Global perspectives in Area Studies: a complacent or creative response?

Author: Jenny Lunn


Higher Education is under pressure to produce graduates with the knowledge and skills for working in a globalised world and with the values and attitudes to behave as global citizens. Are Area Studies students developing these 'global perspectives' through their studies? A scoping study at the Royal Geographical Society (with with the Institute of British Geographers) has investigated the current status of the global dimension. The research project examined how global perspectives are manifest at three different levels within Higher Education: disciplines/subject areas, departments/teaching teams and institutions. In Area Studies, the picture is generally encouraging, with many of the building blocks for developing and strengthening global perspectives already in place. The long-term objective is for a holistic approach where all the components contributing to global perspectives are integrated and embedded into the ethos, structures, activities and daily life of Higher Education institutions.

Table of contents


Globalisation of Higher Education. Internationalisation of the curriculum. E ducation for sustainable development. Global citizenship. Terms such as these are increasingly being used. Are these concepts one and the same thing or are they all different? What do they really mean for Higher Education? How do they relate to Area Studies?

This article presents some of the findings from the Global Perspectives in Higher Education project which ran at the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) from October 2004 to March 2006. The work was funded by the UK government's Department for International Development (DFID) as part of its development awareness programme. The aim was to assess the current status of 'global perspectives' in UK Higher Education, particularly in the undergraduate taught curriculum, and to make recommendations as to how DFID could be involved in taking this agenda forwards at a policy level.

This article explores the variety of terminology relating to 'global perspectives' in current use and the complexity, yet contemporary importance, of the field. It presents the evidence of how the global dimension is currently manifest in Area Studies and suggests how departments could develop global perspectives further within a holistic model.

Mapping the territory of global perspectives

Confused terminology

Figure 1 illustrates a range of terms that are currently being used by a multitude of stakeholders in the Higher Education sector, from government departments and NGOs, to Vice Chancellors and teaching staff.

Figure 1: Terms in current usage

Figure 1: Terms in current usage

These terms have been used in a variety of policies, strategies, initiatives and events at different levels. The following examples are by no means an exhaustive list, rather they are some examples from recent times which serve to illustrate the diversity of interest and activity.

On a world scale, the United Nations launched the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development in 2005 whilst UNESCO has been active in promoting Education for Peace, Human Rights and Democracy . At a regional scale, the Council of Europe has been running an Education for Democratic Citizenship project and in 2005 held the European Year of Citizenship through Education . Meanwhile the Higher Education sector is impacted by policies and programmes as part of the Bologna Process creating the European Higher Education Area and the Lisbon Strategy seeking to make the European Union the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world.

At a national scale, the Department for Education and Skills produced Putting the World into World-Class Education: An international strategy for education, skills and children's services in 2004. In 2005, t he Higher Education Funding Council for England produced the strategic statement and action plan Sustainable Development in Higher Education and a report on Strategically important and vulnerable subjects .

A number of other organisations have also been undertaking research, preparing strategies and conducting projects, for example: the Development Education Association's Global Perspectives in Higher Education project supported the trial of taught modules at four universities which sought to introduce global perspectives to students in innovative ways (DEA, 2003); Forum for the Future have been investigating the meaning of sustainability literacy and ways to embed it into Higher Education (FFF, 2004); and the Higher Education Academy has undertaken a survey to assess how sustainability is being included into the academic curriculum across different disciplines (HEA, 2006).

There have also been events including: Graduates as Global Citizens: Quality education for life in the 21st century (DEA, April 2005), Education for Sustainable Development: Graduates as Global Citizens (DEA, September 2005), The internationalisation agenda for UK Higher Education (HEA, December 2005) and Working knowledge: developing sustainability skills in higher education (HEA & FFF, January 2006).

Alongside many of these projects, studies and events, groups, alliances and networks of interested parties have been developing and growing, for example, the Sustainability Integration Group (SIGnet) is a pioneering network of the bodies that fund, plan and regulate the post-school sector aiming to work together to integrate sustainability literacy into curricula; the Global Perspectives in Higher Education Network launched in 2001 at the British University Chaplains' conference has expanded significantly within UK academia. Discipline-based groups also exist, such as the Best Practice Network on Global Health Education .

Whilst it is encouraging and exciting to see these and other initiatives affecting Higher Education today, there is widespread confusion due to the sheer number of ideas, terms and concepts in use. Despite different languages being spoken, are people actually talking about the same things? Do these concepts overlap, conflict or complement each other? This study considers them all as distinct concepts, each with different approaches and outcomes, and yet interrelated. 'Global perspectives' has been used as an umbrella term which connects all of these ideas but does not subsume their individual approaches.

Agreeing a single definition or approach is neither likely nor desirable due to this diversity. Instead, for global perspectives to become a real and integral part of Higher Education, it is crucial to find a balance so that people can work towards a shared goal without a fixed path to follow. In other words, members of the academy should have the freedom to interpret 'global perspectives' from their own chosen standpoint and engage in a way most appropriate for them and for their position within the community.

Contemporary relevance

Higher Education has a crucial role in developing and communicating discipline-based knowledge about global issues through research and teaching. It also holds the responsibility of producing graduates who are trained for employment in international and multicultural workplaces, who can excel in a competitive international job market, and who are ready for their roles and responsibilities as citizens of a global world. The range of contemporary policies and projects mentioned in the previous section shows the high profile of global perspectives. But why have they come to the fore over the last few years. There have been two key drivers: global i ssues increasingly in the media and public domain and dramatic c hanges to the Higher Education sector.

First, the ever-expanding media sector put international events and global issues in the public spotlight. Coverage during the course of the project (2004 and 2005) included the Asian tsunami, hurricanes in the USA and the Pakistani earthquake; the London bombings and continued unrest in Iraq; European Referenda; the Africa Commission, G8 and Live8. Through this media reporting, the general public are faced with and challenged about critical issues such as environmental change and human responsibility, world trade and global poverty, religious fundamentalism and international terrorism. Academics and academic bodies seem to keep pace and engage with the most contemporary issues, as can been seen in the themes covered by journal articles, publications, conferences and events across different disciplines. Is the taught curriculum equally quick to react? Are students in the lecture theatre engaging with current affairs and understanding the contemporary relevance of their discipline and the contribution that it can make to addressing global issues?

Second, there is the increasing internationalisation of the Higher Education sector. A recent Economist survey identified four reasons why Higher Education is facing some fundamental changes: the democratisation or 'massification' of Higher Education means that ever-increasing numbers of people in 'developed' and 'developing' countries are gaining Higher Education qualifications; the rise of the knowledge economy of which universities are a vital driver; the globalisation of Higher Education turning the sector into an import-export industry; and the competition Higher Education institutions face for students and funding (Economist, 2005). Such changes mean that Higher Education funding, recruitment, research, collaboration and teaching take place in an outward-looking, international setting [footnote]. Do UK students and institutions have adequate global awareness and the global perspectives that are vital if they are to survive and thrive in this new context?

Consensus of opinion

The confusion of terminology and complexity of activities together with the critical and contemporary importance of the subject mean that if global perspectives in Higher Education are to develop and strengthen, there needs to be some consensus of opinion on the direction to be taken. The overall components of such a consensus are:

  • The Government supports the ability of the UK to be able to compete and thrive in what is now a global marketplace for Higher Education provision.
  • Employers require graduates who have the knowledge, skills and capabilities to operate in international and multicultural workplaces.
  • Academic departments seek to be at the cutting-edge of research into issues of global relevance.
  • Teaching staff are inspired to teach enthusiastic students who have the ability to make a difference in the world.
  • Institutions desire an international reputation that reflects on their research, and international ethos that affects their recruitment.
  • Students want to use their experience in Higher Education as a springboard for living, travelling and working across the world.

Complementary approaches

Our long-term vision is for the global dimension to be seamlessly integrated into Higher Education institutions - visible in the ethos, permeating all strategies, implicit in all activities, and incorporated into daily life on campus. This holistic approach to global perspectives:

  • operates on all levels in the sector - discipline, department, institution;
  • applies to all stakeholders - students, teaching staff, support staff, management;
  • is expressed through many functions - learning, teaching, training, researching, providing; and
  • has complementary outcomes - knowledge, skills, values.

Figure 2 illustrates some of the practical elements of this integrated approach.

Figure 2 - Practical elements of global perspectives in Higher Education

Figure 2 - Practical elements of global perspectives in Higher Education

The key for taking forward the global perspectives agenda, however, is to allow each of the stakeholder groups to approach global perspectives from their own different angle, and engage in activities that are meaningful and appropriate for their situation. For example, one of the overarching goals is to produce graduates who are 'global citizens'. However, there should be no blueprint for what a global citizen is and no tick-list of actions that someone must learn and do in order to become a global citizen. Rather students should become competent global citizens within the context of their own discipline, skills and personal interests.

Global perspectives in Area Studies

How do individual disciplines and subject areas fit into this vast and complex field of global perspectives? This section reports the findings of the Global Perspectives in Higher Education project that relate to Area Studies.

Research method

The primary goal of the research project was to assess the current status of global perspectives in UK Higher Education, particularly at undergraduate level. Data was collected from ten predominantly social science disciplines which have clear connections to the global dimension: Anthropology, Area Studies, Business, Development Studies, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Economics, Environmental Studies and Environmental Management, Geography, Politics and International Relations, Tourism and Hospitality.

There were six main data collection stages for each subject area:

  • The QAA subject benchmark statements were examined for evidence of references to global perspectives and the Chair of each benchmarking group was asked for comments.
  • An online survey targeted at Heads of Departments sought their views on the levels of internationalisation in departments, the global content of programmes and the changes over recent years.
  • An inventory of undergraduate programmes at UK institutions in 2005 was compiled to give a snapshot of the current situation and estimate the potential number of students who may be exposed to global perspectives.
  • A small sample of programmes was chosen for course content analysis with the aim of assessing how global perspectives tend to be incorporated into taught programmes.
  • Teaching staff from academic departments across the UK were invited to submit examples from their own teaching to illustrate different ways in which global perspectives can be integrated into learning and teaching across different disciplines. These case studies have been compiled into an online resource (
  • Representatives at three different levels - institution, discipline and department - were consulted about their opinions on the current status of global perspectives in Higher Education and how to take forward the global perspectives agenda.

Research findings

There is a variety of evidence of activities related to global perspectives in Area Studies.

The benchmark statement recognises the c ontemporary salience of Area Studies in having 'a particular contribution to make in the context of the increasingly globalised nature of the world' and being 'centrally placed to consider the issues that emerge from the interplay between the global and the local' (paragraph 1.4). Indeed this global awareness is one of the main attractions for Area Studies graduates and even those who do not move into international jobs find that the topic of their international knowledge and experience has interested their employers/interviewers.

There is a tremendous range of Area Studies undergraduate degree programmes available across many UK institutions and statistics show that the number of students enrolling in Area Studies and Modern Languages has been increasing over recent years. Figure 3 shows the distribution of undergraduate programmes by global region.

Figure 3 - UK undergraduate degree programmes in Area Studies by region
Area of study No. Programmes No. Institutions
UK and Ireland
North America
Latin America
Middle East
Australasia & Pacific
Intercultural Studies
Combinations of the above


The statistics reveal that currently around 42 per cent of degrees are European-based studies and that there has been the steady growth in the number of students studying the languages and cultures of Western Europe. Amongst the subjects of 'national strategic importance' identified by the government in 2004 were four areas and their respective languages: China, Japan, former Soviet Union and central Asia, and the Middle East (DfES, 2004). As a result of government attention, funding intervention and student interest, the figures show a recent increase in the study of the languages and cultures of Russia and Eastern Europe, and sharp increases for Japan and China. Meanwhile there is a paucity of supply and/or demand for programmes on Africa, Australasia/Pacific and the Middle East. The fear is that the preferential treatment of some countries and regions may impact negatively on other Area Studies which are already weak and under-represented.

Area Studies involves developing 'knowledge and understanding of a geographical area, past and present', according to the benchmark statement (paragraph 4.1). Some programmes also consider the region in a wider context by incorporating international issues and comparative study. According to the survey, the number of compulsory and optional taught modules covering global issues and non-EU areas has been increasing. The content of Area Studies programmes tends to be balanced between the study of processes (social, economic, political, physical, environmental), locations , and cultures and societies (people, communities, identity, values, behaviour, meaning). Area Studies is often taken as part of a joint or combined honours programme and the most popular subjects to combine it with are Modern Languages.

