The challenges of global learning at higher education

By Ricard Giné

The discussion panel has aimed to contribute to the current debates around development education and global learning. Specifically, the goal has been to examine the nature of main barriers to an effective introduction of development and global themes in higher education, but also, more broadly, the challenges, threats and opportunities to the promotion of global learning within universities. The debate has been organized around three central guiding questions, namely i) why global learning should be promoted in a University environment?; ii) which are the main barriers and opportunities to effectively promote it?; and iii) which are the main recommendations to be translated to policy makers, university teachers and students to spread global learning? These topics have been debated by three key speakers: Matt Baillie Smith, from Northumbria University; La Salete Coelho, from Instituto Politécnico de Viana do Castelo; and Elisabeth Miles, from Coventry University; in a discussion moderated by Alejandra Boni (Universitat Politècnica de València).

Interestingly, the discussion has first focused on the need to achieve consensus on a clear, common and comprehensive definition of global learning. It is clear that it should take into consideration the promotion of critical understanding of unequal global interdependencies; the need for further reflection on the issues of solidarity, justice, poverty, equity, etc; and the interdisciplinary analysis of the impact of solutions designed to tackle development problems, specifically when they are applied to local problems.
As regards the first topic, it becomes more and more evident that in a global world, students need to understand what the term ‘global’ means. On the one hand, the focus has to be on educating citizens rather than training “professionals”; and on the other hand, the goal should be to develop critical thinking and promote scholarly knowledge around international development within Higher Education institutions. In addition, most graduate students and future professionals will operate globally; so if they do not understand the impact of their projects on the local communities, economies and resources, the potential for global disaster is significant. As a multiplier effect, it is essential to recall the need for training academic staff and help them integrate these global issues in the curriculum, in a transversal way. In doing so, HE institutions tend to perform as a ‘global’ actor.
The discussion about the second question has posed various barriers that are currently hindering global learning. First obstacle is related to the gaps between scholarly knowledge and strategic development of international partnerships and relationships. In HE institutions, knowledge is dislocated and fragmented on one side, and a more interdisciplinary and holistic approach to development issues often lacks. On the other, curriculum is very packed, with little room to integrate the global agenda. There is also the issue of the hierarchical assumptions about who is ‘global’ and ‘mobile’, since mobility programs have a wide range of implications with very different consequences for academics from Europe and for academics from the global south. Another significant barrier is related to the outcomes of global learning, which are often intangible and thus difficult to measure. For instance, national and international rankings on teaching quality rarely include indicators related to global learning. In contrast, in the current financial and socio-economic crisis, global learning could help rethink alternative models, and universities are well placed to question the mainstream development paradigm disseminated through the media and official speeches. In addition, and from the viewpoint of students, any approach to development and global challenges is highly appreciated and valued.
In terms of recommendations that could be translated to policymakers and academic staff to spread global learning, it is crucial that we adapt our learning processes to the new world order – the globalization. However, it is also essential that the global agenda increases the impact of applied research conducted in universities. In other words, research-based new knowledge has to reach the key actors that can apply it to solve major societal challenges. In line with this, there is a need to i) build stronger links between academic knowledge around international development and decisions and activities around international partnerships; and to ii) develop a stronger role for a ‘public development studies’, exploring stronger connections between scholarly knowledge of international development and local and regional ‘learning’ opportunities (e.g. informal/formal; schools; adult; media).

To conclude the session, Agustí Pérez (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya) and Manuel Sierra (Universidad Politécnica de Madrid) have introduced the GDEE project (, a European Commission-funded initiative which aims to increase the awareness, critical understanding and attitudinal values of students in technical universities related to Sustainable Human Development (SHD) and its relationship with technology. It thus partially deals with some of the challenges discussed during the debate. Agustí Pérez has first outlined the goals of the Action, and he has also highlighted main expected outcomes that may interest EU academics, such as online courses for teaching staff, the GDEE network, and published materials (case studies) to be used in the classroom. Manuel Sierra has launched the second Edition of the “European Awards for the Integration of Sustainable Human Development (SHD) into Technology & Engineering Education”.

Ricard Giné Garriga is a researcher at the Department of Applied Mathematics III which is a department from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. He graduated from the Ramon Llull University in Barcelona with a Master degree in Environmental Engineering for Companies. Also he graduated from the Imperial College London with a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering and Sustainable Development