Students in different corners of Europe feel that diversity and global citizenship are promoted unequally by their educational institutions. Gender, racial and ethnic representation in educational marketing and promoting diversity are important in the development of a sense of belonging to an academic community.

Author: Jaana Häkli

GLOBDIVES-project develops teachers’ and students’ understanding of diversity and global citizenship and has conducted qualitative research on how these concepts are understood by students and teachers as well as by representatives of companies and non-governmental organizations. In addition, a quantitative survey was conducted among students on their understanding of diversity, global citizenship, and United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The same survey was conducted in project partner countries in Lithuania, Romania, Germany, Spain and in Finland. In total 1149 responses were received through a Webropol-survey. This article discusses the question about whether, in students’ opinion, the home institution is creating awareness for diversity and global citizenship. In addition, impacts of representation are addressed from different points of view.

How to promote diversity and global citizenship?

In Finland key competences to be taught in all degrees produced by universities of applied sciences have been suggested and described by Arene ry (2022). According to their recommendation shared competences include Learning to Learn, Operating in a Workplace, Ethics, Sustainable Development, Internationality and Multiculturalism as well as Proactive Development. From these competences Sustainable Development as well as Internationality and Multiculturalism are directly connected with sustainable development goals, with SDGs 4 and 10 and hence with global citizenship education and diversity. International students also form a significant student body at LAB University of Applied Sciences. According to Vipunen (2022), in total 1118 international students study at LAB University of Applied Sciences. From them 976 come from outside the European Union and 142 from EU countries. These students represent 87 nationalities for which Vietnamese, Russians, Nepali, Bangladeshi and Nigerians form the biggest nationalities.

According to the student survey clear differences can be seen whether the institutions in project partner countries promote diversity and global citizenship. Only 53 % (n = 182) of students studying at LAB University of Applied Sciences who answered the survey in Finnish felt that their educational institution is promoting global citizenship and diversity. This figure is clearly lower compared with answers from partner countries. In addition, 69 % (n = 65) of international students studying at LAB University of Applied Sciences responded that their educational institution is raising awareness for diversity and global citizenship. From project partners 80 % (n = 242) of Romanian students, 73 % (n = 228) of Lithuanian students, 70 % (n = 90) of German students and 63 % (n= 89) of Spanish students respectively responded that their educational institution promotes diversity and global citizenship. According to the survey, this is done mostly integrated into other professional courses, during intensive programmes, through communication on institution’s social media platforms as well as on its website. More active promotion for diversity and global citizenship should be done in all corners of Europe, so that in the future these figures would be higher.

Promoting equality, inclusivity, and social justice

Representation of gender, racial and ethnic diversity is one integral way to boost diversity and inclusivity (McKinsey & Company 2020). Representation opens doors for more opportunities, voices, and journeys to be heard. Racial and ethnic presentation is a crucial aspect of promoting equality, inclusivity, and social justice in various spheres of life including media, politics, workplaces as well as educational institutions. Due to increase in work-based immigration and second-generation immigrants, it is also expected that racial makeup in Finland is changing as in 2022 almost 50,000 immigrants moved to Finland among others from Russia, India, Turkey, and the Philippines (Tilastokeskus 2023). Similar tendences can be found in countries which have been multicultural for clearly longer such as the US, where already in 2018 nation’s population was nearly 40 % non-white. The minority share of the US population is growing by nearly half a percent each year. (U.S. Census Bureau 2022.) Through representation the lives of those disenfranchised by racism and discrimination are validated and supported. In the United States the change in representation started especially from the film and entertainment industry where a societal movements such as Black Lives Matter brought questions of equal representation into fore. Despite the success of blockbuster movies such as Black Panther, Woman King and Crazy Rich Asians, people of colour have been in the leading role in only 39.7 of movies in the United States in 2021, the highest on record, whereas the figure was just 13.7 in 2019. (Hollywood Diversity Report 2021.) Diversity sells according to the UCLA report and hence representation of racial and ethnic diversity should concern higher education institutions as well as they are trying to attract international students obliged to pay tuition fees outside of the European Union.

Representation is important in breaking stereotypes and challenging unconscious biases. It helps in challenging and breaking down existing, especially negative stereotypes and biases that have started to exist over time. E.g. positive LGBTQ+ representation has supported opinions about LGBTQ+ people and their rights, including same-sex marriage in the United States (Nadal 2021). When people with a different racial or ethnic background are depicted accurately and successfully, understanding and empathy are promoted. Media showcases often white-skinned, blonde, and heterosexual individuals who are, look like and behave like most Finns do. Cultural and racial diversity is often not shown in Finnish media even though this is luckily changing. People of colour, people representing an ethnic minority or people with disabilities have become a more common sight in Finnish media and are also represented more e.g. in social media platforms of higher education institutions. Companies and institutions of higher education have a social role and must take an active role in supporting diversity, equity and inclusion as social consciousness is rising.

