Although the term global citizen dates back to ancient times, it is only in recent decades that it has gained extensive usage in academic circles. It is an objective of many mission statements and has also gained credence as a personal way of life, as an awareness of oneself not as an isolated individual but as one inextricably linked to others. Lest such common usage of the phrase become a cliché, I think it behooves us at the outset to define, albeit in broad strokes, what we mean by global citizens. Is it a shared sense of a world identity, even though human beings have not yet evolved into a world community? Is it a commitment to some common universal values? Or is it a way of approaching, embracing and attempting to resolve global challenges from a perspective that is much broader and more inclusive than the one that until recently placed sovereign states at the centre of global discourse. In terms of institutions of higher learning and what they offer, we will concentrate on the latter definition which we have implemented in our own university.

Were we to examine international affairs curricula in institutions of higher learning some 30 or so years ago, we would find an overemphasis on sovereign states as the arbiters of much that happened in the world. Even the name international relations implied discourse among sovereign states at the expense of other parties whose omission was not accidental. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations were minor players, if players at all, and had little or no voice internationally. That changed with the United Nations world conferences, with NGOs accreditation and representation in multilateral organizations and with private sector participation in policymaking. Area studies were fashionable whereas today, while not ignored, they play a much less significant role, primarily because there is a growing realization that regions are not isolated entities. Energy and environment rarely appeared in curricula, while today they are inextricably linked to and influence development, politics and security, not to mention the fate of the globe. International law was a rather rarefied sector whose applications were somewhat restricted to treaty enforcement and interpretation but did not extend as widely as it does today to the private sector, civil society and human rights organizations.

The world of 2013 is significantly different from and, for that matter, far more complex than that which emerged from the ravages of the Second World War. Variously described as “internationalized ”, “globalized ”, “liberalized ”, depending on one’s vantage point, the spread of markets and the globalization of production, the expanding cross border flows of money, finance trade and peoples combined with the transformational impact of knowledge and innovations in communications and data processing have profoundly altered our hitherto familiar political, economic, social and cultural landscape. At the same time, global governance regulatory regimes have incrementally been put in place, covering virtually all human activities.

A host of public and private, domestic and international sub-state and supra-state actors have thus appeared on the political stage of this still emerging hybrid system of “post sovereign” governance. In their midst and between them, NGOs, associations, victims groups; coalitions and transnational advocacy networks concerned about women’s rights, children’s rights, environmental rights; community-based groups representing indigenous peoples or minorities; faith-based groups such as churches and religious groups; trade unions and professional associations; social movements (peace movements, student movements, pro-democracy movements); and professionals contributing directly to the enjoyment of human rights (humanitarian workers, lawyers, doctors and medical workers) vie for political attention and influence. Non-territorial global communities based on class, gender, ethnicity, religion and intercultural contacts, among other things, have superimposed themselves upon national communities. It is believed that over 200 million people live in countries other than their country of origin. By the end of 2012, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were over 15 million refugees worldwide and twice as many internally displaced persons.

Transboundary issues and challenges such as climate change, deforestation, rising sea levels, shrinking water resources and desertification, together with the interdependencies and interconnections that they create, have acquired new salience on the international political agenda. This nascent but widening understanding and perception of the world as a single space has also triggered a growing awareness of the need to broaden traditional security paradigms centred on the state, its boundaries, people and institutions. A more encompassing and compelling notion of people-centred human security, which addresses the protection and well-being of individuals and safeguards nations, is beginning to develop.

The world, as we know it today, is not by any means a “non-state world”. Instead, it is an intricate blend of old and new, of insularity and openness, of continuity, change and contradictions. Likewise, our international governance institutions are an odd mix of multilevel old structures and increasingly fragmented and decentralized new arrangements involving bilateral, regional and global processes. Individuals may live in particular localities, but they are increasingly aware of and assimilated into larger networks of globality and collective forms of local, national and global forms of identity and solidarity. A vivid illustration of these unfinished transformations can be found in the Maastricht Treaty which introduced the concept of citizenship of the European Union (EU) but does not replace national citizenship. Thus, a citizen of the EU is guaranteed a general right of non-discrimination, a limited right of free movement and residence in EU member states and a number of political rights. At the same time, access to citizenship rights and privileges for non members as well as members has fueled political debate within many EU countries.

Higher education remains a nationally driven phenomenon but its institutions have not been immune to this “transnational interconnectivity”. “Massification” is the buzzword. Demographic trends have altered and continue to alter the structure, composition, gender and social background of the world student population. Globally, the number of students enrolled in higher education institutions is expected to double, reaching 262 million in 2025. The bulk of this expansion will take place in the South with India and China accounting for half of it. Universities are also being transformed by dramatic increases in the number of international students. There are now over 4 million students traveling abroad to study. Forecasters predict that this figure will climb to 8 million by 2025, many students being lured by Western institutions offering business related programmes. Student mobility has been accompanied by a proliferation of branch campuses which, some predict, could reverse the hitherto typical East to West movement of students as traditional source countries in the Middle East and Asia have started to develop their own higher education capacity. Rising costs, financial constraints and the hold of the currently prevailing neo-liberal “conventional wisdom” have led to a “dramatic rise of private higher education worldwide and to the privatization of public university”.

The Internet and information technology are also revolutionizing teaching methods and making higher education more readily accessible as evidenced by the rapid rise in Massive Open Online Courses. In fact, in a global system driven by knowledge and information, the universities are not only perceived as a springboard for individual success, they are also expected to contribute to and operate as drivers of global economic growth.

Against this kaleidoscopic background, what can be reasonably expected from institutions of higher learning? Universities must impart knowledge, competencies and skills which will enable their graduates to function effectively in our rapidly changing society and world. This means sensitizing and sharpening the capacity of students to comprehend the world in the full complexity of its interconnectedness, fostering greater familiarity with critical transovereign issues and empowering them to make strategic career and professional decisions in global terms. Training capable professionals and preparing individuals to think in global terms also require a cultivation of humanity, that is to say encouraging modalities of thinking that promote innovation and curiosity, dialogue and debate, critical discourse and cultural tolerance, a sharp focus on ethical matters and a sense of personal and social responsibility as well as public engagement. Through rigorous scholarship—fundamental or applied—universities are in a unique position to contribute to the search for more effective management and a resolution of such transborder problems as cybersecurity and terrorism, climate change, and cross border migration, to cite only a few. Institutions of higher learning have a key role in identifying ways and means to achieve, in the words of the latest issue of the UN Human Development Report, “coherent pluralism” and “responsible sovereignty”.

In essence, this is what we have tried to achieve in our institution for the past 30 years. The fundamental mission that we have assigned to our global affairs programme is to prepare global citizens capable of identifying and implementing solutions to pressing global challenges that confront and involve not only governments but also non-state actors. We seek to combine rigorous academic training with practical applications in cross cutting interrelated interdisciplinary concentrations focused on transnational security, international development and humanitarian assistance, peacebuilding, international law and human rights, energy and the environment, and the role of governments and the private sector therein. Classes are taught by academic experts and professionals who encourage group projects and participatory and collaborative approaches to problem solving. These tools are supplemented by short overseas field trips, on-site visits and lectures by practicing professionals. Bridging the divide between the classroom and the real world is of the essence.

It is well understood that these tasks cannot be achieved by universities in isolation from the operation of the broader educational systems in which they are embedded. All levels of education are parties to this vast undertaking. Fostering global citizenship is, not surprisingly, one of the three main goals of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Global Education First Initiative, which was developed and launched in 2012 in close cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Expanding access to education and improving the quality of learning are the other two objectives assigned to the Initiative. As the Secretary-General recently stated, thus reinforcing the theme of this article, “It is not enough for education to produce individuals who can read, write and count. Education must be transformative and bring shared values to life. It must cultivate an active care for the world and for those with whom we share it….It must give people the understanding, skills and values they need to cooperate in resolving the interconnected challenges of the twenty-first century.”