3/2015, In English, Kansainvälisyys, Opiskelijat, Tutkimus ja innovaatiot

Multicultural competence in higher education and labor market – Improving foreign student’s guidance in practical placements

Problem: How to promote European student mobility for practical placements?

Majority of higher education (HE) students in the field of education, rehabilitation, social and health care do their exchange mobility in a practical setting. It is indicated that multicultural competence of the working life mentors and teachers is inadequate and the quality of foreign students’ guidance varies extensively. Traditionally internationalization has not been developed alongside with the other working life competences. This may lead to the challenges facing the quality of guidance in practical placements. (Edgecombe et al. 2013.)

However, the guidance skills of mentors play a major role in the success of the learning experience (Dale et al. 2013). Guidance given by mentors during practice has a significant effect on the integration of foreign students into local working life and community. This can lead to willingness to stay and work in the country of study after graduation. (Mattila et al. 2010; Pitkäjärvi et al. 2012). Furthermore, the development of the pedagogy in placements has not been linked to the curriculum development. Therefore, mutual trust and effective communication between the HE and working life institutions should be strengthened by bringing the teachers and mentors together to improve their multicultural competence. Being elementary parts of social capital, mutual trust and communication should be built in a structured manner between the parties.

One of the responses to the needs described is the EU funded project “SOULBUS – Building Social Capital by Improving Multicultural Competence in Higher Education and Labour Market”) 2014–2016 implemented in cooperation with five EU countries: Finland, Netherlands, Estonia, Slovenia and Croatia. Overall 13 partners participated in the Soulbus project. Six of them being HE institutions and the other six working life partners such as hospitals and NGOs. The third country partner is the School of Social Work, San José State University, USA. The consortium was put together initially by a coordinator who looked for higher education institutions which have a strong relationship with their labour market partners, and also need to improve multicultural skills of mentors and teachers. Another way of selecting suitable partners for the consortium was to ensure that a partner organization has a strong emphasis on internationalization, and has a strategic plan incorporating vision, mission and goals of how to increase a number of exchange students particularly in practical placements. Some partners had have cooperation with mutual projects and curriculum activities with each other’s but most of the partners were unknown to each other.

Project’s outcomes are divided into the three parts: 1) to improve teachers’ and mentors’ multicultural competence to increase the volume of placements available to foreign students and to harmonize the quality of placement. The objective is achieved by offering the target group possibility to attend the Soulbus E-Coach program which is designed and piloted in the project, 2) to improve attractiveness and accessibility of the practical placements for the foreign exchange and degree students as a part of the higher education institutions’ curricular activities, and 3) to support systematic, long-term collaboration between higher education institutions and working life partners.

Considering building social capital between the HE institutions and working life partners, two practices and main outcomes developed in the Soulbus project, are presented as follows:

PRACTICE 1: More experienced partner-countries share their expertise with less experienced ones

The Netherlands and Finland have been members of Erasmus programme for a long time and both countries run a number of English-taught degree programmes in the fields of education, rehabilitation, social and health care. Additionally, both countries have described the internationalization competence, and internationalization and practical training abroad has been part of the curricula for years. Slovenia, Estonia and Croatia have, on the other hand, only a few foreign exchange students annually and thus, not enough practical placements are available for the foreign students. However, they are strongly motivated to internationalize their curricula, set up English-taught degree programmes and most of all, offer practical placements with good quality of guidance. From the beginning of the project it was aimed that the less experienced partners learn from the more experienced ones when hosting foreign students and carrying out their guidance. This promotes transference and dissemination of knowledge and skills and enhances creativity and innovations between partner organizations. The consortium started with an analysis of the present situation of guidance and pedagogical practices of foreign students in each partner country. Each partner country conducted a focus group interview where data was collected from the students’, teachers’’ and mentors’ perspectives. As a result, a Case Study Repository, is now available for all the participants to be shared and learned from.

Secondly, as an experienced partner Saxion UAS in the Netherlands planned and piloted the Soulbus-e-Coach online programme to enhance multicultural competence. The programme will be beneficial for the practice placement mentors in guiding foreign students and support teachers when guiding incoming and outgoing students. An online programme it is profitable for all mentors and teachers working in the European HE Area.

