Looking beyond Western Europe and North America

'Students should get the opportunity to develop a global outlook'

global engagement
Photo: Shutterstock, illustration DUB

Five years ago, UU founded the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges (UGlobe) to help strengthen the global engagement of its researchers, lecturers and students. At the end of last year, they added the Global Engagement Committee to provide advice on the policy on global engagement.

According to Professor Joost de Laat, chair of the committee and director of UGlobe, the committee will have a significant added value for the university in the long run. "Global engagement that goes beyond the borders of Western Europe and North America is essential for the excellence of research and education. Eighty-five percent of the world's population lives in low and middle-income countries. Many challenges are not restricted to the boundaries of our country, such as climate change, the consequences of wars such as the one currently going on in Ukraine, cross-border fake news, democratic restrictions worldwide, refugee flows, shortages of medicines in parts of the world with consequences for everyone etc. As a socially engaged university, it is therefore essential that our research contributes to solving these major challenges and that we give our students the opportunity to develop such a global view. "

According to De Laat, this calls for international cooperation with researchers in areas like Eastern Europe and Africa. "It also requires our students to get in touch with different perspectives and circumstances from other parts of the world. The university's Executive Board thinks that there is still a lot to be gained in these areas. As a committee, it is our job to come up with ideas on how UU can strengthen this further, so we welcome everyone's input."

What does global engagement mean?
The Global Engagement Committee consists of eleven members — lecturers, researchers and students from different faculties. They do not organise any research projects themselves. Instead, they only have an advisory role on how UU should engage with foreign partners in its policy. More specifically, in this first phase, they will focus on what UU can already do, such as how to better use existing financial resources (within the university and beyond) to strengthen collaborations in the realms of research and education with partners in the Global South. They also intend to look into ways to increase the visibility of UU staff already working with partners in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. To name a final example, the committee will investigate how to broaden and deepen the discussion about the goals of Global Engagement at UU and the forms it takes. They expect to be able to make specific recommendations to the Executive Board in a few months.

In the long term, they will busy themselves with the big questions surrounding Global Engagement and what it should mean for UU. "What does being globally involved mean for the way UU conducts its research, its education, and its commitment to stakeholders? To what extent are the answers to these questions unambiguous for the university? Do they differ per faculty, department, or strategic theme?" The committee will examine perspectives from a broad group of stakeholders, including current and future employees, students, local communities and future generations, and then share their thoughts with the Executive Board.

Reinforcing each other
According to De Laat, UGlobe and the Global Engagement Committee reinforce each other. "UGlobe is actually a 'testing ground' where researchers and students from all over the university can try out new forms of collaboration with social partners from all over the world. If UU, with the help of the Global Engagement Committee, ends up having a clearer profile regarding cooperation with partners and alliances in Africa, for example, UGlobe can react by stimulating initiatives that build on it." At this point, UGlobe can no longer really be called a testing ground because the institute has already facilitated over thirty international research projects with more than 150 partner organisations and universities in low and middle-income countries.

De Laat explains that UGlobe, in collaboration with Dynamics of Youth, is facilitating a "Global Learning Community in Education" involving eighty educational organizations from all over the world, which are committed to providing more inclusive education for disadvantaged children. In another project, UGlobe collaborates with the Bulgarian government and 23 local NGOs to set up a field experiment in 232 Bulgarian communities. More than 5,000 families participated in this project, in which UU researchers were looking for the most effective way to improve the enrolment of poor Roma children in pre-primary education. The social relevance of their work was demonstrated in 2020 when the Bulgarian Parliament passed a new law based on the study.

Students actively involved
Students are also closely involved with UGlobe. For example, there is a student council that helps to organise international seminars. They contributed to UGlobe Café's seminar series in collaboration with TivoliVredenburg, as well as the recent "Rethinking global power" series, which delved into the balance of power between China, Russia, and Europe.

In addition, Uglobe stimulates International Community Engaged Learning (I-Cel) by supporting teachers to work with international social partners in their courses. "For example, students in Conflict Studies are working together with international social partners to investigate which algorithms are used to control drones in war zones, while law students are researching the most effective legal frameworks surrounding transboundary air pollution from fires that are intended to free up land for palm oil plantations. Finally, Economics students are collaborating with an organisation in Uganda that is committed to improving the sexual and reproductive health rights of young people," explains De Laat. The Global Engagement Committee also works with the CEL programme council led by Professor James Kennedy and the Centre for Academic Teaching (CAT) to support lecturers.

The students involved are very enthusiastic about I-Cel. Isa Zoetbrood, a Master's student in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, is one of the four students who participated in a project that investigated the impact of the Dutch airstrike on the Iraqi town of Hawija, committed in 2015. The project was led by Assistant Professor Lauren Gould and conducted in collaboration with civil society organisations PAX (Protection of Civilians) and IRW (Intimacies of Remote Warfare). One of the methods used by the research team to study the impact of the bombing was interviewing the local population. The four UU students who worked on the project focused their analysis on social media.

At the time, Isa was a Bachelor's student in Language and Culture Studies, while the other three students were following a Master's programme. To Isa, the best thing about the project was that she was able to apply her knowledge in a practical way. The worst thing was coming across images of wounded and dead people, including children. Fortunately, she was able to talk about it with all the researchers involved and managed to not let it affect her too much, personally. However, she was surprised that the number of reports about how the Dutch government kept it a secret surpassed the number of reports about how terrible the bombing was. That was one of the main conclusions of the study.