An international curriculum fit for Generation Greta

The spring of 2019 saw high school students in Sweden, Europe and across the world go on strike from school as a protest against political inaction on the global climate crisis. As the young people of Generation Greta enter higher education today, universities need to respond to the demand for an education that is both directly engaged with, and relevant to, the sustainability challenges that our societies are collectively facing.

Their questions require us to revisit the concept and meaning of internationalisation of higher education, calling, in practice, for a more explicit link to Agenda 2030, namely to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.7. This means education that is equitable and inclusive, as set out in SDG 4, and that develops a wider understanding of cultural diversity and frames sustainability through global engagement.

More specifically target SDG 4.7 states that we must “ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.

The potential synergies between SDG 4 and internationalisation of higher education would thus seem to be aligned with Hans de Wit et al’s 2015 definition: “… an intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions and delivery of post-secondary education, to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff, and to make a meaningful contribution to society.”

In many respects, the “meaningful contribution” of international higher education today is dependent on its ability to contribute to the implementation of SDG 4. Indeed, when done well, ‘internationalisation at home’ and ‘internationalisation of the curriculum’ help to develop more inclusive campuses by integrating international, intercultural and global perspectives into the curriculum and support services.

The diversity of multilingual and multicultural groups brings multiple world views. Furthermore, there is now, across international higher education, a body of knowledge and reflection on how such competencies might be recognised and evaluated. Framed in this way, it is evident that SDG 4 has much to gain from international higher education.

The need for balanced curricula

When it comes to infusing sustainable development into the curriculum, higher education has often focussed on instrumental education, which aims to develop specific knowledge and competences, for example, for the climate crisis and renewable energy, rather than on emancipatory education which aims to develop a skillset for autonomous, responsible and reflective citizens.

It is, nonetheless, the emancipatory nature of SDG 4, and more specifically SDG 4.7, that aims to develop competencies for sustainable development that can connect usefully with international higher education, approaching what has been termed ‘glocal citizenry’ by Emmanuel Jean Francois, meaning education that is globally engaged but locally integrated.

Such a curriculum requires a shift in the modalities of higher education towards action-oriented transformative pedagogies, practice-based, pluralistic approaches which cultivate an openness to diverse norms and values, but which are balanced and appropriate for each discipline and learning context.

This raises the question – are university teachers prepared for this? If not, how will they be trained and by whom?

The need for continuous professional development

To achieve SDG 4.7 requires the mainstreaming of global citizenship education and education for sustainable development into national education policies, curricula, teacher education and student assessment.

While curricular change is essential, it will be neither effective nor sustainable if it is not supported by a robust continuous professional development for academic and administrative staff.

It will be crucial for academic staff to reflect on the adage ‘think global, teach local’ and implement teaching and learning activities where the global must become locally significant for all actors involved in order to be meaningful and insightful.

Continuous professional development programmes must be designed based on the competencies, attitudes and values universities expect to develop in their students, allowing for instructors themselves to safely step outside their comfort zones while questioning their own ways of thinking, being and doing.

Today, institutions should reflect on the following:

  • • What does it mean for a graduate to be a ‘sustainability citizen’ in a given discipline? What are the competencies to be trained and why?

  • • How do local, national and-or university environments shape the way in which teachers deliver inclusive and equitable education for all?

  • • How might educational developers best design effective continuous professional development programmes and which teaching methodologies are best suited when?

It is clear that global citizenry requires both teachers and students to be ethical, responsible and open in order for them to become active promoters of more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable societies. This is not an easy ask – it means reshaping our idea of the role higher education should play in an ever- and fast-changing world.

Global citizenry necessarily challenges us on how we can support, train and develop teaching staff, effectively and seriously, so that, in turn, our students make a meaningful contribution to society.

Karin Båge is educational developer at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden; Natalie Jellinek is educational developer at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU); Joanne Pagèze is vice-president for internationalisation, University of Bordeaux, France; Jennifer Valcke is educational developer at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and Thushari Welikala is senior lecturer in higher education, Institute of Medical and Biomedical Education, St George’s, University of London, United Kingdom. This article is based on a session on ‘Teacher Training: Seeds for transformative competencies’, held at the second International Conference on Sustainable Development Goals: Higher Education and Science Take Action, hosted by the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi) on 5-6 March in Barcelona, Spain.