Universities told to harness student activism for global good

New book calls on ‘natural cosmopolitans’ to find solutions to today’s crucial challenges

January 10, 2021
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Global problems can only be addressed by the kind of globally minded attitudes common among students

Universities can do far more to channel the idealism and internationalism of their students, a new book claims.

For the past two decades, as he describes in The Good Country Equation: How We Can Repair the World in One Generation (Berrett-Koehler), Simon Anholt has worked as “an independent policy adviser to the presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, and governments of more than 50 countries”, generally helping them to “engage more productively and imaginatively” with other countries.

Mr Anholt has an honorary professorship at his local University of East Anglia and told Times Higher Education that he always “tries to give at least one guest lecture when visiting a new country, which also allows me to do a much longer Q&A with the students”. They were not only an invaluable “expert group” for someone trying to get to grips with the challenges and opportunities of an unfamiliar place, but tended to be “natural cosmopolitans” and so enthusiastic about the kind of internationalist initiatives to which he has devoted his career.

The Good Country Index, launched in 2014, uses published data to assess how much individual countries have contributed to the world beyond their borders in terms of science, culture, well-being, equality and so on. Yet Mr Anholt acknowledged that it was not academically rigorous but “frankly populist in its intent”, designed to “frame the public discussion in a new way”, which meant that universities “tend to be a bit cagey about getting involved”.

Another of his eye-catching initiatives, unveiled in 2016, has attracted more interest among academics. This is the Global Vote, an online platform that allows non-citizens to choose their preferred candidates in elections all over the world on the basis of their commitments on non-domestic issues.

“A teacher in a university in Bangladesh got her students very interested in an election I was covering in São Tomé and Príncipe” (the island state off continental West Africa she admitted she had never previously heard of), Mr Anholt recalled, because “she was trying to open their minds to political realities in different parts of the world and this was a way of giving them a ‘live experience’. I provide the candidate profiles, which do their best to be neutral and objective, so she talks about them and poses the Good Country questions: which of them is likely to be a good international leader as opposed to a good domestic one?...They got quite excited, wanted to print T-shirts and go campaigning.”

Yet it is in the new Good Generation project that Mr Anholt hopes for far greater engagement from universities.

This, he explained, is based on a very simple thesis: “Every single one of the challenges behind the Sustainable Development Goals is caused by the behaviour of people and that is caused very significantly by the way they are brought up and educated. Therefore, if you want to change the world, you have to change humanity – and you do that through education.” The plan was therefore to inaugurate a “global conversation” leading to a compact setting out the crucial knowledge, values and skills the next generation will need if we genuinely hope to address the big challenges of today. This would then provide a focus for an international movement to spur policymakers to move beyond current forms of education approaches which, as The Good Country Equation puts it, “only made sense before humanity became interdependent and its problems interconnected”.

Although the central focus is on schools, Mr Anholt envisaged a crucial role for “undergraduates as a ‘delivery mechanism’, using 18- to 25-year-olds to help educate children because a lot of this stuff may be extracurricular, taking place in the home or online outside school hours”.

But how did he see universities getting involved?

Although “universities model the best of globalisation”, for example through scientific collaboration, and so form “a kind of para-diplomatic network for spreading ideas”, Mr Anholt replied, many were looking for “ways to be rapidly and dynamically effective, in addition to pursuing the rather slower traditional timescales of research”. Furthermore, they were “beginning to be aware of the fact that they are slightly losing their undergraduates in the sense that they own them when they are in the lecture room, but in terms of where their hearts and minds and desires are, they lose them – to NGOs and civil society and ultimately to their employers.

“What do undergraduates do with their natural energy to make the world a better place? They join a dozen activist sites and march about this and that. I’m suggesting that universities provide them with a single, university-backed project they can all get stuck into in a more organised way.”

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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