PRACTICE 1: Strengthening trust and increasing mutual understanding between mentors and teachers

The Soulbus consortium expected that every HE institution and working life partner work mutually to improve their multicultural competence and guidance practices. The aim was that the partners shared experiences and expertise of multiculturalism and pedagogy. Multicultural approach means enhancing the quality of guidance and increasing the volume of placements. To achieve this goal, the partner pairs have had continuous co-operation from the beginning of the project e.g. by organizing the focus groups together. All the HE partners and their counterpart from the working life have participated in numerous face-to-face seminars during the project. Furthermore, HE institutions have continuously been in touch with their working life partner to ensure their active role and to consider their specific needs to develop trust and share the learning processes.

To strengthen trust and increasing mutual understanding in the guidance of foreign student, mentors and teachers of the Soulbus E-Coach program worked through two pilot phases.  This will help to implement the European Qualifications Framework for practical placements in order to enhance competence-based training in the education, rehabilitation and social & health care sectors. One task of the programme was to produce and pilot tailored actions in each partner country and to use peer-learning in sharing pilot experiences. The pilots aim at exploiting innovations and creative solutions which can be incorporated into the national curricular activities. Every partner pair planned and performed national actions concerning their specific needs of foreign student’s guidance in practical placement. National actions were peer-reviewed in order to share good practices, learn from each other and, above all, utilize counterpart’s experience and expertise in mutual challenges.

Lessons learned: Building social capital in international partnership

The Soulbus project is currently at the end and it is time to summarize the lessons learned:

  • It is evident that active collaboration between the mentors and teachers develops attitudes and practices. Based on our experience, one of the best ways to reduce prejudice is when professionals work together to promote genuine appreciation of diversity. During the collaboration the whole consortium has learned different working styles, pedagogical views and practices of practical training. This will result foreign students receiving better guidance and the increased volume of placements.
  • Practical methods for guidance such as ways to overcome language barriers, have been shared among partners. Participants have also exchanged experiences of useful tools, practices and methods in guidance. These can be implemented and disseminated within the universities and work places.
  • Close collaboration creates innovative ways to link curricular development to practical placements practices following the National Qualification Framework. As a result of the project, a cooperation agreement was made between two partner high education institutions. This means that students, teachers and other staff members have a possibility to take part in the exchange programmes of the institutions.
  • Working life partners are not so familiar with the Bologna Process and the aims of the European HE Area. This may cause challenges in the collaboration. To overcome these challenges, the project has encouraged open and constructive communication between partner pairs. This has turned out to be an important way to communicate views and working methods. One result of the project was that the working life partners from non-governmental organizations (NGO) clearly benefited from a close collaboration between each other’s, and now they are searching for possibilities of extending the cooperation in the field of guidance of foreign students.
  • Working together in Soulbus project has built knowledge, trust and willingness to co-operate with the proven consortium and new project initiatives in the future as well.

The Soulbus project has offered a fruitful arena for partners to develop their knowledge and skills on multicultural competence in relation to foreign students’ practical training. Overall, this cooperation has served as valuable first steps towards creating a strong learning community. The aim of the consortium is to continue collaboration between partners, to develop international mobility HE and related multicultural competence.


Hanna Hopia, Principal lecturer, PhD, JAMK University of Applied Sciences, hanna.hopia@jamk.fi

Johanna Tarvainen, International Relations Coordinator, M.Soc. Services, Lahti University of Applied Sciences, johanna.tarvainen@lamk.fi

Tuula Hyppönen, Senior lecturer, MSSc., Lahti University of Applied Sciences, tuula.hypponen@lamk.fi

Sanna Sihvonen, Principal lecturer, PhD, JAMK University of Applied Sciences, sanna.sihvonen@jamk.fi

Dale, B., Leland, A. & Dale, J. G. 2013. What factors facilitate good learning experiences in clinical studies in nursing: Bachelor students’ perceptions. International Scholarly Research Notices, volume 2013 (2013), Article ID 628679. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/628679

Edgecombe, K., Jennings, M. & Bowden, M. 2013. International nursing students and what impacts their clinical learning: literature review. Nurse Education Today, 33(2), 138–142. doi: 10.1016/j.nedt.2012.07.015.

Mattila, L-R., Pitkäjärvi, M. & Eriksson, E. 2010. International student nurses’ experiences of clinical practice in the Finnish health care system. Nurse Education in Practice 3, 153–157. doi: 10.1016/j.nepr.2009.05.009.

Pitkäjärvi, M., Eriksson, E., Kekki, P. & Pitkälä, K. 2012. Culturally diverse nursing students in Finland: Some experiences. International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship 1, 1–16. doi: 10.1515/1548-923X.2356.

Soulbus project’s website. http://www.jamk.fi/en/Research-and-Development/RDI-Projects/Soulbus/Etusivu/ (23.8.2015).

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