Now is the time for global citizenship education to come of age


With the world in the grip of a pandemic that has no respect for national boundaries, the need for globally minded people equipped to tackle the huge risks facing humanity and the planet is an urgent one.

How can universities prepare their students not only for the challenges of living and working in the wake of Covid-19, but also to play a part in taking on any of the other “wicked” problems facing us now and in the future?

At Maastricht University, we believe that at least some of the answers lie in developing and applying the concept of “global citizenship education” (GCEd) – an idea that has been around for a while but which we and other institutions are now endeavouring to take to the next level.

It is about engaging with huge issues such as inequality, poverty, the climate crisis and now also the pandemic – all of which require an interdisciplinary approach and the capacity to cross academic and cultural boundaries. This provides opportunities for personal development, helping students to become more resilient and confident individuals, in tune with the needs of other people, communities and organisations.

According to Unesco, GCEd aims to empower learners of all ages for active roles, both locally and globally, in building more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure societies. The holy trinity of GCEd is global-mindedness, social responsibility and transformative engagement. We would like students not only to be aware of global problems, but also to feel socially responsible and to possess the competences to tackle them, and therefore have the capacity to become change agents.

It all becomes more complex as we start to describe the competencies to be developed and decide how to assess them. Supported by a grant from the Dutch government, we at Maastricht are aiming for GCEd to run like a thread through every faculty and programme.

Our university has a highly international student intake, so many of our programmes already have a strong focus on global-mindedness. However, there is still a relatively low level of awareness of GCEd across the institution, and embedding it into the curriculum and assessment presents different challenges for each faculty. While a discipline such as psychology may focus on character strengths such as empathy, others, such as business, may see global citizenship skills more in terms of critical analysis.

A symposium we hosted just before the lockdown considered what kind of GCEd activities could be incorporated into degree programmes. Delegates made a range of suggestions, including rethinking student exchanges to focus on sustainability issues in destination countries, setting up an incubator for social and cultural initiatives, and developing listening skills through storytelling.

We are also redefining what we mean by “internationalism”. Until recently, the thinking was that if you bring people from different countries and cultures together, they will become global citizens almost by osmosis. Recently, however, we have become much more proactive, making sure that we design education in an international classroom to promote this interaction.

Another related issue we are addressing is encouraging democracy in debate – using the democratic conversation as a way of solving a problem and working out the best solution for everyone. Members of a team working on a project for a client may have different viewpoints, but they still have to come to an agreement on the solutions they will offer. That involves a host of competencies that are incorporated in GCEd: intellectual humility, critical thinking, compromise, knowledge of the world and respect for the democratic process.

All this is important because we don’t want our students to feel that their education is separate from their personal growth and that they are merely jumping through academic hoops until graduation, when their lives start.

If, for instance, we say that we value ethical leadership or character strengths such as empathy, resilience and courage, we can look for ways to adapt our courses so that there is more room for relevant activities that we can assess. It means thinking about how to include things such as challenge-based learning, work-integrated experiential learning, or students engaging with outside stakeholders on projects and in the community.

GCEd will mean different things to different institutions in a variety of political contexts. However much you try to keep it values-free, it cannot help but be about the academic environment and reflect whether the institution as a whole is signalling that it champions concepts such as social responsibility and transformative engagement with the outside world.

Ultimately, it is not only about student learning – and measuring student learning. GCEd is a new outlook that the entire institution must embrace.

Author Bios: Herco Fonteijn is an associate professor in the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, and Teun Dekker is professor of liberal arts and sciences in Europe, both at Maastricht University.