Higher education’s role in securing a sustainable future: we need to act & transform now – Insights from the discussion at the UNESCO WHEC2022

By the International Association of Universities (IAU)

Reinventing Higher Education in 2022 for the future 

Three conference days in Barcelona at the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022) have passed. The delegation from the International Association of Universities (IAU), including our Member and  Partner  networks, engaged at the conference on site, online and on the sidelines. One highlight was the joint IAU, UNESCO ESD and SDSN/Mission 4.7 Session on Friday, 20 May: Higher Education’s role in securing the future – a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable society. Are universities ready to assume their full responsibility?  

Scary and exciting times for higher education?

Pam Fredman, IAU President, and Patrick Paul Walsh, SDSN Vice President of Education and Director of the SDG Academy, opened this session. Both stressed the need for higher education partnerships and opportunities for positive impacts. Stephen Sterling, Emeritus Professor of Sustainability Education at the Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Plymouth, UK followed with an inspiring keynote. Not wasting any time, Sterling pointed out that inaction in previous decades has caused considerable damage: “We are finding ourselves in the middle of a systemic crisis. Progress on the SDGs is even going backwards”. Saying this, he stressed that now is the time for higher education’s role to counter this trend, to create a future but within planetary boundaries. According to Sterling the contrast between challenges and barriers to transformation on one hand, and opportunities for innovation and hope on the other, characterise the “scary and exciting” times we live in.

In his Keynote, Prof. Sterling emphasised the importance of defining the future we want.

We have come a long way from a purely environmental perspective to a holistic approach to sustainability. The first discussions began in the 1970s in Stockholm (1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment), then to two UNESCO World Higher Education Conferences in 1998 and 2000, the Berlin UNESCO World Conference on ESD in May 2021, and now UNESCO WHEC 2022. Yet, how will we move forward to reach the SDGs for 2030 and beyond? 

How to respond and ensure transformation? 

A panel of experts illustrated possible next steps as well as examples of actions underway. One framework for action is comes from the UNESCO ESD for 2030 Roadmap, as presented by Jun Morohashi, Acting Chief of Section of Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO. She emphasised that education is the most powerful tool we have – so UNESCO is providing guidance to governments to implement the framework and mobilise resources on a national level.

Strategy, partnerships, action

While we are faced with the challenge of navigating multiple crises on a university and global level, as pointed out by Pornchai Mongkhonvanit, President of Siam University in Thailand, and IAU Vice President, we can observe a positive trend to engage more with sustainability at HEIs, and find examples of good practice and networks to encourage action. One example is the IAU HESD Global Cluster network, of which President Mongkhonvanit is Chair. However, within universities, strategy and coordination of these activities might be the first hurdle. Charles Hopkins, UNESCO Chair in Reorienting Education Toward Sustainability at Canada’s York University, and IAU SDG 4 Cluster Lead, critically remarked that “Sustainability lacks a vision – we are still driving the sustainability bus by looking into the rear-view mirror, we are still looking at what we are trying to get away from”. Hence, we need to be holistic and inclusive. Students are key actors to undertake this transformation. HEIs need to identify strategic opportunities for partnerships and collaboration  so students can engage more. This was further emphasised in the video message from Sherine Omondi, elected member of the Global Student Forum Steering Committee, who represented the voice of the Commonwealth Students Association, Kenya. 

A checklist for transformation

The 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals offer a framework for all education levels, with particular relevance for higher education. Next to taking a whole-institution approach (WIA) and a whole-sector approach (WSA) to reach a more sustainable future are crucial to accelerate the fundamental transformative processes that are needed, all actors in education and in society at large need to be involved, from leadership to students. Leaving No One Behind is not only a principle of SDG 4; it is central for achieving all SDGs. We need a holistic approach to teaching and learning, research and community engagement to trigger true transformation at local, national, regional, and global level.

Drawing on the reflections of the panel, the following “checklist” could be used to judge:

  • Evaluate the 5 C’s: Context, Congruence, Criticality, Commitment and Contribution for reorientation of policy, curricular, pedagogy and actions (Keynote, Sterling)
  • Engage all stakeholders, students, staff and leadership: From accommodating, we need to move to a learning journey for everyone, institutions and individuals, to transformation
  • Response + Ability to make sure that the current and future citizens are equipped with the knowledge and tools to respond to global challenges, to be ready to act and bring forward the systemic changes needed.
  • Strategy and taking the steps needed for bold, structural change now
  • Partnerships and networks to support and multiply
Prof. Stephen Sterling presents his 5 C’s checklist for education reorientation

Advocacy and global perspective

We need to provide evidence on our work and its relevance to stakeholders outside the education sector, notably the policymakers, as Joanna Newman, Secretary-General, Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), laid out. Concretely, this means  demanding that  national governments increase the budget and support for the tertiary sector, and address the “demand and supply issue” in higher education. The partnership between associations such as the ACU, AUF (Agence universitaire de la Francophonie), and IAU, opens up the possibility of co-creating content and wider collaboration for systemic changes in the sector. This resonates with the earlier intervention of Sebastian Berger, Head of the Global Student Forum: “We need unprecedented commitment and alignment for all partnerships to accelerate change in the local, national and international levels. It is crucial to bring together the governments, institutions, student voice and stakeholders to succeed.”

SDSN’s Prof. Patrick Paul Walsh calls on academics to take an active role in promoting the science-policy interface to drive action on the SDGs.

Clearly, 2022 is a critical year, a year facing ever increasing global and local challenges making it a crucial year for education at all levels, from primary to lifelong learning, through to higher education. Universities are key for healthier, greener, fairer, and more inclusive societies. In the quest for sustainable transformation, “ESD and global citizenship education are one of the best cards on our hands, but we have to make sure to play them timely, play them well,” said Sebastian Berger.

Are universities ready to assume their full responsibility? This session showed that they are and need to be recognised as such by governments and society at large. Now is the time, our actions will be crucial for the transformation we need for the future we want.

Watch the session recording below: