Corporate cultural diplomacy and the international education sector

Asian university graduates

By Grant Hall, Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

The education sector is one of the most internationally engaged global industries. Education providers such as schools, colleges and universities, plus the various agencies that support them, frequently look to international markets to achieve success.

The desire to learn is a natural human instinct and people will look far and wide to get the best educational experiences possible. I’ve previously written about how the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach famously once walked over four hundred kilometres to learn from his idol, the organist Dieterich Buxtehude.

My family knows a thing or two about travelling in order to learn which is demonstrated by the air miles we’ve racked up in our pursuit of our learning experiences. I’ve studied at and worked for colleges and universities on four continents, and my wife, who has studied both in Vietnam and Australia, now helps international education service providers achieve success and find students in Vietnam through her business Vietnam Street.

Although we often talk about the globalised world as being something new, the education industry has always been a global one. A march through history has been led by millions of students over the millennia, crossing state lines, borders and oceans to seek knowledge. Through this march, borderless relationships have developed which transcend perceived cultural barriers, and these are exactly the types of relationships the world needs more of today to build, maintain and sustain global peace and prosperity.

My business, League Cultural Diplomacy, is all about building outstanding international, cross-border and cross-cultural relationships and since good relationships are crucial for any organisation seeking to do business abroad or across cultures, it’s not surprising that most of the calls for my services come from within the education industry.

The tool that I use is corporate cultural diplomacy. You can read more about it here, but basically it uses aspects of culture, such as sport, the arts, fashion or food, as a basis to build good relationships with the intention of achieving corporate objectives. Examples of some of the initiatives that we manage for education providers are music concerts, art exhibitions, festivals of various types, sport tours, culinary events or international student internship programs with arts or sport organisations. We can also provide general consulting and training services for individuals or organisations to learn how to use corporate cultural diplomacy themselves.

Education providers often look abroad and across cultures in various ways to build their business. Many institutions invest a great deal of time, money and other resources to attract foreign students whilst others establish campuses or sell curriculum or online courses abroad. Many providers will identify minority groups, often people that have been historically less likely to attend educational educations, particularly at a higher level, and develop pathways so people from within these groups can study, delivering benefits to the student, their community, the broader community and the education provider themselves.

Throughout I’ve written about the importance of good relationships in international business and how corporate cultural diplomacy helps build these crucial relationships. But today, I’d like to highlight how corporate cultural diplomacy can help the education sector when it seeks to operate abroad or across cultures.

Keep in mind as you read on, that implementing culture based relationship building events or initiatives may not be as expensive as it first appears. Technology can be used to deliver initiatives online, and person-to-person events don’t need to be extravagant; a great deal of benefits can flow from inexpensive corporate hospitality events at sports fixtures or sponsorship arrangements of smaller community initiatives. The way that you deliver your cultural diplomacy or engagement initiatives is only limited by the imagination!

Is your institution seeking to attract students from abroad?

Many education providers seek to attract foreign students to study at their institution and the competition in this market is intense. My wife and I recently attended a trade mission to South East Asia as delegates from my home state of South Australia. Education is one of the keys for South Australia to crawl out of it’s unfortunate situation of low economic growth and due to this, education was one of the focus areas of the trade mission with many South Australian based providers in attendance, along with governmental organisations which exist to support growth in the industry and the states most senior elected representatives, all promoting their institutions as desirable study locations or South Australia as a wonderful study destination.

Working in South East Asia, often for education providers, I see first-hand exactly how hundreds of different institutions from around the world promote themselves abroad, and mostly they use the same techniques which result in many of the study destinations becoming indistinguishable to potential students. When a potential student is faced with a large number of similar international study locations, cost is often placed above any other deciding factor.

If your institution wants to stand out ahead of it’s competitors, you need to do something different, and culture based events, programs or initiatives are an excellent and cost effective way to boost your institution’s desirability as a place to study.

