Young Kiwis urged to broaden their education beyond the disciplines they major in.

Many tertiary students are lacking in attributes key to operating in a global economy, a leading academic believes.

Dr Juan Tauri, indigenous social science expert at the University of Waikato, says having empathy with others and respect for different languages and customs lies at the heart of being a good global employee - no matter what industry.

"There will be a considerable number of our students who are never going to work here, they'll go overseas," he says. "They'll be far more marketable if they have a cross-disciplinary component to their degrees particularly in Western Europe, Great Britain and North America."

Tauri says he likes to encourage students to study humanities subjects such as sociology, history or political science alongside other disciplines they might be majoring in.

Advertisement

"People may have a degree, a PhD or years of experience under their belts, but putting those skills to use in today's global economy requires key attributes many students are missing out on."

Tauri says he has personally experienced what it is like to work in a different cultural context – and has seen many friends and colleagues make crucial mistakes: "It's about humility. When you go somewhere else you are not the expert regardless of your education or experience.

"I have seen a lot of academics come to New Zealand to do research on social issues significant to us but who had very little idea about how to actually engage with Māori or Pasifika people."

Tauri believes today's students and employees must learn to be critical thinkers so when they head overseas to work they're less likely to walk into trouble.

"They need to stand back and actually think critically about whether they have the skill set to engage," he says. "Most likely they won't, they'll need to learn, that's important in all professions."

Tauri says the experience of a highly educated friend of his is an example. His friend worked for a large finance house in London but found he was out of his depth when promoted to run the company's Hong Kong office.

"He had never been taught to think outside his own academic discipline and he literally spent the first two years offending people and trying to correct the mistakes he made.

"There were cultural customs he knew nothing about. The way Hong Kong Chinese did business was completely different to what he was used to - he wasn't even cognisant that there were differences in terms of body language so he was constantly stuffing up."

Tauri says having empathy is possible if students are trained to be critical thinkers.

"To me there's nothing more important than studying social sciences for students to be able to develop critical thinking skills," he says. "They're more likely to be humble in engaging with other cultures, more likely to listen and more likely to be open to advice.

"The philosophy behind it is to develop well rounded academics and people. We should focus on developing inquiring minds which is important given so many of our industries are globalised."

Tauri believes that while empathy, humility and critical thinking are not the focus of any one specific course, a degree in arts and social sciences will teach all three skills by default.

"You might have all the qualifications in the world but at the end of the day that doesn't make you qualified to be able to work in a new community or culture. It's so important to be open and to extend your education and we need to teach students to be open to that idea."