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Teaching peace and conflict in Higher Education - the need for a changing dynamic in a changing world

Elizabeth Mc Donnell    August 2012

The field of peace and conflict studies (PCS) first emerged in response to the destruction wrought by the Second World War and continues to evolve and grow in response to the challenges to peace arising from an ever-increasing world population, poverty and inequality, climate change and global movements of peoples.  The 2005 riots in Paris and those in London in 2011 indicate that there is a need to build capacities in all societies for addressing conflict creatively and for collaborative problem-solving if such conflicts are not to take a negative destructive path and end in violence and long term damage. The growing recognition of the need and role of peacebuilding is creating new opportunities for qualified professionals and thus increasing the demand for education and training in the field.

However, herein lies somewhat of a paradox. There is no clearly defined discipline of peace and conflict studies nor of the field of peacebuilding - there are many divergent interpretations of they are and the context of operation and application is in constant flux.  In academia, there is no agreement on a core curriculum or on core competencies for graduate education in peace and conflict studies, resulting in a lack of coherence across academic provision. The field is interdisciplinary in nature and draws on many areas of the social sciences including political science, history, psychology, international relations and sociology.  This brings benefits but also generates difficulties in creating educational programmes that are adaptable and flexible to changing student demands and needs.  The place and role of Higher Education (HE) is coming under challenge and scrutiny. Increasing competition, decline in public funding, change in student populations and attitudes, and rapid technological advances are drivers for change that will continue to grow. The potential of open educational resources (OERs) has yet to be realized but their impacts on educational provision could be transformative. Phelen (2012) queries the role of teaching and academic institutions in a world that makes it possible for the creative learner to seek out and put together a learning package for themselves outside of any formal HE institutional setting, especially if novel approaches to validation and accreditation become accepted and recognized.  In the field of practice, the boundaries between security, peacemaking, humanitarian aid, development and peacebuilidng are becoming increasingly blurred and there is no consensus on what constitutes a ‘peace professional’.   Yet the concepts of a duty of care and ‘do no harm’ are central to addressing the needs, and working with the  vulnerabilities, of those who are experiencing, or have experienced, the devastating impacts of violence and war.  Education and training has a critical role to play in ensuring the preparedness of professionals to work in this complex field and to provide them with grounding in the relevant knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Given such issues, a study was undertaken on behalf of the Higher Education Academy on the teaching of peace and conflict in UK Higher Education institutions and a workshop held on the topic of ‘Connecting the study of peace and conflict with professional practice’ at the Open University in London.  The workshop brought together 25 participants from academic institutions and practitioner organizations, all of whom engaged enthusiastically with the topics of discussion and considered the opportunity to meet in such a way to be very timely and beneficial to all involved.  The study showed that peace and conflict study programmes are spread across a range of disciplines and departments in UK universities and that the approach taken in course content and teaching is  primarily of an ‘academic’ nature i.e. placing emphasis on learning of theory and its application, developing skills in critical inquiry, analysis and evaluation and building research capability. 

From the workshop and ongoing discussions in a Linkedin group, the existence of a divide between academic and practitioners is acknowledged.  For some, the divide shows itself as a seeming arrogance by students and academic researchers and a lack of appreciation of the problems faced by communities in situations of violence or post-violence.  Academic researchers show little empathy with their "subjects" and little realization to what extent conflict can take a toll on a population, and how being looked at as a 'dataset' can be. This can lead to highly questionable ethical practices and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at grassroots level get stuck with the consequences. On the other hand, practitioners may show a lack of appreciation and knowledge of what it is academics do and assume that they lack capacity to do anything useful on the ground.  However, these are generalised views and do not reflect those of all practitioners or all academics, especially as some continually criss-cross academic-practitioner boundaries.

The study and discussions show an immense goodwill and interest between practitioners and academics to collaborate, to learn from each other and contribute to developing learning and teaching in peace and conflict. They acknowledge that the ‘divide’ between them creates wariness, suspicion and lack of recognition of the inherent value in each and the potential greater value in unity.  Practitioners have many questions regarding peacebuilding and methodologies that academics could help to answer and, in turn, have access to data of use to academic researchers. Combining the two ways of seeing gives the best of both worlds- scholars could add a practical dimension to their work and practitioners a scholarly aspect.  Opportunities for training and gaining practical experience could be negotiated as well as bringing an awareness of the assumptions and bias that external interveners bring coming into a situation from their own cultural context.  The benefits could be extended to the communities with whom practitioners work.  Translating academic language and concepts into simpler words (which does not mean simplifying the idea) and using accessible language enables local people and practitioners to own the processes of peacebuilding rather than seeing them as something complicated being done by outsiders. In turn, conveying their own work in terms that the academic community can more easily understand supports the appropriate framing of both research and application in practice.

References and further reading

Botes, Johannes (Jannie) (2004) Graduate Peace & Conflict Studies Programs: Reconsidering Their Problems & Prospects Conflict Management in Higher Education Report, Volume 5, Number 1, Sept 2004   Accessed 26th July 2012

Carstarphen, N., Zelizer, C., Harris, R. and Smith, D.J (2010) Graduate Education and Professional Practice in International Peace and Conflict United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 246. Accessed 26th July 2012

Fitzduff, Mari (2006) Core Competencies for Graduate Programs in Coexistence and Conflict Work—Can We Agree? Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, Leadership Series notes, Issue no. 1, September 2006  Accessed 26th July 2012

Kubler, Jay and Sayers, Nicola (2010), Higher Education Futures: Key Themes and Implications for Leadership and Management, Research and Development, Series 2, Publication 4.1, The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, London, UK 

Olcott Jr., Don (2012): OER perspectives: emerging issues for universities,  Distance Education, 33:2, 283-290.  Accessed 15th August 2012

Phelan, Liam (2012), Politics, practices, and possibilities of open educational resources, Distance Education, 33:2, 279-282, Accessed 15th August 2012

Windmueller, John, Wayne, Ellen Kabcenell and Botes, Johannes (Jannie) (2009) Core Competencies: The Challenge for Graduate Peace and Conflict Studies Education International Review of Education (2009) 55:285–301, Springer 2009

World Development Report (2011) Conflict, Security and Development, The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank

Accessed 25th July 2012

Zelizer, Craig and Johnston, Linda  (2005) Skills, Networks & Knowledge: Developing a Career in International Peace and Conflict Resolution  Alliancefor Conflict Transformation (ACT) Inc., 2005 Accessed July 26th 2012