Visibility, empowerment, and improved product development

Racial and ethnic representation is important also due to visibility and empowerment. Representation provides visibility to marginalized racial groups and allows them to see themselves reflected in different fields and positions of power. This visibility is essential for fostering a sense of empowerment, self-worth, and belonging among individuals who may have historically been underrepresented or misrepresented. Their experiences and perspectives are seen as important. Representation allows people to dream big about their futures and encourages them to experience something new at a new academic institution. It gives a message that these people are seen, heard, and listened to. With the help of tools of storytelling representation can be enhanced. A sense of pride surfaces when in the media somebody like me is being portrayed. “I could be that person.” “There are other people like me.” “I can be included in the group of others.” (Nadal 2021.) People belonging to marginalized groups do not pursue career or academic opportunities if they do not find role models and finding role models can be empowering. Even second-generation immigrants have been found to face discrimination and biases based on their skin colour, ethnicity or family name and hence their paths to enter higher education or job market in Finland are different (Riala 2020). In Finland immigrants in general, but young immigrant women in particular, have been pushed to study care despite of their personal interests, experiences and needs simply because they are considered immigrants. Hence, exploitative racism occurs as e.g. second-generation immigrants are guided to study nursing instead of encouraged to apply for studying medicine in the university. (Kurki 2019.) By promoting diversity through representation, educational institutions can work towards dismantling systematic discrimination together with others. When people from different racial backgrounds are given equal opportunities to participate and excel, it challenges the structural barriers that have hindered progress for marginalized communities. Representation matters because it shows that the organization values diversity and inclusion and is committed to making it into a better, more inclusive organization.

Racial and ethnic representation broadens perspectives, cultural exchange and fosters a more inclusive understanding of the world. By including diverse voices and experiences, a broader range of perspectives and ideas is gained that can lead to innovation and creativity that is important for example in product development and marketing, not just of educational institutions, but in general in business. Consumers want companies and their brands to acknowledge that people are different and to showcase diversity, equity, and inclusion in their marketing. The same can be applied to the marketing communications of higher education institutions. According to an American study completed at Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 64 % of people were moved to action after seeing a diverse and inclusive ad, but then again only 1.1 % of ads included people with disabilities. 69 % of black Americans were more likely to buy the brand that reflect their race / ethnicity. Similarly, LGBTQ+ community members are more likely to buy products and services from a company that supports them even though according to research findings only in 0.7 % of American adverts same-sex couples were found. (Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media 2023.) Representation and inclusion matter as you feel validated and motivated to apply for example. Educational institutions such as LAB University of Applied Sciences brand themselves against their competitors and in the global competition of talents, these kinds of issues matter.

From feelings of othering to a sense of belonging

A student’s experience of belonging to his academic environment during studies is important and enhances student’s integration and well-being. A greater sense of belonging correlates positively with learning, academic excellence, and student retention. A welcoming environment is critical in creating a sense of belonging. (O’Keeffe 2013.) Gender, racial and ethnic representation in educational marketing can also impact young potential applicants who are in the process of making important decisions about their future careers, profoundly. When young adults see in alumni stories, visuals aids on websites and e.g. in social media posts of the educational institution role models who have experienced success and people they can related to, they are also inspired to dream big, to apply to the educational institution, to overcome obstacles and to pursue their goals. Showcasing individuals of different racial backgrounds engaged in joint educational activities portrays the diversity of the academic community and celebrates it through the reflection of their traditions, languages, and different perspectives in thinking. Especially when it comes to international students from non-EU countries applying for international degree programmes, educational institutions should not forget that this young adult might be the first one in his family to pursue a degree in higher education while his grandparents might be even illiterate or have not been allowed to go to school. On a diverse campus student stories are very different from another. Representation must be followed by equity – when it no longer matters who you are, where you come from or what is one’s cultural background. Representation can also fail to address social inequalities and in that regard, it is important to keep in mind that racial and ethnic representation in educational marketing should be meaningful and authentic and not tokenistic or superficial. In this way the academic community can be harmonious to everyone.

Inclusion in higher education is indispensable for social justice and talent development reasons. It is also directly linked to the development of Sustainable Development Goal 4 and Target 4.3. (Salmi 2020.) It should not be forgotten either that internationality and multiculturalism as well as sustainable development are recommended by Arene ry (2022) as key competences to be shared in all degrees produced by universities of applied sciences. All these are also important aspects of diversity and global citizenship education which is a goal declared by the United Nations and the Finnish National Agency for Education. (United Nations & Opetushallitus 2023.) According to the UN universities have a responsibility to promote global citizenship by teaching their students that they are members of a large global community and can use their skills and education to contribute to that community (UN). Through Erasmus+ funded GLOBDIVES-project understandings of diversity and global citizenship have developed a lot. A 5-ECTS online course on Diversity Management and Global Citizenship has been created and taught two times already. In addition, project partners are now creating a toolkit for teachers to train them about diversity and how global citizenship education themes and SDGs can be better integrated into teaching.


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Jaana Häkli is a Senior Lecturer at LAB University of Applied Sciences and works as a project manager for the GLOBDIVES project.

Illustration: (CC0)

Published 21.6.2023

Reference to this article

Häkli, J. 2023. Promoting diversity and global citizenship – representation and inclusion matter. LAB RDI Journal. Cited and date of citation. Available at