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A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

Implementing a cross-cultural teaching and
learning program for academic staff and
students at Monash South Africa

Laurence Shee

Monash University

Monash South Africa (MSA) has students from more than 50 countries on its campus – most from South Africa and other African states. Applications for the second semester in 2011 indicated a significant number from South Africa and Zimbabwe, with fewer from Zambia, Nigeria, Botswana and many other countries. The academic staff is also quite diverse, with members from South Africa, Mauritius, the DRC and Zimbabwe. These demographics highlight the need to develop cross-cultural teaching and learning programs for both academics and students. Although writing about Australian academics and their international students in Hong Kong and Adelaide, Leask (2005, 7) expresses succinctly the challenges involved in achieving this goal: ‘services need to take account of the needs of students and staff from diverse backgrounds working in diverse contexts and the complexities associated with moving into a “third place” – a meeting place between cultures, a place of challenge and opportunity’.

In the first instance, the design and implementation of such programs need to cater for the many different cultural paradigms represented on the campus: black Africans from diverse cultures and countries; whites of different European origin including Dutch, English and Portuguese; Indians and Asians. Guided by the aim to ensure that no one group dominates campus social and academic life, MSA needs to establish a new model of cultural mediation that brings together the Eurocentric and the Afrocentric educational and cultural paradigms. The slogan of the Monash South Africa Student Association (MUSASA) – Unity Amongst Diversity – captures the essence of the challenge.

Attempts have been made by educationists to compartmentalise European and African paradigms. However, these well-intentioned attempts may themselves be drawing on stereotypes. For example, Knudtson and Suzuki (Abdullahi 2007, 6) proffer the following paradigm that polarises European and African values:

Eurocentric Afrocentric
Individualism Communalism
Self-centeredness Togetherness
Competition Collaboration
Exclusivities Inclusivities

In the South African context, at the very least, the extreme contrasts offered by Knudtson and Suzuki are questionable. To suggest that European students on the MSA campus are necessarily more individualistic than African students is highly contentious; African students would be the first to question the assumptions underpinning this assertion. In the development of a framework for a cross-cultural teaching and learning program, the curriculum designers would need to provide opportunities for both staff and students to express their concerns and observations about cultural issues.

It is axiomatic that for teachers to become skilled cross-cultural communicators they should know the characteristics of the cultures with which they are engaging and how they might respond. Generally, contemporary teachers adapt with alacrity to cultural diversity. Many younger teachers were themselves taught in multicultural environments and have had more opportunity to travel and study as ‘global citizens’. However, traditionalist teachers are perhaps more likely to be resistant to the challenges of a multicultural teaching and learning environment and thus less likely to develop constructive relations with their students.

Transnational mobility applies even more to students than to staff. MSA has many students whose parents are involved in international politics, business, NGOs and IGOs. This means that the students have travelled extensively, thus having had the chance to experience other cultures. One MSA African student, for example, is fluent in Japanese as a result of his father’s diplomatic posting to Japan. Another has acquired an American accent after attending an international school in the US for the duration of his father’s diplomatic posting to that country. International travel should not, however, be construed as the norm, since the majority of students have not had the opportunity to travel extensively.

While the more extensive travel and exposure of a new generation of teachers and students to the world than earlier generations might be a good thing, it does not guarantee that they will automatically be more tolerant of other cultures. As Javier Perez de Cuellar, the fifth Secretary-General of the United Nations, puts it:

We have a long way to go. We have not yet learned how to respect each other fully, how to share and work together. This truly exceptional time in history calls for exceptional solutions. The world as we know it, all the relationships we took as given, are undergoing profound rethinking and reconstruction. Imagination, innovation, vision and creativity is [sic] required. (Abdullahi 2007, 2)

In the matter of cultural accommodation, the guidelines from the 2004 UNESCO Human Development Report point out:

Accommodating people’s growing demands for their inclusion in society and for respect of their ethnicity, religion, and language, takes more than democracy and equitable growth. Also needed are multicultural policies that recognize differences, champion diversity and promote cultural freedoms, so that all people can choose to speak their language, practice their religion, and participate in shaping their culture so that all people can choose to be what they are. (Abdullahi 2007, 6)

Considerations for implementing a cross-cultural teaching and learning policy

Not all academics, nor students, would necessarily welcome cross-cultural interventions in universities. As Bartram (2009, 312–313) suggests, an ‘over-emphasis on student support in some institutions’ might lead to ‘a growing culture of dependency among home and international students in higher education’. Inevitably, obstacles will arise to hinder the implementation of a cross-cultural teaching and learning program, but these can be overcome. In a collaborative study involving the University of Melbourne, Victoria University and RMIT University (Arkoudis et al. 2010, 2), the researchers identified a number of the challenges. Teachers are less likely to prioritise ‘peer interaction’ in the curriculum when time is limited, classes are large and subject content is heavy. Further, students’ learning could also be hampered by: ‘differing levels of English language proficiency; limited time spent on campus due to competing commitments such as paid work; and lack of a “common ground” between domestic and international students due to differences in academic priorities and learning experiences, as well as students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds’ (Arkoudis et al. 2010, 2).

