Global Responsibility to Act Sustainably as Students


GRASS takes a critical perspective on how students form values relating to internationalisation. Focussing on participatory approaches, it will identify what competencies are needed for global responsibility, how students’ agency manifests and whether non-Western and non-anthropocentric approaches can help to reimagine global responsibility & sustainability in higher education.


Girl & adult connecting to nature
Part of nature, not apart

Project information

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Funded by

Other Finnish

Project funder

Eudaimonia Institute, University of Oulu

Project coordinator

University of Oulu

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Project description

Internationalisation in European higher education has been accompanied by an emphasis on the social sustainability & global responsibilities of universities. In Finland it is also increasingly framed by dominant neoliberal policies and a narrative that brands Finnish education as exceptionally equitable and excellent.

However, research has identified that Finnish internationalisation often falls short, failing to contest deficit views of diversity and reinforcing power imbalances in international partnerships. The discourse of global responsibility, supported by the university, becomes what Foucault terms a ‘global’ knowledge, which subjugates other alternative (local) ways of knowing, (Madigan, 1992) thereby privileging ways of knowing and being which are in line with the globalized neoliberal ethos. Moreover, neoliberal policies have encouraged institutions to shift responsibility to individual students. Yet research has so far paid less attention to how students approach the values that underlie internationalisation, the influence of normative discourses and how they position themselves in relation to these values.

This four-year Eudaimonia Institute spearhead project takes a critical perspective on how students form values relating to internationalisation. It problematises the Finnish brand narrative of exceptionalism, which can foreclose students’ critical engagement with inequality and unsustainability as a possible reality within education. It also explores using non-hegemonic knowledges to shape how students reproduce, contest and transform dominant institutional norms of internationalisation.

The research primarily uses participatory approaches, such as students working together with researchers to create and develop courses. These approaches will identify what competencies are needed to facilitate global responsibility, how students’ agency manifests and whether non-Western, indigenous and non-anthropocentric perspectives and knowledges can contribute to a reimagination of global responsibility and sustainability in the higher education context. Data include participatory observations, self-reflection diaries, video recordings, interviews and course curricula developed by students during the process. These will be analysed using critical inquiry methods such as phenomenography, content and discourse analysis.

The project involves two research studies. Joffy Conolly's doctoral research problematises the notion of critical thinking in higher education as a Western, anthropocentric concept. Using post-qualitative and participatory research approaches, the research will explore, develop and put into practice new frameworks of critical thinking based on ecocentric and collaborative approaches.

Yared Demssie's postdoctoral research explores:

  • University students’ competencies required to facilitate global responsibility and social sustainability
  • The role of diverse knowledge systems in fostering global responsibility and sustainability competencies
  • Contributions of students’ agency, selected learning approaches, and environments to enhancing students’ sustainability competencies

These studies will be conducted using Delphi, systematic literature review, and exploratory action research methods.

Project actions

Project members:

Principal Investigator: Prof. Elina Lehtomäki

Co-PIs: Katri Jokikokko & Antti Rajala

Researchers: Yared Demssie & Joffy Conolly

Affiliated researchers: Crystal Green & Andreas Rogler

Project results

The findings of the GRASS project will have theoretical & practical implications regarding critical thinking, sustainability competencies, education for sustainable development, and teacher education. They will improve our understanding of how university students think critically about, and enact, global responsibility, both individually and collectively. It will also identify what learning approaches best support their sustainability competencies and demonstrate how their agency can transform internationalisation.

More widely, the project will indicate possible means of meeting sustainable development goals by using diverse knowledge systems, as sustainability researchers and international organisations such as UNESCO suggest. Overall, it aims to stimulate greater discussion within society about how we approach our responsibility for global problems, particularly around sustainability.