Towards a Stronger Support System for Universities’ Responsible Partnership Practices with UniPID

April 13, 2022
Riina Subra, Aalto Global Impact Director and UniPID Board member

In this edition of the Anniversary Blog, Subra reflects on academic partnerships and on Aalto University's and UniPID's role in providing opportunities to build on the experiences and perspectives to seek global sustainable development.

Maria Kosonen, a student of Aalto University’s Sustainable Global Technologies programme remarked on the occasion of a collaboration with water management stakeholders in Kenya: “During our field work, we realized that interpersonal skills were just as important as technical skills”. Another one observed that “empowering people through livelihood activities can be seen as indirect conservation, as this discourages unsustainable practices”. A third one asked: “how do we know this matters?”

These reactions were not new, and we had heard them many times – they reflect some fundamental and recurrent issues faced by researchers and students in practical engagements with academic partnerships related to global sustainability.

Under the wide scope of academic programmes targeting sustainable development challenges, Aalto University has in recent years increased projects that build on the perspectives of different stakeholder groups in the Global South. Activities with students and faculty aim to generate reflection on topics such as power dynamics, stakeholder analyses, fieldwork practices and methods of co-creation in asymmetrical and heterogeneous groups. The interest of participants from various academic fields has been palpable.

Universities are essential actors in the reciprocal engagement and joint reflections between countries in the Global North and the Global South

Feedback from the university’s courses and interdisciplinary research projects point consistently to some recurrent topics, for example the intertwined nature (nexus) of sustainable development goals and of academic initiatives representing different research topics and fields; the need to embed broader contextual and ethical considerations into project design; and the significant weight and workload arising from carefully managed co-creation activities, when these aim to genuinely address the viewpoints of participants from very different backgrounds.

Partnership work is very intense and also personal, as observed in Niina Käyhkö’s reflection. Each project and organisation seek alignment between stakeholders, ideas, resources, aims, and institutions. Sometimes institutional hurdles are the hardest to overcome, and individual knowledge, commitment and facilitation skills can make all the difference.

All these personal experiences point out to systematic patterns in academic partnerships between Finnish universities and their Global South partners. Such patterns arise partly from prevailing policies and financing mechanisms, and partly from the ethically demanding context of North-South cooperation. In addition to academic knowledge creation, cultural and institutional distances need to be deliberately reconciled, and the impacts of joint activities anticipated and accounted for.

From the point of view of a single research, education, or innovation project, the task can be daunting. UniPID has over its 20-year history built a convening role, hosting cross-university activities and facilitating information sharing between universities and national policy-making platforms related to global development. This knowledge-sharing role is expressed in the form of continuous dialogues but also the production of more targeted tools, such as the virtual studies programme.

A promising example of UniPID’s contribution in facilitating best practices across the Finnish higher education sector is the emerging cooperation with the Finnish HEIs’ global networks recently formed with support from the Ministry of Education and Culture. Together with the networks, UniPID has planned a training to strengthen HEI actors’ and their partners’ knowledge and understanding of the ethical issues that may arise when building partnerships between the Global North and the Global South. The training aims to help prevent risks, and to develop more reciprocal and responsible research, education, and innovation activities. Read more about the people behind the Training here!

Another contribution on the same topic is the initiative of UniPID’s working group on ethical guidelines. Last year, UniPID initiated collaboration with the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity (TENK) to create a set of complementary guidelines for Global South related research and academic partnerships. Through such efforts, Finnish universities and academics can gain conceptual frameworks and practical tools for creating more responsible and equitable approaches in research and cooperation. This can significantly help bridge gaps and alleviate workloads in individual projects.

Universities are essential actors in the reciprocal engagement and joint reflections between countries in the Global North and the Global South. The unfolding parallel ecological and geopolitical crises and changing dynamics between countries underscore the need to build academic communities equipped with resources to implement this work. In Finland, this highlights the increased need for genuinely global knowledge sharing and support to academic communities, and UniPID’s concrete engagement now seems all the more pertinent, a reason to celebrate the future on its 20th anniversary.


Photo description and credits: Brainstorming with a water user association in Kamwene as part of the Sustainable Water Management student project with Water Sector Trust Fund in Kenya (Felipe DaSilva, 2020)