What does it take to be a global citizen?

“IF you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” These were the words of Theresa May, at her first party conference as Prime Minister, in 2016, as she prepared her nation to officially exit the European Union (BREXIT). However, as an educator, I beg to disagree.

Globalisation is far from being perfect. While it has raised almost every indicator of economic and human development, it had some negative side effects. Some communities were left behind and felt disenfranchised, and the hyper-connectivity of our world has made financial, health and environmental crises quicker to spread. While these things need to be addressed, they should not be used as an excuse to abandon the historic march towards getting our world and our communities more closely aligned.

The types of challenges that we need to train our students to address are global in nature and necessitate first-hand experience of what it means to be a citizen of the world. Challenges related to health, energy, demographics and the environment know no borders and the principle of global citizenship is an important construct for future-proofing our youth.

Education at all levels ought to focus on developing individuals who are aware of the global challenges and have the mindset and skills that enable them to collaborate with others from all over the world to address them.

Global citizenship can be cultivated through deliberate curricular design and meaningful experience. This in turn will result in the development of a global perspective as well as the honing of an individual’s leadership style.

Doing this within a global environment, where a diverse body of staff and students learn and grow, helps. Universities can provide this environment by having campuses in different parts of the world with regular movement between them of both staff and students.

Heriot-Watt University, with five campuses across the United Kingdom, Dubai and Malaysia is a good example. I would encourage universities which are not so fortunate, to replicate our advantages through forging strategic collaborative relationships with partner universities around the world.

In order to anchor education into the real needs of the world, it is desirable to align the learning experience to the most pressing global challenges. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are ideal in this respect as they cover a wide variety of challenges ranging from the educational to the environmental and from the economic to the provision of food and water.

At Heriot-Watt University, we are driven by a sense of duty to enable the leaders of tomorrow to be global citizens. Undergraduates are supported to achieve their full potential as they take the extra-curricular (but compulsory) EmPOWER Programme. A key element of the programme focuses on building emotional intelligence through self-awareness and empathy. Students are taken through a structured process to create an “Impact Statement” that outlines how they will use their passions, capabilities and knowledge to have a positive impact on the world community.

Multiple psychological studies have shown that having a clear sense of purpose is essential for success and happiness, as well as likely to lead to a positive contribution towards a peaceful and more prosperous world.

Students are also encouraged to align their Impact Statement towards one (or more) of the 17 UN SDG. This will deepen their sense of purpose and connectivity to the needs of society while providing a source of motivation and inspiration. Students work, often in teams from the university’s different campuses, on assignments and projects that are aligned to their selected SDG. This focuses their minds on how their selected field of study and their Impact Statement can together help to make the world a better place.

The students are not doing this in a vacuum. In order to create an authentic learning environment, academic and professional services, staff are also required to develop their Impact Statements.

The Go Global programme, where students from different Heriot-Watt University campuses spend a period that ranges from two weeks to a year at another campus, regularly provides a life-changing experience where students travel, become more confident, acquire cross-cultural skills and develop a deeper understanding of the world than they would have if they had never left their home countries.

We all live today at a historic moment. In no other time in the history of human civilisation have we been faced with so many existential challenges at the same time as being in possession of all the tools needed to address them.

Education needs to stand firm, in the face of the rise of populism around the world, and play its role of preparing the youth of today for the challenges of tomorrow – and today. The challenges are global, and they require global solutions.

Socrates said: “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” No one ever accused him of being a citizen of nowhere.

More than two millennia later, preparing our youth to take their productive place as citizens of the world is becoming a more urgent requirement for peace, success and development.


Provost and CEO

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia

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