Global Citizenship – What Are We Talking About and Why Does It Matter?

Editor’s note: This guest entry was written by Madeleine F. Green, a Senior Fellow at NAFSA and the International Association of Universities. It was originally published in NAFSA’s newish Trends & Insights series of short online article that are “designed to highlight social, economic, political and higher education system trends affecting international higher education.” Our thanks to Madeleine and NAFSA for permission to post her fascinating entry here (which is also available as a PDF via this link). Kris Olds


During the past decade higher education’s interest in internationalization has intensified, and the concept of civic education or engagement has broadened from a national focus to a more global one, thus expanding the concept that civic responsibility extends beyond national borders.

As Schattle (2009) points out, the concept of global citizenship is not a new one; it can be traced back to ancient Greece. But the concept and the term seem to have new currency and are now widely used in higher education. Many institutions cite global citizenship in their mission statements and/or as an outcome of liberal education and internationalization efforts. Many have “centers for global citizenship” or programs with this label.

Additionally, national and international organizations and networks have devoted themselves to helping institutions promote global citizenship, although they do not necessarily use that term. For example, the Association of American Colleges and Universities sponsors a series of programs concerned with civic learning, a broad concept that includes several goals for undergraduate education: strengthening U.S. democracy, preparing globally responsible citizenry, developing personal and social responsibility, and promoting global learning and diversity. The Salzburg Seminar’s International Study Program provides week-long workshops for faculty to consider the concepts of global citizenship and their integration into undergraduate education. It also provides college students with programs on global issues. The Talloires Network is an international alliance formed in 2005 that includes 202 institutions in 58 countries “devoted to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education.” The Talloires declaration refers specifically to “preparing students to contribute positively to local, national, and global communities.” Founded in 1985, the oldest of these networks, Campus Compact, retains its predominant, but not exclusive, focus on the United States.

Defining Global Citizenship

A foray into the literature or a look at the many ways colleges and universities talk about global citizenship reveals how broad a concept it is and how different the emphasis can be depending on who uses the term. This essay can only outline a few important elements of global citizenship, but a brief overview of the many meanings should help institutions formulate or clarify their own definition of it, identify those elements that are central to their educational vision, and add other dimensions. The following are among the most salient features of global citizenship (this section draws from a variety of sources but primarily relies on Schattle (2007)).

Global citizenship as a choice and a way of thinking. National citizenship is an accident of birth; global citizenship is different. It is a voluntary association with a concept that signifies “ways of thinking and living within multiple cross-cutting communities—cities, regions, states, nations, and international collectives…” (Schattle 2007, 9). People come to consider themselves as global citizens through different formative life experiences and have different interpretations of what it means to them. The practice of global citizenship is, for many, exercised primarily at home, through engagement in global issues or with different cultures in a local setting. For others, global citizenship means firsthand experience with different countries, peoples, and cultures. For most, there exists a connection between the global and the local. Whatever an individual’s particular “take” on global citizenship may be, that person makes a choice in whether or how to practice it.

Global citizenship as self-awareness and awareness of others. As one international educator put it, it is difficult to teach intercultural understanding to students who are unaware they, too, live in a culture that colors their perceptions. Thus, awareness of the world around each student begins with self-awareness. Self-awareness also enables students to identify with the universalities of the human experience, thus increasing their identification with fellow human beings and their sense of responsibility toward them.

Global citizenship as they practice cultural empathy. Cultural empathy or intercultural competence is commonly articulated as a goal of global education, and there is significant literature on these topics. Intercultural competence occupies a central position in higher education’s thinking about global citizenship and is seen as an important skill in the workplace. There are more than 30 instruments or inventories to assess intercultural competence. Cultural empathy helps people see questions from multiple perspectives and move deftly among cultures—sometimes navigating their own multiple cultural identities, sometimes moving out to experience unfamiliar cultures.

Global citizenship as the cultivation of principled decisionmaking. Global citizenship entails an awareness of the interdependence of individuals and systems and a sense of responsibility that follows from it. Navigating “the treacherous waters of our epic interdependence (Altinay 2010, 4) requires a set of guiding principles that will shape ethical and fair responses. Although the goal of undergraduate education should not be to impose a “correct” set of answers, critical thinking, cultural empathy, and ethical systems and choices are an essential foundation to principled decisionmaking.

Global citizenship as participation in the social and political life of one’s community. There are many different types of communities, from the local to the global, from religious to political groups. Global citizens feel a connection to their communities (however they define them) and translate that sense of connection into participation. Participation can take the form of making responsible personal choices (such as limiting fossil fuel consumption), voting, volunteering, advocacy, and political activism. The issues may include the environment, poverty, trade, health, and human rights. Participation is the action dimension of global citizenship.

Why Does Global Citizenship Matter?

The preceding list could be much longer and more detailed; global citizenship covers a lot of ground. Thus, it is useful to consider the term global citizenship as shorthand for the habits of mind and complex learning associated with global education. The concept is useful and important in several respects.

First, a focus on global citizenship puts the spotlight on why internationalization is central to a quality education and emphasizes that internationalization is a means, not an end. Serious consideration of the goals of internationalization makes student learning the key concern rather than counting inputs.

Second, the benefits of encouraging students to consider their responsibilities to their communities and to the world redound to them, institutions, and society. As Altinay (2010, 1) put it, “a university education which does not provide effective tools and forums for students to think through their responsibilities and rights as one of the several billions on planet Earth, and along the way develop their moral compass, would be a failure.” Strengthening institutional commitment to serving society enriches the institution, affirms its relevance and contributions to society, and benefits communities (however expansive the definition) and the lives of their members.

Third, the concept of global citizenship creates conceptual and practical connections rather than cleavages. The commonalities between what happens at home and “over there” become visible. The characteristics that human beings share are balanced against the differences that are so conspicuous. On a practical level, global citizenship provides a concept that can create bridges between the work of internationalization and multicultural education. Although these efforts have different histories and trajectories, they also share important goals of cultural empathy and intercultural competence (Olson et al. 2007).

No concept or term is trouble-free; no idea goes uncontested by some faculty member or group. For better or for worse, global citizenship will undoubtedly provoke disagreements that reflect larger academic and philosophical debates. There is plenty of skepticism about global citizenship. Some object to any concept that suggests a diminished role for the nation and allegiance to it or the ascendancy of global governance systems. The idea of developing students’ moral compasses can raise questions about whose values and morals and how institutions undertake this delicate task. Some students will choose not to accept responsibility for the fate of others far away, or may see inequality as an irremediable fact of life. Some faculty will stand by the efficacy and wisdom of the market; others will see redressing inequality as the key issue for the future of humankind. And so on.

Such debates, sometimes civil or acrimonious, are, for better or worse, the stuff of academe. Implementing new ideas—even if they have been around for a very long time as in the case of global citizenship—can be slow and painful. However, if colleges and universities can produce graduates with the knowledge and the disposition to be global citizens, the world would certainly be a better place.

Madeleine F. Green

Box 1 — Conceptual Divides

What was once simply called “international education” is now a field awash with varied terminology, different conceptual frameworks, goals, and underlying assumptions.*

Although “internationalization” is widely used, many use globalization—with all its different definitions and connotations— in its stead. Rather than take on the job of sorting out the terminology, let me point out two significant conceptual divides in the conversation. Both center on the purpose of internationalization.

In the first divide, we see one face of internationalization as referring to a series of activities closely associated with institutional prestige, profile, and revenue. These activities are generally quantifiable, lend themselves to institutional comparisons and benchmarking, and provide metrics for internationalization performance that resonate with trustees and presidents. Examples include hosting international students, sending students abroad, developing international agreements, and delivering programs abroad.

The other face of internationalization—student learning— is much more difficult to capture and assess, but it provides an important answer to the “so what?” question. Why does internationalization matter? What impact do internationalization activities have on student learning? How do they contribute to preparing students to live and work in a globalized and culturally diverse world?

Different terms with overlapping meanings are used to describe the student learning dimension of internationalization. Global learning, global education, and global competence are familiar terms; they, too, are often used synonymously. The global in all three terms often includes the concepts of international (between and among nations), global (transcending national borders), and intercultural (referring often to cultural differences at home and around the world).

Also prevalent in the student learning discussion is another cluster of terms that focus specifically on deepening students’ understanding of global issues and interdependence, and encouraging them to engage socially and politically to address societal issues. These terms include global citizenship, world citizenship (Nussbaum 1997), civic learning, civic engagement, and global civics (Altinay 2010). These terms, too, share several key concepts, and are often used interchangeably.

The second divide focuses on the divergent, but not incompatible goals of workforce development (developing workers to compete in the global marketplace) or as a means of social development (developing globally competent citizens.) Global competitiveness is primarily associated with mastery of math, science, technology, and occasionally language competence, whereas “global competence” (a broad term, to be sure), puts greater emphasis on intercultural understanding and knowledge of global systems and issues, culture, and language.

As the field grows increasingly complex and the instrumental goals of internationalization become more prominent, it is important that campus discussions and planning efforts sort out their language, underlying concepts, and implied or explicit values. Otherwise, people run the risk of talking past each other and developing strategies that may not match their goals.

*It is important for U.S. readers to note that the goals of and assumptions about internationalization vary widely around the world. The Third Global Survey of Internationalization conducted by the International Association of Universities found that there are divergent views among institutions in different regions of the risks and benefits of internationalizations. Based on their findings, IAU has launched an initiative to take a fresh look at internationalization from a global perspective.


Altinay, Hakan. “The Case for Global Civics.” Global Economy and Development Working Paper 35, The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, 2010.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1997. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Olson, Christa, Rhodri Evans, and Robert Shoenberg. 2007. At Home in the World: Bridging the Gap Between Internationalization and Multi-Cultural Education. Washington DC: American Council on Education.

Schattle, Hans. 2007. The Practices of Global Citizenship . Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Schattle, Hans. 2009. “Global Citizenship in Theory and Practice.” In The Handbook of Practice and Research in Study Abroad:Higher Education and the Quest for Global Citizenship, ed. R. Lewin. New York: Routledge.

A further response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: several weeks ago, Professor Nigel Thrift, Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick, UK, contributed an entry where he posed: ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)’. Peter N. Stearns, Provost of George Mason University, offered the first response to Nigel’s challenge in a series we will be posting through to the end of 2010.

This  ‘response’ is from Gregor McLennan, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Bristol. As Director of the IAS, Gregor has been busy promoting  a series of debates around the changing nature of the university in contemporary societies. His contribution to this series is therefore particularly welcome. Gregor’s work lies in the area of sociological theories and social philosophies, and has written widely on Marxism and pluralism in particular. His book, Sociological Cultural Studies: Reflexivity and Positivity in the Human Sciences, tackled some key questions of the day around (inter) disciplinarity, explanation, critical realism, complexity theory and Eurocentrism.

Susan Robertson & Kris Olds


I want to raise a couple of issues about Nigel Thrift’s questions, to do with the way he constructs universities as a collective agency, a coherent ‘we’ that bears a ‘global’ identity. Nigel urges this ‘we’ fully to bring its actions into alignment with its ‘beliefs’, and to improve upon the shoddy performance of ‘other actors’ in tackling the ‘grand challenges’ of the day. And in that regard, the collectivity should see itself henceforth as positioned on a ‘war footing’, deploying its ‘engines of reason’ to force the principles of ‘scientific cooperation’ into service of the ‘survival of the species’.

There are several things that might be contested in this scenario of ‘agentification’, by which I mean the portrayal of universities as though they constituted a singular moral centre or personality, strategically intervening as such.

One is to do with its assumed site, the ‘global’ apparently designating something definite, and something quite obviously good. As Nigel knows, substantial objections can be raised against such easy affirmation of the nature and ‘imperativity’ of the global per se.  Yet universities everywhere now are falling over in the rush to assure themselves that meeting the ‘challenge of the global’ is something wholly other than the imperativity of the market, something that instead touches upon our deepest ethical and intellectual mission. It behoves us, I think, to be a tad sceptical about such ‘globalloney’ (in Bruno Latour’s phrase), and perhaps even to risk the accusation of parochialism by emphasising the continuing importance of the national contexts that not only universities, but many millions with an interest in the future of universities, still mainly orientate themselves around. National contexts – arguably at least – retain a certain logistical, cultural and psychological coherence that globality might forever lack; and the prospect of a world of relatively small-scale, highly educated democracies looks better geared to effective species-survival than the sort of flaccid but pushy cosmopolitanism that is currently doing the rounds.

Second, it is not self-evident that the kind of cooperation that characterizes scientific practice and development has any direct application to, or analogue within, the political processes through which any humanity-wide survival strategy will necessarily have to be coordinated. Nigel asks universities as a whole to interact in the way that individual investigators do, but this expectation is surely inappropriate. Academics are driven to work together because of their motivation to produce facts, measures, truths, and theories, whereas universities, as such, have no such intrinsic motivation, and nor do governments.

So asking universities to tackle the survival of the species is rather like asking families, or football clubs to do this. It’s not that people within these civic associations shouldn’t be mightily concerned about such imperatives, and contribute their expertise in a politically active way. It’s just that this is not these institutions’ defining concern. Indeed, in some ways the specific concern of universities – to develop plural communities of knowledge and understanding through discovery, controversial systematization, and rigorous reflection – is likely to generate some resistance to any politicized summary of the ‘threats and opportunities’ that ‘we’ all face. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a defence of the apolitical: as individuals and members of a range of collectives, we should get active around the priorities that Nigel Thrift designates. But it might be OK that universities are not best suited to organize in that targeted way. As Peter Stearns emphasises, universities’ hallmark medium is education, which is necessarily open-ended, changing and reflective. Of course, just as we need universities to free us from the blockages of our societal formations, interests and mind-sets, so in turn we need politics to reign in our deliberations and give positive shape to our values. But though they complement each other in this way, the functions of education and politics remain very different.

The third problematic aspect of Nigel’s line of thought comes out most clearly in Indira V. Samarasekera’s paper in Nature, in which it is suggested that universities have two prevailing thought-styles and labour processes: ‘solution-driven’ and ‘blue skies’. Both modes, she accepts, have to be part of core business. But whilst the latter, ‘until recently’, has been considered the ‘mainstay’, and must ‘remain so’, a much closer alignment between the two modes is held to be necessary if ‘we’ are to be more effective in ‘solving the world’s problems’. Accordingly, it is quite a good thing that the ‘fairly traditionalist’ structure of ‘curiosity-driven projects’ is giving way to a ‘fast and effective’ modality, enabling us to ‘keep pace’ with the big challenges, for which we need to ‘copy the organizations that work best’. To that end, Samarasekera maintains, we need to develop ‘collaboratories’ involving universities, government and industry, to bridge the gap between ‘universities and the private sector’, and to construct funding regimes that stimulate ‘interdisciplinary, inter-professional, and inter-sectoral approaches’.

It strikes me that the founding contrast here between ‘blue skies’ thinking (with just a hint of the smear of ‘uselessness’) and various other research practices (themselves over-schematized as ‘solution-driven’) is considerably exaggerated. But another, perhaps more insidious, bifurcation comes into play, according to which the agentic ‘we’ of the university turns out to have two bodies, as in, ‘We, the academic leaders and universities, should embrace this new relationship…’ In this depiction, the purely academic side of the collective, and the blue skies folks in particular, are ushered into the background and cast as worryingly slow off the mark, not quite up to the demands of fast and smart global Higher-ed with its solution-seeking culture. Responsibility for meeting the latter therefore falls perforce to the academic leaders, now stepping decisively into the foreground as the distinctive group that represents the essence and future of the university. So, given that the merits and deficits of, let’s say, inter-disciplinarity are never going to be definitively resolved if left to the bottom-up logic of seminar-room agonism, university leaders will have to push it through from the top, along with all the other excellent and necessary ‘inters’ of the new knowledge-society regime – inter-sectoralism, inter-professionalism, dynamic and agile Engagement with dynamic private and civic Collaborators, and so on. Now, whilst Nigel’s notion of the ‘forcing’ of knowledge seems potentially more subtle and interesting than this increasingly hectoring management ideology, a somewhat ‘traditionalist’ note still needs to be struck by way of caution, because to see universities as agentic interventionists at all is to risk missing the central point and purpose, even today, of their existence.

Gregor McLennan