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Apex University

Founded by the IMO and based in Malmö, Sweden, WMU has become a global center of excellence for maritime and ocean studies

doumbia henry
Image courtesy WMU

Published Sep 15, 2021 1:50 AM by Tony Munoz

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2021 edition.)

In 1983, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) founded the World Maritime University (WMU) in Malmö, Sweden to grant postgraduate degrees in maritime studies, sustainable ocean education, maritime law and transportation logistics. At the time, the IMO recognized a growing shortage of highly educated maritime professionals, especially in developing nations.  

“As the IMO’s apex institution for postgraduate studies,” says WMU’s President, Dr. Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, “WMU’s mission is to be the world center of excellence in postgraduate maritime and oceans education, professional training and research while building global capacity and promoting sustainable development.”  

That’s a tall order for anyone, but not Doumbia-Henry. After a long and successful career at the International Labour Organization, she was appointed in 2015 as the first woman President of WMU and the first from a developing country. She quickly set about putting WMU on a new course focused on climate change, sustainable development and – most importantly – the empowerment of women, especially women from developing countries like herself.

To fulfill its mission, the university offers Master’s and Doctorate degrees in maritime and ocean disciplines ranging from Transport & Logistics and Maritime Safety & Environmental Management to International Maritime Law & Ocean Policy. Each year, students from over 50 countries come to the Malmö campus. They all have either undergraduate degrees or the highest grade certificate of competency for unrestricted service as a master mariner or chief engineer and have generally spent at least five years in the maritime industry.

Importantly, most live together in the student residence and, in the true spirit of the United Nations (U.N.), develop a unique cultural understanding and camaraderie, creating international connections that will serve them and the international maritime and ocean communities for decades to come in achieving a more sustainable future for all.

“Many of our graduates represent their countries on various committees of the IMO,” says Doumbia-Henry, “while a number of IMO staff have graduated from WMU – including the current Secretary-General, Kitack Lim.” Others assume positions of prominence such as senior maritime officials, directors of shipping companies and ports, and heads of maritime academies and naval organizations.

Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders

“WMU plays a crucial role in educating the maritime leaders of tomorrow,” says Doumbia-Henry. “As part of the U.N. system, it’s the embodiment of the principle that education is the engine of economic growth, promoting social justice and inclusive societies.”

In 2005, it established programs at Shanghai Maritime University and Dalian Maritime University in China to extend its reach to a new and emerging clientele and help fulfill its “capacity-building” role in developing countries. The programs have been a huge success, and China today has the most WMU graduates of any country.

In addition, WMU offers distance learning and professional development programs in partnership with DNV and Lloyd’s Maritime Academy and a Maritime Welfare Program in partnership with the ITF Seafarers Trust.

“We also have a unique Field Study program that sets WMU apart,” says Doumbia-Henry. “Each year, under non-pandemic circumstances, students in the Malmö MSc program benefit from field studies hosted by organizations including maritime administrations, port authorities, shipping companies and a range of other governmental and non-governmental organizations around the world.”

Typically, students visit four different Field Study destinations during their time at WMU in locations across Asia, Europe and Latin America. Field studies link the students’ academic and technical knowledge to practical experience, providing them with valuable insights on professional practices around the world.

In terms of ocean research, the WMU-Sasakawa Global Ocean Institute (GOI) was established in 2018 as an integral part of WMU to promote sustainable oceans and resource policies. The overall objective is to bring together policymakers, scientists, regulators, academia and the public to better build consensus and define management strategies for sustainable ocean policies.

The IMO International Maritime Law Institute (IMLI) in Malta and WMU jointly offer a Master of Philosophy in International Maritime Law and Ocean Policy. The program assists professionals in developing maritime policies regarding the U.N. 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The IMLI is also a huge advocate in providing female candidates with fifty percent access to its programs and courses.

As a global center of excellence established within the framework of the IMO, WMU is able to provide unique insights into the maritime and ocean sectors and has an unparalleled connection to the IMO.

Its expansive maritime network and connection to the U.N. system give it unrivalled access to a global network of experts, knowledge and capacity-building while supporting governments, organizations and the industry worldwide, including with knowledge and expertise to support the implementation of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs).

