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Social competence is a vital life skill: Universities should support students to take up the challenge

Sathees Kunjuthamby, Senior Lecturer at University of Greenwich

Universities are excellent at imparting technical and scientific knowledge to students; however, to what extent are universities good at passing on social competence, in particular intercultural competencies? (Pinto, 2018)

Social and intercultural competence

Social competence refers to several abilities that allow people to work effectively with other people: effective communication skills, leadership qualities or ability to work in a team.

In a world that is increasingly connected through the interdependence of world cultures, it is imperative to gain, develop and apply social competence. Providing students with intercultural interactions could create better starting conditions for graduates later in employment, where graduates are likely to be working with colleagues of different nationalities.

‘In a world that is increasingly connected through the interdependence of world cultures, it is imperative to gain, develop and apply social competence.’

Intercultural competence refers to more than just possessing cognitive knowledge about the other individual’s culture. It deals with how to engage with conflicting beliefs and values, language, and cultural differences.

If people demonstrate a higher degree of intercultural competence as they interact with other people from different cultural backgrounds, they can safeguard themselves from embarrassment or building a wall of ethnocentrism. Instead, they can build a bridge of cultural awareness and an ability to function effectively across cultures (Zhao et al., 2018).

Many programmes have run their teaching almost fully remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, depriving students – not intentionally but through obligation – from face-to-face classes and opportunities to socialise and learn more about different cultures. This blog post aims to encourage universities and leaders within higher education to offer students more short-term mobility opportunities post-pandemic via international field trips or summer schools. Solely relying on ‘teamwork’ activities in classrooms is not sufficient to develop social competence, whereas short-term mobility can help students to acquire and develop social and intercultural competence in real situations by exploring a new context, a new situation, and testing their willingness to interact with individuals from another culture in the new country.

Insights in UK higher education

Allinson’s (2017) report sheds light on the importance of providing a range of mobility options to support students in UK universities – regardless of which demographic group they belong to – to become outward-looking and globally-aware graduates. The report reveals that students interested in widening their intercultural competence have either opted for the Erasmus+ programme or selected the route for mobility via a provider-led programme (that is, anything organised by an institution such as work placements, field work, summer schools). By leaving the European Union, the UK has lost access to the rich opportunities that Erasmus+ would typically offer in the form of intercultural exchange, professional development, and intellectual enrichment for the participant UK student. Those fruitful opportunities have now been replaced by the government funded ‘Turing scheme’ which cannot be considered exactly as a 1:1 substitute (Patnaik, 2022). While the ‘Turing scheme’ encourages UK student outward mobility, students from outside the UK would not be supported with funding for their study in the UK This insight reinforces the conversation around widening participation and should encourage universities to strengthen their own efforts and put in place value-adding intercultural experiences through short-term mobility.

Student feedback

Prior to the pandemic, students from Coventry University participated in several international field trips and shared excellent feedback through questionnaires, emphasising the development of life-changing experiences leading to the development of social and intercultural competence.

As an undergraduate student from the Hong Kong trip in 2017 reported: ‘the educational aspects of the field trip were outstanding, we visited companies such as Black Power Point Station, China Aircraft Services Limited, as well as university in Hong Kong where we had a chance to engage with other students.’

And students from the University of Greenwich have shared similar experiences when they recently attended a summer school in Italy: ‘I enjoyed how immersed in the culture we were, specifically where our accommodation was located, as this enabled us to interact with local students and residents.’


Universities may want to assess their own resources, priorities and strategies to consider how they could actively play a key role in contributing towards outward student mobility by offering a short, yet high-value student experience.


Allinson, K. (2017). Widening participation in UK outward student mobility: A picture of participation. Universities UK.

Patnaik, P. (2022, June 1). Why post-Brexit UK should rejoin the Erasmus+ exchange program. Brookings Institution.

Pinto, S. (2018). Intercultural competence in higher education: Academics’ perspectives. On the Horizon, 26(2), 137–147.

Zhao, X., Yu, E., & Zhang, S. (2018). Intercultural competence in higher education. Journal of Educational Thought, 51(3), Special Issue, pp. 261–280.

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