“Una Europa: Designing the Education of the Future?” – Reflections on a Workshop Part 2

This blog post is a continuation of the first blog post discussing a workshop called “Una Europa: Designing the Education of the Future?” organised by the University of Helsinki on 8 March. You can read the first part here.

Sustainability as the Starting Point for All University Studies

When we discussed the second topic, addressing sustainability in international educational cooperation, it quickly turned out that these two comprise quite a tricky combination. Firstly, sustainability – including both environmental, social and economic sustainability – should be the starting point for all international educational cooperation. In other words, it should not be a side note that is discussed every now and then. Instead, all activities in international cooperation should be considered through a sustainability lens, which means that their effects are evaluated in respect to all the different aspects of sustainable development. As all university activities, addressing sustainability must be research-based. Additionally, sustainability should not only be the core theme in subject fields directly addressing it but also an integral part of all other disciplines. Inter- and multidisciplinarity increase our understanding of the different aspects of sustainable development and the complex interactions between them.

Secondly, international educational cooperation must always aim for mutual understanding, creating safer spaces and taking action. When addressing sustainability in international cooperation, involving marginalised actors and those who suffer the most from unsustainable actions, such as people and organisations from the Global South, is essential. Since the effects of unsustainability are the fastest and strongest in their lives, their thoughts and experiences must be heard in the first place. As in all areas of international educational cooperation, sharing good practices and generating them together is the key in promoting sustainability. Instead of blaming others and criticising their unsustainable actions, we must help each other to make improvements. Healthy competition and ambitious standards accelerate the change, but no one must be left behind.

Lastly, mobility is an integral part of international educational cooperation, but at the same time, moving physically long distances is a major emission source. Hence, promoting green mobility is at the core of international cooperation. This means, for example, improving greener transportation options as well as digital mobility opportunities. Meanwhile, we must ensure that there are suitable mobility opportunities for everyone regardless of students’ and teachers’ wealth, abilities, place of residence, situation in life and other factors.

A screen showing online sticky notes that were used in the workshop.

Students Designing the Education of the Future

When it comes to the third topic, creating standards for student involvement in international educational cooperation, we focused on promoting student agency in sustainability related learning. Firstly, students should be better informed about different sustainability related opportunities because at present, many students do not even know that this kind of opportunities exist.

Secondly, students must be truly encouraged to engage in sustainability related activities. Currently, participating in them is extra work for students, which means that only students who are passionate about sustainability and have time and other resources to get involved find their way to these activities. Unfortunately, this workshop was not an exception to the rule as students were underrepresented. Thus, we need to think about how we can integrate the promotion of sustainability into university studies in a way that makes engaging with sustainability issues natural for all students. For instance, a sustainability lens should also be adopted in compulsory courses and each subject field. Sustainability competencies must be an integral part of every student’s studies in the same way as, for example, language skills or digital skills currently are.

Naturally, most of the sustainability related international courses are currently taught online. While it is undoubtedly the most meaningful way to implement such collaboration, we must not forget the accessibility of these courses. They must also be accessible in places where the Internet infrastructure is poor as well as for students with different disabilities. Furthermore, there should also be in-person options for students who are not able to participate online for some reason or another. Most importantly, students must always be involved in the planning and implementing processes of both current and new projects, courses, degree programmes as well as teaching and learning methods. Active participation begins with motivation, so students must feel that their involvement in developing higher education really makes a difference. It is students, however, who will change the world in the future with the competencies they gain at today’s and tomorrow’s universities.

To Infinity and Beyond

So, it can be concluded that this workshop provoked quite a few thoughts in me! Woah, it seems that these two blog posts almost grew into a kind of manifesto. 😄 I must admit that our discussions in the workshop were perhaps quite high-flown and not every university student will make world-shaking contributions in their professional career. But hey, if we were not ambitious, how could we ever make sustainable changes that really matter?

If this blog post provoked some thoughts or feelings in you, please share them in the comments! We would love to hear from you!

Written by Maisa Mikkola

Photo by Stinne Vognæs

“Una Europa: Designing the Education of the Future?” – Reflections on a Workshop Part 1

Hello, dear readers! As the new term has started, it is a good time to look back at last term and consider what we could take away from it when it comes to learning and education of the future.

On 8 March, volunteers of the Una Europa Local Student Task Force at the University of Helsinki had the opportunity to participate in a workshop called “Una Europa: Designing the Education of the Future?” as a part of the Learning Adventure organised by the university. The workshop was hosted by university staff Laura Karilainen and Stinne Vognæs, doctoral researcher Tomi Kiviluoma and one of our volunteers, Eugenia Castellazzi. The purpose of the workshop was to gather students and staff from different disciplines together to discuss international educational cooperation and the ways it can become more student-centered, meaningful and value-adding for both students and teachers.

While there are plenty of different types of cooperation between Una Europa universities, so far, the biggest achievements are two joint bachelor’s programmes. One of them is in European Studies and was launched last year, and the other one is in Sustainability and will be launched next year. In the light of these developments, the workshop especially focused on the role of international educational cooperation in three subareas:

    • gaining new insights into the subjects that are studied and taught at universities
    • addressing sustainability in different types of collaboration, such as mobility and everyday practices
    • creating standards for student involvement in international collaboration, such as in developing new educational formats.

The discussions were intensive and insightful since time was limited and we got to swap tables and discuss all the topics. Now, let’s go deeper into the outcomes of the discussions and the thoughts they provoked in me.

The participants of the workshop are listening to a presentation.