Corporate cultural diplomacy, or cultural engagement activities, such as arts, sport, food, fashion, language or online events, can help potential students make friends with people already at the university, get some sort of feel for the campus lifestyle and teaching styles, the national culture and generally feel more comfortable about choosing your institution as their preferred education provider. Likewise, corporate cultural diplomacy events can also help your organisation build good relationships with the mostly wealthy parents of potential students, who usually pay for their children’s education and play a major role in selecting their child’s institution.

Do you have satellite campuses?

Many education providers establish campuses abroad. The Royal Melbourne Institute for Technology (RMIT) from Australia, for example, has a campus in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There are many ways that providers do this; they may open their own stand-alone campus or partner with an already existing institution in their target location in a commercial arrangement that utilises many of their partner organisation’s existing skills and resources.

I’ve seen these scenarios work out well and also end in complete disaster, with the investing provider quietly packing their bags and retreating home after things didn’t go to plan. There are many reasons why this might happen, but often the cause of the problem can be traced back to the investing organisation not understanding the culture of their new country and not building strong enough relationships within that country. I’ve written about this extensively in prior posts and you can read more about this here.

What corporate cultural diplomacy can do is ensure that your organisation has a good cultural understanding of the target location and build the good relationships that will help ensure your success. Relationships need to be built with the people who will decide whether or not your foreign market project will be a success or a failure, and these decision makers include government officials or agencies, potential suppliers, academic and professional staff and the students and their families who will ultimately decide to study at your institution or elsewhere.

Are you operating across cultures?

Whether your school, college or university is attempting to entice students from overseas, establishing satellite campuses abroad or attracting students from minority groups in your home country, you will be operating across cultures and usually languages too.

The great thing about cultural diplomacy, and why it has served governments so well for hundreds of years, is that the language of culture transcends language and cultural barriers. Think about how much of the world loves football and how the Football World Cup brings the whole world together once every four years. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t relate well to music or food, and it’s through using events and initiatives based on these aspects of culture that your institution can bring people together in mutually enjoyable environments, where the language of shared experience is the prime method for communication. In many ways, corporate cultural diplomacy is more about action than words, it’s about showing people what your values are rather than telling them. I’ve previously written about how the University of Western Sydney is a good example of this.

When I see western universities visit Asia to promote themselves as study destinations, I often see them make incredibly bad cultural errors, and what’s worse, they often don’t realise it. Recently I was at some events promoting a particular nation’s universities in Vietnam, and many of the speakers kept referring to the experiences of Chinese students which is a basic cultural error when doing business in Vietnam. To make matters worse, many of the people promoting these western unis in Vietnam handed out business cards written on one side in Chinese, assuming, I guess, that the Vietnamese contacts wouldn’t mind being considered as being much the same as a country that they are practically in a regional cold war with!

The thing about cultural faux-pas and more serious cultural errors is that people are often more than willing to ignore them if they know that your motives are pure, but how are they to know this? In the case of the above example where representatives visited a Vietnamese city and merely bombarded potential students with information before moving on to the next city, there was no opportunity for the potential students to get to know or better understand the institutions on a personal or cultural level. Because of this one sided relationship, the “you listen to us because we know best” approach which is so commonly used by western companies in their first attempts to enter Asian markets, the Vietnamese students would be likely to decline study opportunities at those universities that appear to think all Asians are the same and are only interested in making a fast buck. This approach is highly unappealing in many countries, and the providers that engage in this type of short term promotion which doesn’t allow for the building of relationships, are wasting their time and their money.

Corporate cultural diplomacy and cultural engagement initiatives demonstrates your institution’s willingness to engage, build relationships and be respectful of the culture with which it wants to engage. This is a good way to ensure that even if you do make cultural errors, your motives aren’t misconstrued and you won’t come across as arrogant and rude. The cultural diplomacy approach works to counteract these dangers, be it with different cultures in overseas locations or with different community groups, such as Indigenous or migrant groups in your own country.

Of course, before entering any new international market or seeking to work with different cultures, it’s also a great idea to undertake cultural sensitivity training which League Cultural Diplomacy can provide..

Do you have a diverse on-campus student body?

