it, other people’s culture is just as invisible. And that is the cause of many of the complications around cultural diversity. We assume that what is normal for us is normal for everyone, so when we encounter difference, we are unequipped to deal with it rationally and objectively.  

Without an awareness of culture and a conscious understanding of our own cultural preferences, we retreat into our instinctive fight or flight responses, potentially causing offence or retreating from social interaction – both reactions are detrimental to studies and are often incompatible with successful integration into university. Self-awareness creates the basis for normalizing difference and distances us from judgmental, subjective comparisons. We are freed to address difference on a peer-to-peer level rather than from a position of moral superiority. 

The third step is also simplified within the higher education culture – knowledge. Students are hungry for knowledge and feeding that hunger with cultural knowledge broadens perspectives and the ability to be discerning and insightful. Learning about individuals – understanding their cultural preferences and values creates essential social skills, enables effective relationship building and lays the ground for increased collaboration and innovation. 

Developing cultural skills is the stage where everything becomes practical. We know that there is a cultural dividend – a direct link between diversity in teams and performance and productivity in teams. But that cultural dividend is only accessible when the team has the cultural skills to exploit it. Diversity without cultural skills leads to chaos.  

Cultural skills allow us to choose appropriate strategies to work effectively in a culturally diverse group. Adaptation is not always the best route, but it is essential that we choose how to manage culture intentionally. And that requires discernment, insight and wisdom – all with a clear cultural lens.

A wider approach to culture

Research carried out as part of the Global People project at Warwick University convincingly discovered that employers want graduate level recruits to have cultural skills. The data showed that not only were the skills relating to other people consistently ranked as the most important differentiating factor but also that employers are looking for the global element to those skills.  

However, research in the US shows that undergraduates are not acquiring those skills in the course of their studies – and that is not a surprise. There is no expectation that professors in STEM subjects will independently be able to teach intercultural skills in the same way we do not expect interculturalists to teach chemical engineering or data science.  

In many institutions, cultural skills are defined in a narrow way to focus on race, gender or sexual identities. There is an extremely important role for CQ in dealing with racism, sexism and homophobia, however limiting CQ to these narrow definitions risks subjecting it to diversity fatigue – students and the wider population are becoming unwilling to engage with the diversity agenda, according to Forbes magazine.

Raising employability and prospects

Positioning CQ as an employability skill not only boosts a student’s career prospects, but it also meets the secondary objective of addressing wider implicit biases based on difference of any kind. It challenges students to become outward focused, looking to widen their source of understanding. It gives them objective, neutral language to discuss cultural difference without fear of subjectivity or harmful stereotypes. 

As the marketization of higher education continues to shape student demands on educators, it is increasingly important that universities are able to prepare graduates for careers in global business. Building cultural intelligence into programs and support services gives the universities a value-added service that graduates will appreciate as they recognize the complexities of the global workplace.


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

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