Meaningful Learning as the Foundation for World-Changing Solutions

The first topic, gaining new insights into subjects through international educational cooperation, led us to think about the ultimate meaning of learning, studying and teaching at universities. In our discussions, we emphasised that studying and teaching at universities should be based on the idea of transformative learning. It means that the learning process goes beyond simple knowledge and skill acquisition and supports critical meaning-making. This deep and constructive learning process enables questioning and challenging the prevailing procedures and ways of thinking, which is necessary for making effective and durable changes. In this rapidly changing world, learning has to be lifelong as we must constantly adapt to new conditions. Hence, learning to learn is the key in educating the solvers of the future. Self-reflection skills and the ability to analyse one’s own learning process are essential for students’ professional and individual development.

If university students are educated to solve problems, it seems obvious that problem-solving skills are a necessity. Crucially, problem-solving skills do not only mean the mere ability to solve given problems but also the ability to identify both existing problems and possible future challenges and to cut huge and complex issues into smaller and more manageable pieces. Problem-solving skills also include recognising what kind of personal and societal values affect problem-solving processes and how, as well as widening the reflection on the possible outcomes of different problems and solutions from short-term to long-term thinking.

In order to form a holistic view of the challenges that the world is facing, students need competencies that enhance inter- and multidisciplinary collaboration. Tackling complex problems requires the ability to see them from various perspectives, which also means understanding different geographical and cultural contexts. This is not possible without international cooperation. When studying and working in an international environment, we are able to consider the different local, national and regional effects of problems and their possible solutions. Most importantly, international cooperation enables us to shift our focus to worldwide causalities and to think globally. Since today’s problems are global by nature, solutions to them must also be generated from a global perspective. In all this, social skills are the key as no one can change things alone.

In addition to a certain mindset, students should gain concrete skills that are easily applicable to working life as well as other aspects of personal life. Thus, universities need to cooperate with other organisations and provide students with real-life tasks and projects that help them to see the utility of their competencies in practice. This is also linked to the essential role of science communication in university studies. The ability to communicate scientific results to the public is crucial for promoting research-based political decisions, civic activities and ways of life. Therefore, students’ competencies in putting the key points and findings of their subject field into easily understandable words should be enhanced.

Finally, students must be involved in educational planning and implementing processes. Universities cannot provide students with the best possible competencies if students’ needs and desires are not taken into account. Participative and inclusive academic culture forms the foundation for meaningful learning and studies. International educational cooperation should also increase students’ professional self-confidence and avoid cynicism. When students believe that they can make a difference and that together humankind is able to change the world, setbacks will not discourage them. This requires an appreciative attitude towards students and their work and competencies. As professionals in the making, students deserve to be heard in academia. At the same time, we must be brave enough to not only think about how different problems and solutions affect the world “out there” but also how they affect us as in academia and as individuals. We must not distance ourselves too much from the reality “out there” so that we will not get stuck in our ivory towers.

If this blog post provoked some thoughts or feelings in you, please share them in the comments! We would love to hear from you!

Written by Maisa Mikkola

Photo by Stinne Vognæs

Una Europa at the University of Helsinki

One of the finest moments of my university career is listening to the speech of Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Great Hall of the University of Helsinki in March 2015.

The audience was mainly students of the University of Helsinki who also had the opportunity to ask questions to perhaps the most influential woman in the world. One of the students asked Merkel what advice she would give to young people who are about to graduate. The question surprised Merkel and I would say that she was even a bit moved as she pondered the answer. The answer was so big.

In her response, Chancellor Merkel talked about her background in the Cold War in East Germany, where the student’s international free movement was out of the question. She urged students at the University of Helsinki to take note of the opportunities offered by the current internationalisation of universities. “Go see the world and get to know different ways of living and thinking,” was the message she conveyed. Us older members of the audience were very much in agreement. During our studies, there were hardly any exchange opportunities, and as we age and get settled somewhere and with someone, going abroad gets more difficult.

The French president Emmanuel Macron conveyed a similar spirit for internationalization in his speech in September 2017, when he put forward a motion towards European Universities. Speking at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Macron pictured the new European Universities as acts of conquest for future generations and the glue that will hold Europe together amongst its national differences. By joining forces from accross the continent, they would, visioned Macron, be drivers of educational innovation and the quest for excellence.

In such a quest for excellence, and to promote such internationalisation and mobility of its students, the University of Helsinki joined Una Europa in October 2019.

Una Europa is one of the by now 41 European University alliances funded under the European Universities Initiative by the Erasmus+ programme. In the spirit of both Merkel and Macron, the European Universities Initiative is designed to significantly strengthen mobility of students and staff, and foster the quality, inclusiveness and competitiveness of European higher education.

For the University of Helsinki, being part of Una Europa means that we are building an entirely new kind of strategic partnership with our seven partners from all four corners of Europe, from Bologna to Edinburgh and Krakow to Madrid.

Mobility and its enhancement are key to Una Europa partners and our common future. Once the pandemic allows us to travel again, physical encounters between students and staff from different universities are crucial for the Una Europa community. Yet, we are also strongly investing in virtual learning environments and means of communication to build opportunities for accessible and environmentally sustainable virtual mobility between our universities.

Indeed, Sustainability is one of the academic focus areas that Una Europa has initiated its collaboration. The other four focus areas are Data Science & AI, Cultural Heritage,  European Studies, and One Health. Together, the focus areas and their cross-fertilization will boost the solving of the grand challenges of our time.

This blog is here to help us imagine together, what Una Europa means to us at the University of Helsinki. What are the opportunities that it offers? What can we, together, achieve by belonging to this new type of alliance?

Una Europa offers us a chance to be bold, to build a new kind of a university and a new kind of a university ecosystem. What does the university of the future look like and how can we at the University of Helsinki be part of shaping it?

Hanna Snellman, Vice-Rector for International Affairs