Sustainable Development

As the educational arm of the IMO and U.N. for maritime and oceans, WMU has integrated the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (Ocean Decade) into its curriculum. The U.N. and IMO’s Member States have been tasked with establishing oversight of their regions and protecting oceans through observation, hazard mitigation, tsunami warnings and marine spatial planning.  

“WMU is well-positioned to deliver tangible contributions to the U.N. 2030 Agenda through recognized excellence in maritime and ocean education, research, scholarship and capacity-building on maritime and ocean matters,” says Doumbia-Henry, “as well as strengthened collaboration with the IMO and other U.N. bodies. The university is continually focused on supporting IMO Member States and maritime industry stakeholders in the implementation of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and, in particular, the goals that are of direct relevance to the maritime and ocean agendas.”

The Ocean Decade is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for nations to engage with one another through common scientific and policy goals to strengthen sustainability efforts for the benefit of all. Unfortunately, despite improved management and conservation, the U.N.’s first World Ocean Assessment found that the ocean is now seriously degraded. As the world’s population is estimated to reach nine billion people by 2050, the environmental impacts by humans will only increase.

Much work needs to be done, and WMU is helping to lead the way with significant maritime and ocean research focused on decarbonization and other pivotal topics.

Empowering Women 

The IMO and WMU have been staunch advocates of promoting and empowering women in the maritime industry. On World Oceans Day on June 8, 2021, the agenda for the Ocean Decade began with endorsing the goal of empowering women in the industry.

“WMU’s mission is to help promote change in the maritime industry,” says Doumbia-Henry, “and we’re sparing no effort in contributing to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal 5: ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.’ Unfortunately, women’s participation in seafaring is as low as it was twenty-five years ago at roughly two percent.”

The situation is different at WMU, thanks to Doumbia-Henry’s leadership, and the university is making rapid progress in pursuing gender equality in its own programs. Both of the MSc programs in Shanghai and Dalian have reached gender parity with 50/50 male/female enrollment, and enrollment in the Malmö MSc is roughly 30 percent women – a substantial improvement from the 1990s when women made up less than five percent of the student population.

“A proactive recruitment strategy with strong support from fellowship donors has resulted in the proportion of female students rising significantly,” she adds. “Out of our 5,392 graduates, 1,181 are female.”

The WMU-Sasakawa Global Ocean Institute is also advancing gender equality through its Empowering Women for the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science program, which was recently endorsed by IOC-UNESCO as an Ocean Decade Action. “Overall, we’re working diligently to ensure women are aware of maritime and oceans opportunities in their broadest perspectives,” Doumbia-Henry says.

Securing the Future

“One of my major objectives as current President is to ensure that a strong Endowment Fund is in place to secure the long-term future of WMU,” says Doumbia-Henry. “To this end, we’ve launched a ‘Stewards of the Sea’ campaign to achieve the strategic objective of long-term financial stability and independence of the university.”

When the university was founded in the early 1980s, then IMO Secretary-General C.P. Srivastava approached the Swedish government concerning its interest in hosting the World Maritime University. Sweden embraced the opportunity, providing generous support, and the City of Malmö (a short ferry ride across the Øresund Strait from Copenhagen) became the home of WMU.

The university today is still largely funded through voluntary contributions with significant support from the Government of Sweden and the City of Malmö. Among the major supporters are The Nippon Foundation, the ITF and the ITF Seafarers Trust, the TK Foundation and the governments of Canada, Cyprus, Korea and the U.K.

In addition, the majority of students receive fellowships that are donor-funded or have their studies funded by their employer. But more needs to be done, and building the endowment is the key.

“The work that takes place at WMU is invaluable and must be ensured as we continue to educate the maritime leaders of tomorrow,” says Doumbia-Henry. “As someone who directly benefited from the generosity of scholarship donors who funded my university education and Ph.D. studies, I am highly motivated to ensure as many WMU students, especially those from the developing world, are afforded fellowship opportunities to benefit from WMU’s highly specialized education in maritime and ocean affairs, which would otherwise not be within their reach.” 

Tony Munoz is Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.