As someone dedicated to life-long study, the University of South Australia (UniSA) is my go- to university whenever I want to take a course in something. I completed my Masters in Arts and Cultural Management there and I’m a good way through a Master’s in International Business, whilst continuing to discuss potential PhD options with the uni. At UniSA I can study online or on campus, and whenever I get a chance to visit home for a few months I usually enrol in a 10 week unit of something (I’ve kind of adopted the Steve Jobs approach to university studies of taking courses of interest rather than ones that lead to a particular qualification). Although these days I’m usually the oldest person in my class, I love the multicultural environment of UniSA and meeting students from such a vast array of different countries and cultures. I’m pretty sure I’m seen as the talkative weird old guy in class, but I don’t really care as I enjoy the interactions and discussions so much.

What I’ve often noticed, however, through working for a number of different institutions. is that on a campus with students from a wide variety of national, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, it’s quite common for many of the Chinese to hang out mostly with the Chinese, the Indians with the Indians and the Europeans with Europeans. I once knew a Japanese student who was boarding with some friends of mine in Adelaide, and by the time she left Adelaide, her English had actually deteriorated as she spent all of her time with other Japanese students, mostly hitting the road on wonderful travel adventures at any given opportunity. Wisely, many institutions often have programs in place which aim to counteract this to varying degrees of success, and many students do relish the opportunity to make friends with people from other places and cultures.

Opportunities for gaining cross-cultural skills and cultural intelligence whilst at college or university are often neglected by both the institution and a proportion of the students themselves, and cultural diplomacy and cultural engagement events, programs and initiatives are a great way for both institutions and students to maximise these opportunities and ensure good on-campus relations between people from different national and cultural groups. Academic and professional staff can also benefit from having cultural engagement programs at work, something that I’ve written about extensively throughout (click here to read relevant posts about how cultural diplomacy and engagement can contribute to building a great corporate culture).

Social objectives, PR benefits and conclusion

In this globalised, highly mobile and multicultural world, corporate cultural diplomacy or cultural engagement programs, strategies, events and initiatives deliver a multitude of benefits to education providers, and once providers have adapted a cultural diplomacy or cultural engagement mindset these benefits have a tendency to crossover and multiply.

Whilst this post has mainly focused on the direct business benefits of incorporating corporate cultural diplomacy it’s worth also noting the social and PR benefits that it also brings, which also provide a good example of the multiplier effects of cultural diplomacy.

Because of its inclusive nature, your cultural diplomacy or engagement activities will bring benefits to a wide variety of people, not only the people whom your initiatives are designed to influence, but also the people who contribute to your initiative and their communities. For example, if you were to manage a film festival in an overseas location in order to promote your institution, the film-makers will also benefit. What you then have is the ability to screen films by emerging or Indigenous film-makers and involve them in some way with the festival, thus providing the type of community investment which is likely to be consistent with your stated Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) aims or obligations.

Cultural events can be visual feasts in a photographic sense, often involving interesting and beautiful or well-presented people, and cultural events or initiatives are a proven way to attract media attention and a high degree of positive public relations mileage which can be further amplified by your social media outputs. And here lies what I think is the most appealing aspect of corporate cultural diplomacy and why your institution should use it; because it has an amazing ability to tick a whole lot of boxes, contributing to your institution’s objectives in academia, corporate and campus culture, CSR, PR and more, whilst ensuring you have the good relationships needed for your institution to thrive in today’s globalised, multicultural world.

Click here to read more about League Cultural Diplomacy’s International Education Services.

Click here to view or download a single page information sheet about League Cultural Diplomacy’s International Education Services.

Click here to read more posts about education by Grant Hall.

Grant Hall has held professional work contracts with the following eduation providers:

  • Queens University, Belfast, Northern Ireland
  • University of Phan Thiet, Vietnam
  • The Stratford Career Institute, Montreal, Canada
  • The Asia Pacific College, Phan Thiet, Vietnam
  • Department of Education (South Australia)
  • The Department of Technical and Further Education (TAFE), South Australia
  • Immanuel College, Adelaide, South Australia
  • Sacred Heart College, Adelaide, South Australia
  • St. Peters Woodlands Grammar School, Adelaide, South Australia
  • The Belfast Institute of Contemporary Music, Northern Ireland
  • & many more

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