A number of models have emerged that could be usefully harnessed by tertiary institutions embarking on teaching and learning programs for staff and students. One such conceptual framework is that suggested by Leask (2005, 6), which allows for ‘all staff and all students to be supported in similar ways to achieve incremental goals’. Leask’s framework explains how it is possible to develop the international perspectives of both staff and students as ‘intercultural learners’ in ‘intercultural conversation’ while they manage their ‘intercultural environment’.

In their three-year study, Arkoudis and colleagues (2010) explored interactions between students of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds and sought best practice to enhance the interactions. In their report, ‘Finding common ground: Enhancing interaction between domestic and international students’, the researchers (Arkoudis et al. 2010, 1) outline the Interaction for Learning Framework, which has six dimensions:

  • planning interaction
  • creating environments for interaction
  • supporting interaction
  • engaging with subject knowledge
  • developing reflexive processes
  • fostering communities of learners.

Also generative is Pratt-Johnson’s (2006) identification of six cultural differences that teachers are likely to encounter in a culturally diverse classroom. Pratt-Johnson’s identification of differences suggests a useful starting point for MSA, as it develops a response to cultural diversity. I now examine each difference, providing comments and examples of my own.

Ways of knowing – how students come to acquire information

Some societies, according to Pratt-Johnson (2006), acquire knowledge through intensive research in libraries and on the Internet, while others rely on non-academic sources such as oral traditions through elders, or through spirits and symbols.

An African example of differences in epistemology is illustrated in the way guerrillas in the Rhodesian Bush War or Chimurenga (liberation war) relied extensively on spirit mediums for knowledge and advice. That generation of freedom fighters constitutes the parents or grandparents of contemporary Zimbabwean students.

Further, MSA lecturers with a close relationship with Zimbabwean students know that political news from Zimbabwe is available on the campus before the government-controlled newspapers have hit the streets of Harare. Zimbabweans are very ‘plugged in’ and have a political and liberation history of communicating information quickly and efficiently. Today it is by email, Twitter and Facebook – a far cry from the pre-digital era of the Chimurenga, when information was often carried quickly and quietly on foot by mujibas – young people who were used by guerrillas to convey military intelligence. The potential for harnessing digital technology for cultural education today and tomorrow is virtually unlimited.

Cultures have different ways of solving problems

Pratt-Johnson (2006) suggests that different cultures might approach problem solving in different ways. MSA would need to be sensitive to this while developing a cross-cultural policy. For example, an MSA teacher in the Foundation Program found that some African students would leave her class if their cell phones rang. When taken to task on this issue, the students responded that in their cultures, whenever their mothers phoned them, they were obliged to answer immediately, irrespective of where they were. MSA would need to be clear in its policy about the distinction between genuine cultural issues and excuses for leaving class.

As certain cultures accept the answering of cell phones during business meetings, educators need to be very careful in establishing policy about distinguishing between real cultural practices and unacceptable behaviour masquerading as tradition. This means that the architects of the cross-cultural programs will need to decide what constitutes true cultural traditions as opposed to something pretending to be traditional.

Ways of communicating non-verbally

Pratt-Johnson poses a salutary question for the developers of a cross-cultural policy: ‘How do we learn to recognize that cultures have different ways of communicating non-verbally and how do we respond to these?’ (Pratt-Johnson 2006, 3). For example, a student in a culturally diverse classroom who avoids direct eye contact with a lecturer may not be rude at all. It could in fact be a mark of respect in that student’s culture. As Banks and colleagues (Banks et al. 2001) suggest: ‘If teachers are to increase learning opportunities for all students, they must be knowledgeable about the social and cultural contexts of teaching and learning’.

Different ways of learning

According to Pratt-Johnson (2006), students from different cultures have different preferences for teaching and learning styles. While I am no Luddite and fully embrace the use of technology in teaching, I must admit that when I was a student the best and most interesting history lecturer was the man who presented historical narratives in lectures without the use of any peripherals or technology. He simply told a very good story and then invited questions.

It is understandable that there are students who prefer a teacher-centered to a student-centered approach. They want traditional ‘talk and chalk’ teaching by the authority figure and are content with that pedagogical mode. It is difficult to decide which approach is better without imposing culturally based views, yet it is something that the program designers need to consider.

On this issue, Knapp (2005) observes that students’ approaches to studies differ and that there is no right or best way. However, according to Knapp there is a responsibility on the teacher’s part to ‘design instruction’ within reason ‘that respects and values’ each student as unique and allows them ‘to learn effectively and to discover’ the potential within them (Abdullahi 2007, 4).

In research investigating how University of South Australia staff and students in Hong Kong and Adelaide constructed and developed international perspectives, Leask found the process to be ‘more of a personal integrative process than a set of ideas and/or skills able to be transmitted generically – a process requiring considerable effort on the part of students and particular skills and knowledge on the part of teachers’ (Leask 2005, 3).

Ways of dealing with conflict

The reality that unpleasant incidents can occur on campus, including physical fights, exists. Any campus policy on culture and learning needs to guide staff and students alike on the procedures to follow should such disruptions spontaneously erupt. In its policy planning MSA needs to be sensitive to South Africa’s recent history of xenophobic attacks. Pratt-Johnson points out that some cultures believe in dealing with conflict head-on as it arises, while others see conflict as demeaning: something to be resolved quietly, perhaps through written exchanges rather than face-to-face encounters.

Ways of using symbols

Understanding symbols unique to particular cultures is important in preventing problems from arising. Pratt-Johnson cites the example of a primary school mathematics teacher in New York who was incensed by what appeared to be a swastika decorating a pupil’s portfolio of work. The teacher was subsequently informed by a Hindu teacher that what appeared to be a Nazi symbol was in fact an ancient Hindu symbol of wisdom used for thousands of years.

Many African students wear hats, caps and beanies in class. While this seems to be acceptable nowadays, it certainly was not traditionally sanctioned in a Eurocentric learning environment. An African MSA teacher, however, has pointed out that coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), he found it difficult to allow South African students to wear headgear in class, as this was still inappropriate in the Afrocentric DRC teaching and learning environment.

Principles for a cross-cultural program

As part of the plan to implement a cross-cultural teaching and learning program for academic staff and students, Pratt-Johnson (2006, 4) suggests the following principles:

Build relationships with students and parents

A Chinese parent with links to educational institutions in China requested permission from the MSA Foundation Program manager to attend some of the orientation sessions with his daughter on the campus in 2010. A parent and manager relationship subsequently developed, which led to the manager visiting an educational centre in China to recruit students. This is just one example of the way in which a positive rapport can lead to mutual benefit between staff and parents.

Listen empathetically

By putting oneself in the students’ place and reading between the cultural lines, it becomes possible to glean invaluable knowledge from students’ conversations with peers. From my own experience, the work performance of some MSA students is negatively influenced by financial embarrassment. The inability of their parents to pay fees can be a traumatic experience for some students, who ‘float’ around the campus in limbo waiting for fees to be paid. Sometimes the performance of MSA students is inhibited by bureaucratic stumbling blocks not of their own making. The South African Department of Home Affairs is currently struggling with an inordinate load of applications from Zimbabweans seeking permission to work or study in South Africa. MSA academic and administrative staff need to be particularly sensitive to travel and study permit complications that can arise with Zimbabwean students.

There are also many positives to be harnessed on a multicultural campus. One is a natural affinity that can develop between students and staff of the same nationality. Students far from home find reassurance – a kind of familial anchor – in interactions with a teacher from the same country. For one, they can communicate in their mother tongue and be understood. For example, just as Zimbabwean students appreciate teachers familiar with their own cultural background, French-speaking students are very much at home with teachers from Francophone Africa, with whom they can communicate about issues both within and outside the classroom.

Look for ‘cultural interpreters’

At MSA, there is also the opportunity to build relationships with tutors and class representatives, who can act as important conduits between students and teachers. As a tutor from Nairobi, Kenya, observed, his own experiences in South Africa enriched him culturally:

Ever since joining Monash three years ago, I have become exposed to a different world. I had previously read about South Africa during my History lessons back in high school. In spite of this I faced challenges in terms of culture and general experiences. In regard to culture, particularly language [he was referring to indigenous southern African languages], it has been an uphill task, but slowly I have come to understand a few phrases. This has been attributed to watching local soap operas like Rhythm City [which have English sub-titles for indigenous local African languages]. Another challenge has been the fact that most students I have interacted with had no prior knowledge of Kenya or East Africa. When asked to list a country in this region a friend mentioned Ghana! On the upside, though, the culture is very vibrant and alive.

Familiarise oneself with the content of various resources

Pratt-Johnson’s (2006) final suggestion to assist teachers to learn about the cultural diversity of a particular educational community is that books, articles, films, music and Internet sources can be invaluable. Examples of sources that provided me with great cultural insights include:

  • Aidan Hartley’s (2003) The Zanzibar Chest, in which a Kenyan-based journalist guides readers through the socio-political complexities of Rwanda, Uganda, Somalia and Ethiopia.
  • The film Shooting Dogs (Caton-Jones 2005) gives insights into the potential danger of xenophobia in Africa.
  • The Solidarity Peace Trust (2011a) human rights reports are essential reading to understand the political cultures from which MSA Zimbabwean students come. It is also worth visiting the Solidarity Peace Trust Image Gallery (2011b).
  • Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe (previously published as Breaking the Silence), a report by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (2007), which catalogues the catastrophic social upheaval in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland province in the early 1980s, makes invaluable reading to understand the complex ethnic heterogeneity of Zimbabwean students.

Other issues to consider when implementing a cross-cultural teaching and learning program

According to Abdullahi (2007, 5), the starting point is ‘to first and foremost understand where the cultural differences lie, especially among the students, and then to determine how to create a common ground for working together and sharing common values, and as teachers to be able to work with people from diverse cultural backgrounds’. After all, irrespective of individual teaching styles, good teaching depends on making the right connections with students.

Generally speaking, there are many things staff can routinely do to facilitate the process of cross-cultural teaching and learning. It is helpful to be sensitive to certain language difficulties that English as second and third language speakers might experience. For example, Nguni speakers (Xhosa and Zulu) might mix up the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ in English, as these gender distinctions are not made in the same way in their own languages. It is also both useful and courteous to know the students’ fields of experience from Africa and use appropriate examples and illustrations to which they can relate. Employees who have received formalised cross-cultural training are likely to be more effective in leadership roles and better communicators than those who have not been trained, which would make the investment in training well worthwhile.

In acknowledgement of the variety of religious denominations represented on the campus, MSA ensures that a monthly list and description of a number of religious celebrations, together with a message of goodwill, is distributed. In addition, the campus residences accommodate students from diverse cultures and backgrounds. It is noteworthy that the residential services mission goal recognises this. It determines to provide and develop an environment that, among other things, bears in mind ‘the multicultural nature of each residential building and the wider Monash community’. Much work is being done currently by MSA’s Foundation Program, under the leadership of Debbie Lees, to develop a ‘culture of learning’ in the residences through a tutor-mentor program.

In a polyglottal society such as South Africa, it is important to consider the vital issue of language policy on the MSA campus. This complex matter is discussed in the next section.

What should guide a realistic language policy for MSA?

Where the language of instruction, English in the case of MSA, is often the students’ second or third language, effective teaching needs linguistic support. The MSA Foundation Program provides compulsory academic English and academic writing modules for students who are following that entry path to university. These courses emphasise academic literacy in the sense that they promote critical thinking. Susan Thomas, who designed the ENGLISH 1000: University English course at the University of Sydney, makes the observation that all students are disadvantaged outsiders with respect to academic language. Summarising Thomas, Mgqwashu (2009, 735) stresses the importance of teaching critical thinking in English: ‘At university level this is crucial because students have to unlearn school writing practices that draw from memory and develop their skills to produce writing that draws from understanding’.

Any language interventions must take into account government language policy, which recognises that institutions can only do what is feasible, practical, realistic and affordable. The following extract from the South African Constitution exemplifies this recognition:

Section 6 of the South African Constitution (1996), in proclaiming eleven languages as official languages of the Republic, points to the multilingual nature of the South African society. Further, it requires that other political, social and educational institutions develop their own language policy and plans that express the sentiments of the Constitution, namely unity, tolerance, linguistic and cultural diversity and sensitivity. (Maseko and Kaschula 2009, 131)

Maseko and Kaschula (2009, 131) pull no punches when describing the reality of language challenges in South Africa: ‘Simply put, students trained in South African institutions of higher learning are not able to cope in South Africa’s multilingual and multicultural environment as they are not able to provide a service to the majority of the people they are supposed to serve, i.e. those speaking indigenous African languages’.

A useful response to this difficulty would be to monitor policies already in place in South Africa’s long-established universities, such as the University of Pretoria and Rhodes University.

