Beyond Boundaries: Expanding Inclusion in Global Learning

Amber Bartlett, U21 Global Projects Manager

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) form a critical element of the mission and principles of the Universitas 21 network. EDI initiatives in higher education intends that every student, regardless of their background, has equal access to educational opportunities. After speaking at the University College Dublin Global Experience Summit on 3rd and 4th October 2023, Amber Bartlett, U21 Global Education Projects Manager, explores why EDI is not just important, but indispensable, in shaping the future of higher education.

Wider Horizons For All

The beneficial effects to students of having an international study experience have long been known. According to the Institute of International Education in their Open Doors report, 94% of students had improved adaptability and 95% increased self-confidence as a result of study abroad programmes, while 60% of employers surveyed agreed that international experience is a significant factor in their graduate hiring decisions. Yet while the benefits of internationalism in higher education are clear to see, the playing field is far from level when it comes to study-related travel. The barriers to traditional study abroad programmes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds are clear.  Yet, even with the efforts to reduce these barriers, there will always be students who cannot, or do not want to, travel abroad. Nevertheless, U21 believes every student stands to gain from a global learning experience.


A New Approach To Global Education

Research published by U21 in 2020 suggested there are alternative approaches for students who hitherto have not engaged with traditional international travel-based opportunities. These can help to shape a transformative, globally aware experience. In designing the U21 Global Student programmes, which are offered yearly to thousands of students at universities within the network, U21 sought a different type of international experience – home-based and online. As it happened, this reached far more students who had not engaged previously with study abroad. This new approach showed some truly encouraging results, with 16 times the number of students reached. Fully 42% of applicants in U21 Global Student programmes had never studied or worked abroad before. On average 33% of these students taking part were classed as underrepresented or facing barriers to higher education*. With over 800 applicants having never travelled internationally at all prior to their applications, these results clearly illustrate a demand for a new type of flexible, digital-based, international student experience. Such experience may well create an aspiration for further in-person or online opportunities which may result in a new community of global learners. In all, U21 Global Student was able to offer access to an international learning experience to over 1,500 students who may have otherwise been excluded from traditional mobility opportunities.

Creating Global Citizens

In our increasingly interconnected world, having the skills and knowledge to navigate across multiple cultures is rapidly transforming from a desirable to a must-have capacity for employers. Students who have been exposed to diverse perspectives, cultures, and global issues develop a much broader understanding of the world around them and a sense of shared equity in global affairs. Each institution in the U21 network can provide a rich and unique range of academic opportunities that, if given access, students can use to enhance their learning and develop their portfolios and skill sets. Yet much more than that, international study experiences – whether they are in-person or hosted online – challenge young people effectively to come out of their comfort zones, improve communication and problem-solving, and work collaboratively. This can lead to greater personal growth and a host of transferable skills. It is also a highly valuable source of connections, helping students to find their own international networks and build relationships that can be personally and professionally beneficial. Online delivery has proved a highly effective tool for increasing participation and passing on these benefits.

The Struggle for EDI Equivalence

One central challenge is that the method by which each university and each country measures EDI varies. Networks such as U21 have an important role to play in understanding and contextualising the wider picture of what participation looks like across varying geographies, and how this can best be encouraged in those students from marginalised backgrounds. As part of the network’s commitment to supporting the development of students as globally aware citizens, and as the next generation of leaders, there will be a renewed focus on standardising data collection and measurement and setting specific targets around EDI for programmes delivery.

In conclusion, contemporary economic interdependence and the scale of current global issues requires a foundation of trust and collaboration at every level of society. Here, higher education can show the way. Sowing the seeds of international study and work is a vital pillar in the reach for a more collaborative future. By looking at student mobility through a new lens, and prioritising ways to involve students who have previously been unable to access an international experience, universities are able to better encourage the development of the skills and expertise needed for a globalised world.



*figure represents an average from those institutions who were able to supply data.