There has been some g rowth and diversification within the Area Studies, for example Francophone African and Caribbean Studies are growing fields within French Studies whilst Trans-Atlantic, Circum-Atlantic and cis-Atlantic Studies have emerged as new fields. Other such inter-disciplinary and trans-boundary topics, for example Pacific Studies and Polar Studies, which feature in Higher Education in North America, Australia and New Zealand are yet to seriously develop in the UK.

Numerous examples exist of global perspectives being integrated into learning and teaching in new, innovative and unusual ways. However, some students prefer to choose modules on familiar subjects that are seen as 'safe' or easy options, rather than taking alternative modules on unusual topics or those which may present new perspectives on a known subject. In this respect, much depends on when and how the global dimension is introduced into the curriculum of the particular Area Study.

One of the intellectual skills that the benchmark statement says a student of Area Studies should acquire is 'an informed sense of the similarities and differences between areas, thus fostering cross-cultural and international perspectives' (paragraph 4.3). However, it is not made explicit in the benchmark statement how international knowledge, a critical awareness of diversity and cross-cultural skills can be transferred to other settings such as the workplace.

Students have a variety of opportunities to travel, study and work overseas. Over half of Area Studies undergraduate degrees offer an extra year (two-thirds of these being compulsory) so that students can experience their chosen area through a study exchange, work placement or language-learning programme. However, pressures of time and funding on departments and academic staff often mean a gap between the perceived importance of global perspectives activities and the actual activities carried out. In particular, the survey showed that the availability of fieldtrips, both in the UK and abroad, has not particularly increased over recent years and that the exchange of teaching staff (both sending home staff overseas and hosting international visiting lecturers) is not widespread.

These issues of integrating the global dimension into teaching curricula and the activities of departments are set in the wider context of the increasing internationalisation of institutions - including recruiting students from overseas, providing degree programmes on overseas campuses or through distance learning, and working in partnership with overseas institutions.

Unfortunately, factors including the decline of languages in schools and a lack of prioritisation by government for Area Studies over recent decades mean that the future for Area Studies in Higher Education is uncertain. Numerous Area Studies and Modern Language programmes and departments have suffered recently from funding shortages and university cutbacks. A member of teaching s taff is sometimes the sole person in an institution specialising in a particular geographical area and this lack of 'critical mass' means that provision of teaching about the area cannot be comprehensive and that multi- and inter-disciplinary considerations are severely constrained.


Overall, the range of geographical areas covered by the programmes on offer suggests that Area Studies is dynamic and diverse. The interdisciplinary nature of Area Studies means that students develop a broad understanding of a country or region both in its own right as well as in a wider international setting. Opportunities to spend some time overseas help students to develop intercultural awareness and learn to communicate effectively across cultural and language boundaries and, increasingly, students are being provided with some cross-cultural training before they travel abroad. As a result of their subject-knowledge, skills and experience, Area Studies graduates are often interested, willing and competent to live and work internationally and are very marketable to international/internationally-oriented employers. But whilst Area Studies is an ideal vehicle for embedding global perspectives in Higher Education and producing graduates who are global citizens, the supply of, and demand for, Area Studies programmes is strongly biased towards Europe and provision is under threat.

Towards a holistic approach to global perspectives

The inherent global dimension in Area Studies means that we pride ourselves on being well-informed about the places, peoples and cultures of the world. We can apply our subject knowledge to interpret contemporary global issues. We believe that using multi- and inter-disciplinary approaches help us understand complex cross-cutting processes. We know that the combination of knowledge and skills makes our graduates amongst the most employable .

Does this confidence mean that we assume that Area Studies will automatically be fully-engaged with the emerging global perspectives agenda? Or are we avoiding complacency by embracing the opportunity for our disciplines to be dynamic and respond to the most contemporary issues?