The University of Pretoria, a public institution, is an example of a university that already offers tuition in two official languages: English and Afrikaans. The university is looking at a third language of learning, Sepedi, for which some learning materials are already available.

Maseko and Kaschula (2009, 132) believe that universities should be areas where multilingual learning and teaching ‘can promote transformation, linguistic tolerance and cultural sensitivity in higher education’. They argue that universities should do this ‘mainly because of their principal function as centres of research, enquiry and development’. To this admirable sentiment I would add, ‘Yes, but within realistic budgetary constraints’.

Rhodes University offers isiXhosa courses to Law and Pharmacy students (proficient in English) in an attempt to reduce client (rural isiXhosa speakers not proficient in English) disempowerment in the professional relationship. Multilingualism would also reduce ambiguity and misunderstandings in a medical relationship of mutual misunderstanding that, according to Crawford (1999), is inherently less difficult for the doctor who not only occupies a higher rank in the hierarchy of the communicative event because of his or her profession, but also probes the patient’s body in a language that is inaccessible to the patient. According to Crawford the patient, located at the bottom of the hierarchy, ‘occupies a disempowered position’.

Clearly, Rhodes University’s admirable innovation in using multilingual teaching has the potential to reduce the barriers between English and isiXhosa in rural areas. What this example also reveals is that the language challenge in South Africa is not a one-way issue. It is perhaps equally important that English speakers acquire a functional level in one or more of the other dozen or so official languages.

MSA should look carefully at such models when developing its policy of multicultural teaching and learning. The reality is that MSA is an English-medium institution of higher education, whose students, with exceptions, have a relatively high level of English proficiency. This means that while the use of English in the classroom needs to be of an appropriate register and pace for students not studying in their mother tongue, care also needs to be taken not to frustrate mother-tongue speakers who might find the pace too slow and become unengaged as a result.

In conclusion, as MSA markets itself as a global university, it is axiomatic that its teaching and learning policies should fully embrace cultural tolerance, respect and understanding. While a lot is already being done, university support programs need to be established to prepare teachers and lecturers alike to interact with culturally and linguistically diverse populations. To avoid re-inventing the wheel, MSA’s current knowledge could be greatly enhanced by drawing upon some excellent South African, Australian and other research already conducted in the field of cross-cultural teaching and learning.


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Arkoudis, S; Yu, X; Baik, C; Chang, S; Lang, I; Watty, K; Borland, H; Pearce, A; Lang, J. 2010. ‘Finding common ground: Enhancing interaction between domestic and international students’. Accessed 13 June 2011. Available from:

Banks, J A; Cookson, P; Gay, G; Hawley, W D; Irvine, J J; Nieto, S. 2001. ‘Diversity within unity: Essential principles for teaching and learning in a multicultural society’. Phi Delta Kappan 83 (3): 196–202.

Bartram, B. 2009. ‘Student support in higher education: Understandings, implications and challenges’. Higher Education Quarterly 63 (3): 308–314.

Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. 2007. ‘Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe: A report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980–1988’. Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. Accessed 21 June 2011. Available from:

Caton-Jones, M. 2005. Shooting Dogs. BBC.

Crawford, A. 1999. ‘We can’t all understand the whites’ language: An analysis of monolingual health services in a multilingual society’. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 136 (1): 27–45.

Hartley, A. 2003. The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War. London. Harper Collins.

Knapp, NF. 2005. ‘They are not all like me! The role of educational psychology in preparing teachers for diversity’. Journal of Teacher Education 78 (5): 202–206.

Leask, B. 2005. ‘Internationalisation of the curriculum and intercultural engagement – a variety of perspectives and possibilities’. Accessed 13 June 2011. Available from:,%20Betty.pdf.

Maseko, P; Kaschula, R. 2009. ‘Vocational language learning and teaching at a South African university: Preparing professionals for multilingual contexts’. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics PLUS 38: 130–142. Accessed 19 November 2010. Available from:

Mgqwashu, E. 2009. ‘Re-visiting, re-thinking, and re-naming “educational disadvantage” in higher education’. South African Journal of Higher Education 23 (4): 722–738.

Pratt-Johnson, Y. 2006. ‘Communicating cross-culturally: What teachers should know’. The Internet TESL Journal (2). Accessed 9 June 2010. Available from:

Solidarity Peace Trust. 2011a. Reports. Accessed 21 June 2011. Available at:

Solidarity Peace Trust. 2011b. Photos. Accessed 21 June 2011. Available at:

A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen