Internationality is a question of culture
The world of work is becoming increasingly global. How international must a regional university of applied sciences like the FHS St.Gallen be? And what skills do the students need? In his interview, FHS President Sebastian Wörwag talks about the advantages and challenges of internationalisation.
Mr Wörwag, did you study abroad?
Sebastian Wörwag: No. Back then, study semesters abroad weren’t very common at the University of St.Gallen. But I did spend some time working abroad before and after my studies. I’d definitely choose to do an international exchange semester if I had the chance today.
Where would you go?
Wörwag: I’d study philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. That would go well with my business degree. And it also fits well with the topics that I’m working on today. That’s why I attend a summer school whenever my job allows.
How international must a university of applied sciences be today?
Wörwag: In an increasingly globalised world in which job profiles and career contexts are becoming more and more international, it is important for young people to have a relation to the real world and to get to know its diversity and colourfulness, but also its contradictions. On the one hand, they need an understanding of intercultural differences, so that they see foreignness as something positive. On the other hand, they need to develop a cosmopolitan outlook. One semester abroad isn’t enough to do so. It’s about having a worldly view.
We can be considered cosmopolitan if we don’t just deal with topics on own doorstep.
What makes a university international?
Wörwag: If it fosters an international culture at the place where it carries out its university work. This applies to the students, the teaching content and the teaching staff. It must be cosmopolitan in that it doesn’t just deal with topics on its doorstep.
And what makes people international?
Wörwag: It is also important for individuals to have a cosmopolitan outlook and an understanding of different cultures and contexts. This includes being aware of current events in the world that also affect us here in Switzerland, as well as having the ability to deal openly and competently with foreign contexts. This is a form of foreign language competence that goes beyond purely linguistic skills.
To what extent?
Wörwag: Being open-minded, curious and interested in a foreign country and learning about its cultural roots. Only by doing so is it possible to relate to the local conditions in that country. Immersing oneself in an international context and dealing with it in a confident way requires international competence.
The FHS trains specialists to work at regional level. Isn’t internationalisation a contradiction in this sense?
Wörwag: No. Especially in Eastern Switzerland, which is very export-oriented and where international relationships have been cultivated since time immemorial (but especially in the heyday of the textile industry), international competence is very important. If someone believes the world ends at the border in Constance, they won’t be as well cut out to working in the real world.
How has the FHS St.Gallen become more international during your time as President?
Wörwag: In the beginning, there weren’t many international contracts. They only really came into being after we set up our International Offices in 2004. Today, we have a broad network consisting of more than a hundred partner universities and marked by lively interaction between students and faculty members. This is most noticeable in our Gleis8 cafeteria, where English can be heard regularly. It has increased the level of diversity at the FHS. But we still have some way to go.
Where do you think further action is needed?
Wörwag: We can still do more when it comes to training courses for intercultural competence. And we can also increase the internationality of our research results by tackling research topics that have both a Swiss and an international context, like we already do to a certain degree on EU research projects. Finally, we are expanding our culture with a thematic focus that not only covers national and regional aspects but also addresses general and, thus, international social challenges.
What are the benefits of internationalising the FHS St.Gallen?
Wörwag: First, it is important for a small country to position itself confidently in the international community. In order to preserve some autonomy, we must open ourselves up to the world. Second, Eastern Switzerland’s economy is very export-oriented. Third, we are located at the heart of Europe’s biggest inter-university scientific network, the International Lake Constance University IBH. It offers fantastic opportunities for a cross-border education and research system.
What kind of internationalisation is needed at the FHS?
Wörwag: Some kind of multi-layer model. At the core, it is important to actively foster collaboration with the neighbouring states of Baden Würtemberg, Bavaria and Vorarlberg, as well as with the Principality of Liechtenstein. Although we share the same cultural space, there are some country-specific differences from which everyone can learn. The work carried out in the IBH makes me feel confident that the areas of education and research can help to overcome the border mentality that is also becoming increasingly common in Europe. Knowledge and knowledge-based collaborations don’t care about borders. The fields of science and education can address cross-border problems and also compare countries.
Wörwag: Another layer of the model involves cooperating more closely with similar universities in Europe in the areas of research and teaching. Similar questions can be better answered by working together – be it in research or in the joint development of teaching. There is a need for partnerships that provide opportunities to connect at international level.
Does the FHS also need to become international beyond our cultural space?
Wörwag: Yes, that is the third layer. It is about other cultures, about other business regions and professional domains with exciting approaches. Such as the nursing sciences in Anglo-Saxon countries, with their evidence-based approach. Or the development of technical assistance systems between Japan and Switzerland. We have found that we can learn from each other. It is also exciting to consider different approaches to social challenges in a broader cultural context.
And how does the FHS offer its students internationality?
Wörwag: We must prepare our students, such as those studying business, for the intercultural environments that they might work in some day in the future. Or for working together with colleagues from far-away places such as South America or China, like we do on our international real-life student consulting projects. There are many cultural learning effects here. Especially the transcultural aspects. People’s ideas of what constitutes a problem or what teamwork looks like are very different.
Which challenges does the FHS have to overcome in the area of internationalisation?
Wörwag: On the one hand, we find ourselves in a transition process. People are still less mobile than they would like to be. Although we enjoy going abroad on holiday, we still take our existing views with us. Being open-minded towards foreign cultures requires mental mobility. I also see a certain reluctance among young people to be physically and mentally mobile. On the other hand, internationalisation within a partner network is a matter of trust. Once there is mutual trust, we can send out a good advert for Switzerland among the rest of the world. This benefits society as a whole.
Are there any political challenges as well, especially in relation to the European Universities initiative?
Wörwag: The European Universities initiative is an excellence initiative with strong backing from the EU. Switzerland must not stand on the periphery here if it wants to be involved in the evolution of European research and teaching. As a network, the IBH would qualify to be a European university. It has everything needed to become one.
So why isn’t it?
Wörwag: This is due to the federal government’s decision not to join the Erasmus+ program, which funds the European Universities initiative. Switzerland is not a full member and therefore faces being excluded. We need to discuss how we want our higher education system to be involved in the European Universities initiative. If we want this to happen, these European university alliances must be taken into account when regulating international collaboration. Otherwise, we will close a window that will remain closed for generations.