Partnering internationally to provide opportunities for students in international studies
A joint team from Royal Holloway and Hargeisa, who were joint recipients of the 2022 BISA Award for Distinguished Excellence in Teaching International Studies, share details of their innovative teaching project. The project showcased international peacebuilding partnerships. In this article the team discuss and summarise their methods, findings, and the continuing importance of maintaining international, mutually beneficial linkages in the field of peace.
To support both the learning and professional development of students at Royal Holloway, University of London (Royal Holloway) and the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Hargeisa (IPCS), we put into action a student-led project whereby students from both institutions worked together to produce a publicly accessible website. The website (www.knowaboutpeace.com) provides information on peacebuilding and human rights to interested persons in Somaliland and the Horn of Africa.
In November 2020 Royal Holloway concluded a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with IPCS in Somaliland. The key purposes were to pursue student-led, international projects under the remit of Royal Holloway’s Legal Advice Centre, promote research collaboration between the two institutions, and carry out impact generating activities aimed at building the reputation of both institutions. We collaborated with Royal Holloway’s Centre for International Security (a multidisciplinary centre housed within the Department of Politics and International Relations) to bring on board colleagues from other departments and build a partnership that students and staff at Royal Holloway across a variety of programmes could benefit from. The MoU also sought to tie in with IPCS’s strategic objectives and ongoing programmes for knowledge dissemination and peace advocacy.
We recruited 20 students (13 from Royal Holloway and seven from IPCS) following an open call for applications and did not reject any interested students. We ensured that (1) all applicants were given roles in either research or administration of the project to allow all interested students to benefit from the project and opportunity to collaborate internationally, and (2) students from IPCS were all assigned research roles to encourage IPCS students (all of whom were master’s level students) to assume leadership roles in the conduct of the research. The students represented degree programmes from several disciplines including law, peace and conflict studies, and criminology, multiple nationalities, and from all levels, including first-year undergraduates up to master’s students.
"The project sought to put into practice research on peer learning, student ownership, enquiry-based learning, international collaboration, and social responsibility to mutually benefit students in the UK and Somaliland and promote more effective learning."
The students were split into two teams, one to focus on human rights and the other on peacebuilding. The teams were made up of a range of students from IPCS and Royal Holloway with the project leads ensuring balance on the research teams to remain conscious of the need to prevent the project from advancing a neo-colonial view of peacebuilding and international human rights law. The project leads also wanted the students to experience working with students on different degree programmes and at different stages of their studies. To that end, both teams had a variety of students from first year undergraduates through to master’s students and a mix of law, criminology and peace and conflict studies students.
Accounting for the disciplinary experience of the IPCS students, one team made up of four IPCS students and four Royal Holloway students examined peacebuilding and created explainers for the website on the role of individuals and local communities in the peacebuilding process. Drawing on literature on ‘everyday peace’ and localism in peacebuilding the website explains how the local has become an integral part of post-conflict reconstruction. More importantly, the peacebuilding section links to existing work undertaken in the region by IPCS and makes suggestions for where future work can enhance ‘everyday peace’ in the Horn of Africa.
The second team, made up of five Royal Holloway students and the remaining three IPCS students, investigated human rights protections in Somaliland. The website outlines international human rights standards applicable to those living in Somaliland and provides easily understandable explainers of how those rights function. The team also examined the deeper issues underpinning human rights in Somaliland – examining the key concerns in their wider academic context and the theoretical frameworks behind them including conceptualisations of human rights as well as ideas around national and transnational justice. In both teams students were encouraged to divide the responsibilities for research to ensure a diverse array of points of view from the students accounting for cultural diversity in the final work produced.
Each team was allocated a further two students to assist with administration and proof-reading materials. The students allocated to the support roles were predominately first-year undergraduates. The decision was made to include support roles in the project for inclusion of all students and importantly for less experienced students to learn from others.
"The learning participants were able to advance their ability to work across cultural boundaries, learn new skills from their peers, and build trust – all while working towards the achievement of shared goals."
Each group of students were assigned two staff supervisors to guide their work. Supervisors were from both IPCS and Royal Holloway, and within Royal Holloway from both the Department of Law and Criminology and Department of Politics and International Relations. By having staff from both institutions provide supervision the project was able to continuously remain conscious of the need to incorporate different cultural perspectives and be locally-led ensuring relevance of the research for the target populations. Despite having supervisors, the onus was placed on the students to manage their project and assume leadership responsibilities with supervisors taking a backseat. Students were expected to liaise with one another, divide tasks, set internal deadlines etc. Supervisors could be called upon to attend team meetings and to review drafts, but project management would be the responsibility of students. To emphasise this point, students were asked to sign Legal Advice Centre volunteer agreements committing to the project for a fixed period.
We actively sought to incorporate several important pedagogical approaches into the project in order to benefit the participating students and support both their intellectual and professional development. The project sought to put into practice research on peer learning, student ownership, enquiry-based learning, international collaboration, and social responsibility to mutually benefit students in the UK and Somaliland and promote more effective learning.
"[b]eing able to overcome barriers of communication, differing ideology, and workload is definitely something necessary for successful international collaboration…"
We specifically ensured that students would have and develop extensive ownership of the project – as well as to work together, across cultural and international boundaries, to expand and lead their own work and research activities. By giving the students significant freedom to choose their direction – in particular the selection of topics for their solo blog posts – the participants have then been able to develop autonomy as learners and researchers through enquiry-based learning and to improve their social and communication skills through the processes of peer learning.
In addition, the project incorporated core aspects of social responsibility in order to garner motivation from the students that they are working on, and learning about, highly important global issues and that their work will be disseminated to interested parties to have real impact in respect of social development and political decision-making. Furthermore, that – in relation to the group nature of the project – the shared social responsibility between the students involved has enhanced the international collaboration as the learning participants were able to advance their ability to work across cultural boundaries, learn new skills from their peers, and build trust – all while working towards the achievement of shared goals.
We also reflected on the student experience of the project by collecting evaluations from students. When asked whether the skills learnt and international collaboration could assist students in future working environments one student commented: “[b]eing able to overcome barriers of communication, differing ideology, and workload is definitely something necessary for successful international collaboration…”. Several others commented on the usefulness of this experience for developing techniques for working with others internationally.
One student spoke of how “[b]eing able to choose from such a wide variety [of topics], meant that everyone could choose something of interest to them, which allowed for increased motivation and the creation of better work as good work and passion tend to go hand-in-hand.” Another appreciated being able to work with the project leads on editing the materials and learning what considerations are needed for a public audience.
We also asked students whether they felt they had ownership of the project and how the activity differed from other activities undertaken during their studies. One student explained how they “took on the responsibility of organising our team, selecting our own research areas, setting our own deadlines in line with the guided timings, and uploading this content. This differs from other research experiences as it has more freedom of choice and exploration of leadership and team dynamics as there are no assigned topics or roles.”
A complete overview of this project has been published in the European Journal of Legal Education.
The BISA Award for Distinguished Excellence in Teaching International Studies is given in recognition of established teams of academics who have contributed to the positive learning experience of students in International Studies.
Dr Alexander Gilder is Lecturer in International Law and Security at the University of Reading where he is also Director of the Global Law Programmes (PGT) and Deputy Director of Global Law at Reading.
Dr Michelle Bentley is Reader in International Relations and Director of the Royal Holloway Centre for International Security (RHISC) at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Dr Nasir M Ali is Director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Hargeisa.
Nicola Antoniou was Senior Lecturer in Law and Director of the Legal Advice Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London during the project tenure.
Dr Daniela Lai is Lecturer in International Relations at Royal Holloway. University of London.