The holistic approach described earlier suggested that whilst there should be a shared goal for global perspectives in Higher Education, individual departments and institutions should be free to find appropriate and meaningful responses. Therefore, making a check-list of actions for the Area Studies subject community is unsuitable. However, individual departments need to recognise the current status and range of global perspectives before selecting the most appropriate actions. Hence the following list suggests four stages of engagement with global perspectives and could be used as a guide for departments to consider how best to work towards the shared goal of embedding global perspectives in Higher Education.

  • Appreciating the contemporary salience of global perspectives to individual students, each academic discipline, Higher Education institutions, and the nation.
  • Recognising the range of elements comprising and contributing to global perspectives, and their interconnectedness.
  • Developing globally-oriented activities and ensuring they are integrated into the wider internationalisation activities of the institution.
  • Looking for opportunities to lead by example as proponents of global perspectives and to assist other departments and disciplines in the practical delivery of the global dimension.


The research focused on ten discipline groups, one of which was Area Studies. Given the difficulties that sometimes occur when trying to define Area Studies, the following rule of thumb was used for the purposes of this project. Programmes with 'studies' in the title were categorised as Area Studies (e.g. 'Chinese Studies', but not 'Chinese') plus programmes applied to a specific geographical area featuring two or more disciplines of study (e.g. 'Welsh History and Literature', but not 'Welsh History' or 'Welsh Literature' alone). Using this rule means that some programmes may have been wrongly categorised, particularly purely language courses which, notwithstanding, carry the 'studies' label, but this method was selected as the best approximation. For interest and comparison, some data were also collected about programmes which involve the study of a single discipline applied to a geographical area (e.g. 'French Law' and 'European Politics') but are not officially classified as Area Studies. In some stages of data collection, separating information on Area Studies and Modern Languages was not possible (e.g. HESA data on student numbers) but this is noted in the text.


The subjects of funding for Higher Education and the internationalisation of research are enormous topics in their own right and as they are much-debated and discussed elsewhere, they have remained on the fringes of this study.


Council of Europe, DG Education, Culture and Heritage, Youth and Sport, Division for Citizenship and Human Rights Education; Website - Education for Democratic Citizenship

Department for Education and Skills (November 2004) Putting the World into World-Class Education: An international strategy for education, skills and children's services

Development Education Association (November 2003) Global Perspectives in Higher Education DEA: London

Development Education Association (April 2005) Report of conference held on 13 April 2005 - Graduates as Global Citizens: Quality education for life in the 21st century

Development Education Association and Bournemouth University (September 2005) Conference in Bournemouth - Education for Sustainable Development: Graduates as Global Citizens

Department for Education and Skills (01/12/04) Press notice: Charles Clarke seeks protection for courses of national strategic importance

Economist, The (8 Sept 2005) Special report: The brains business

European Commission; Website - DG Education and Training

Forum for the Future, Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability (February 2004) Learning and skills for sustainable development: developing a sustainability literate society- Guidance for Higher Education institutions

Higher Education Academy (5 December 2005) Scoping event in London - The internationalisation agenda for UK HE London

Higher Education Academy (January 2006) Sustainable development in higher education - current practice and developments: a progress report for employers, unions and the professions Higher Education Academy : York

Higher Education Academy and Forum for the Future (January 2006) Conference in Edinburgh - Working knowledge: developing sustainability skills in higher education

Higher Education Funding Council for England (June 2005) Strategically important and vulnerable subjects

Higher Education Funding Council for England (July 2005) Sustainable Development in Higher Education

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2002) Subject benchmark statement: Area Studies QAA: Gloucester

UNESCO, Declaration of the 44th session of the International Conference on Education (1995) Declaration and Integrated Framework for Action on Education for Peace, Human Rights and Democracy

UNESCO; Website - United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development

Related links

Global Perspectives in Higher Education
The project website contains a variety of information both general and subject-specific, including reports, case studies and links.

The collection of case studies illustrate how global perspectives can be integrated into learning and teaching. It features examples of good, innovative, unusual practice. It is intended as an evolving resource so you are encouraged to browse around and submit your own examples.

The subject report for Area Studies contains the detailed analysis of data collected. It is available on the website or downloaded from here:
Global Perspectives in Higher Education; Subject analysis: Area Studies (pdf, 48Kb).

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