Intercultural Competence in Higher Education: A Normative Anchor, a Developmental Perspective, and a Discursive Approach


  • XU ZHAO University of Calgary
  • EUSTACIA YU University of Calgary
  • SIWEN ZHANG Harvard University



How to advance intercultural competence among university educators has become an important topic in the discourse on internationalization of higher education. However, what constitutes intercultural competence, how to promote it, and toward what end remain to be questions that are subject to debate. This conceptual article aims to contribute to the debate by 1) proposing a normative anchor based on Habermas’ theory of “principle of universalization”; 2) presenting a developmental perspective on intercultural competence in the context of higher education; and 3) introducing a discursive approach to empirical research on intercultural competence. Drawing on examples from an empirical study, we demonstrate a major challenge facing university educators in teaching students from diverse cultural backgrounds and point out the gaps in the existing models of intercultural competence. We then explain first why Habermas’ theory of “principle of universalization” may be a guiding principle for defining and practicing intercultural competence; secondly how the discourse of intercultural competence can be enriched by incorporating perspectives from psychosocial developmental theories; and thirdly why a discursive approach to research is a fruitful direction for empirical studies of intercultural competence. Finally, we provide a discussion on the implications of our proposals for teaching and learning in higher education.