Events and public defences
Elina Härkönen. Photo: Teemu Härkönen.

Doctoral Dissertation: Culturally Diverse Place-specificity of Art Education in Higher Education Promotes the Integration of International Student Groups


In her doctoral dissertation, Elina Härkönen examines the actualisation of the principles of cultural sustainability in international art education in higher education. The study shows that place-specific teaching, which in its pedagogical orientation takes cultural diversity into account, promotes both local and cultural sustainability as well as integration of student groups.

MA, M.Ed. Elina Härkönen's doctoral dissertation asks how the practices of international art education can be developed towards greater cultural sustainability. The study pays particular attention to the ways in which place-specificity and sense of community have been implemented in international visual art education at the university level. The examination focuses specifically on the community-based study modules of the University of Lapland's Degree Programmes in Art Education and Applied Visual Arts, which have engaged international student groups and local communities.

In her study, Härkönen has, for example, investigated how the principles of cultural sustainability – such as promoting locality, cultural diversity and cultural vitality – can support the development of practices of international art education in higher education and facilitate and promote student integration. Studies conducted at the global level have repeatedly shown that internationalisation of universities is accelerating and international students are experiencing challenges with integration into the local culture and local student groups in the host country. At the same time, one of the primary objectives set for higher education institutions by UNESCO's agenda 2030 is to promote sustainable development, cultural diversity and integration in teaching.

Härkönen's study shows that art education in higher education which acknowledges place-specificity and cultural diversity promotes integration of students coming from diverse backgrounds in a culturally sustainable manner.

"According to the international students who participated in my study, authentic learning environments are highly significant in the process of growing into the local culture. The study modules I examined included student-led workshops organised jointly with various local communities in the North. Studies including authentic collaboration with local communities help students to make culturally sustainable decisions when planning community-based art activities. They also expand the cultural knowledge and cultural sensitivity of both the participating international students and the local inhabitants, and are in line with the objectives of UNESCO," says Härkönen.

Contemporary art, cultural heritage and collaboration as a common intercultural language

The main challenges involved in the community-based studies examined by Härkönen were related to communication. In the absence of a common language, it was, at times, difficult to understand cultural nuances, which was reflected as a certain cautiousness that some students assumed in implementing the activities, including their dealings with the locals. The research suggests that the forms of contemporary art, the familiar elements of cultural heritage, and doing things together function as a common intercultural language and can thus enhance the sense of community.

"After all, spoken language is only one way of communicating with others. In its absence, we can use the languages of art and action and discover a different kind of sameness and familiarity. Contemporary art in culturally diverse groups also allows us to look at our familiar ways with new eyes. As a local myself, I have gained new insights into culture of Lapland through working with my international students," Härkönen states.

In addition to the research conducted by Härkönen, her dissertation also includes an artistic part in which she examines discussions sparked in the course of implementing the study modules of the research part. Her artistic work moves at the interfaces of traditional handicraft, plant dyeing, and contemporary art. The artworks touch upon the diverse cultural heritage of the North and thinking through hands, and the main material used in the works is wool yarn. This is related to Härkönen's cultural background in the Torne River Valley and the heritage of previous generations in knitting and making things with hands.

Artwork "Älä mene vielä / Please don't leave yet" by Elina Härkönen (2020).
The artwork "Älä mene vielä / Please don't leave yet" (2020) is about losing a landscape. The starting point for the work is a forest scenery of Härkönen's childhood, which is related to loss of a close person, and with it, loss of the past knowledge associated with the landscape. Härkönen has dyed the wool yarn used in the artwork using meadow plants, mushrooms and cultivated plants collected from Central Lapland. Image: Elina Härkönen.

"I have created some of these works independently and some others together with other people. By doing things together with others I have had the opportunity to enter into dialogue with my students, colleagues, and the local communities about maintaining traditions, which is the way 'cultural sustainability' is often – rather straightforwardly – understood. However, what has emerged through the discussions and the process of creating the artworks is the understanding that living in the present moment and accepting change when it is necessary are considered the most important, and cultural heritage should also be viewed from this perspective. Cultural activities, too, have to be examined critically in relation to the earth's ecological carrying capacity. Cultural heritage also means living in the moment and ethical examination of our activities with the future generations in mind," says Härkönen.

Information on the public defence

MA, M.Ed. Elina Härkönen's doctoral dissertation Seeking culturally sustainable art education in higher education. A Northern perspective will be publicly examined by permission of the Faculty of Art and Design of the University of Lapland on Friday 10 September 2021 at 12:00 in the Esko and Asko Hall (University of Lapland main building, F-wing, Yliopistonkatu 8, Rovaniemi).

DA Tiina Pusa from Aalto University will act as the opponent, and Professor Timo Jokela from the University of Lapland will act as the custos.

The public defence can be followed online at:

The doctoral candidate’s contact information:

Elina Härkönen
elina.harkonen (at)
tel. +358 40 484 4394

Information on the Doctoral Candidate

Elina Härkönen completed her Master of Education degree in the intercultural teacher training programme of the University of Oulu in 2005. She earned her Master of Arts degree from the University of Lapland in 2013, majoring in visual art education. She is currently working as a University Lecturer in the Degree Programme of Art Education at the University of Lapland. She has previously worked as a visual art teacher and class teacher in primary and lower secondary education (basic education) and been involved in several international projects at the University of Lapland.

Information about the publication

Elina Härkönen: Seeking culturally sustainable art education in higher education. A Northern perspective. Acta electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis 314. ISBN 978-952-337-268-9, ISSN 1796-6310, Lapin yliopisto, Rovaniemi, 2021.

Permanent link to the dissertation: