Universities have demonstrated to the world during the COVID-19 crisis why their expertise matters and why international collaboration in higher education is needed to solve the world’s pressing challenges, say the leaders of a conglomeration of international university organisations representing more than 2,000 institutions worldwide.

So now is the time for the international community to recognise the fundamental importance of higher education to achieving all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS), which aim to end poverty, protect the planet, foster gender equality, defend and promote cultures and cultural understanding, and ensure prosperity for all, they say, and for universities to dedicate themselves to helping the world achieve those goals.

This was the message delivered by the leaders of the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF), the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and the International Association of Universities (IAU) to the United Nations High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) 2020, which met online this week (7-16 July) to focus on progress towards the UN-led 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of IAU and executive director of the International Universities Bureau, who has been working with IAU for two decades to help make higher education a key driver of societal change, told University World News that, whereas in the past universities were not even mentioned in relation to the previous set of UN goals – the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – there is now a concerted effort to push the 2030 Agenda throughout higher education and to push for recognition of higher education’s key driving role in achieving the SDGs.

“Sustainable development has been on the agenda of universities since the Brundtland Report [published by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987], so universities have been asked to embark on the whole agenda and ensure that the hundreds and thousands of graduates they produce have a good understanding of sustainable development and their role in society, especially when they take up leadership roles,” van’t Land says.

She says within higher education there has been a lot of progress in terms of embedding sustainable development at all levels in institutions, in classes, in education for sustainability, in sustainable development-based research, and a lot more collaboration around the world between disciplines and stakeholders in society.

“So I am quite optimistic as to where we can go. Where I am still critical is that many of the stakeholders working within context of Agenda 2030 still do not see higher education as key stakeholders for moving it forward.

“Inside institutions, leadership, staff and students are aware of the agenda and how they have to engage, but the leaders around the world could liaise with higher education much better.”

Joanna Newman, secretary general of ACU, told University World News: “What we would love to achieve, in this our third year attending the HLPF, is recognition of the important role higher education plays in achieving all 17 SDGS.

“Up to 2015, the MDGs didn’t include higher education in them; it was not acknowledged. Still today, if we talk to developing governments and NGOs, most see education up to Year 12 as the most important goal. And in terms of funding recommendations to be given by the UN, higher education is still not there.”

Newman says higher education is included in SDG 4 (Quality education) but goes beyond that because “if you don’t build up higher education systems in developing contexts just as in the developed world, you will have primary teachers who are not fit for purpose or secondary teachers who are supposed to be teaching in English but are not doing so, you won’t have good content and won’t have the research needed to solve problems across all SDGs”.

The answers “need to come from the developing world just as from superpowers”, she says.

Newman says the common agenda of ACU, AUF and IAU makes their conglomeration a powerful voice for higher education at the UN.

For Slim Khalbous, rector of AUF, the strength of the relationship between the world’s three largest global academic associations lies in the complementarity in terms of geographical presence, cultural background, institutional organisation and priority themes.

“Consequently, I believe that the memorandum of understanding signed between our three organisations emphasises this diversity, which is necessary for a more active and more recognised role for higher education in the world,” he told University World News.

Newman says: “What we want in a year’s time is recognition that part of education spending a government has to make to its country is consideration of tertiary education and the need to create a bridge from school to university or college through which students will benefit the country they live in enormously.”

Currently a number of countries don’t spend much money on higher education at all, Newman says. “Just look at the gross enrolment rate. It’s 36% on average across the world, 8% in Kenya and 2% in Pakistan. This is not enough.

“At the moment, if you want a good higher education in some countries, the elite get a scholarship or pay and go somewhere else, but the majority of the world population who have the ability to go to university have stark choices to make because there is not enough money spent on building capacity in tertiary education.”

She says COVID-19 has exposed huge inequalities in higher education, which are far higher in Sub-Saharan African countries.

“The big divide is the lack of reliable access to data, downloading being very slow and bandwidths being too low to work online. These are things that governments can tackle; for instance, Ghana recently gave students grants so that they could have access. But there are serious infrastructure issues that need improving. Around the Commonwealth most are trying to get ready for a September start, but some are closed due to data issues.

“Until data speeds and coverage are equal, the world will still be divided by those who can learn and those who can’t.”

Despite all this, Newman says, universities have been incredibly creative during the pandemic, in making masks and ventilators and moving online.

Khalbous says that since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the AUF has launched a worldwide call for projects with immediate impact carried directly by students, student-engineers or young researchers, and has received nearly 2,000 projects.

International collaboration valued

“Universities did not have very good press before the crisis of COVID-19, but the type of international collaboration underpinning the research for a vaccine can only be done by collaboration between universities globally. So international collaboration through virtual means has never been better,” Newman says.

“In research, the Scopus chart on international collaborations on COVID-19 is very rich. Usually it would be blank over Sub-Saharan Africa, but this is really global,” she says.

Van’t Land says COVID-19 has offered an opportunity to “revisit what we do and how to do it”. This is because engagement of higher education institutions on the future has been fostered much more in past months and she hopes that, for instance, when policies need to be drafted, and answers to global challenges developed, universities will be invited to the table more often than ever before.

“It has been more to do with the health crisis so far, but now has to do with the social and economic crisis; this has grown over the past month. There is a rapprochement between the higher education community and policy-makers. They are consulted more.”

She says in the past universities were criticised for working too much in silos, but the sustainable development agenda has pushed for better interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary research, as well as the international collaboration that is needed for a more complex world.

The IAU has developed a global cluster on sustainable development where it invites universities from around the world to focus on one SDG and build international cooperation with up to 11 – but at least five – universities around the world and the aim is to “look at all the dynamics required to apply to one SDG”.

Is that not siloing? “No, because everyone is aware that no SDG can be solved if you don’t look at others, if don’t look at better jobs, water management, climate change, for instance. That is where the dynamics come in; all universities working very collaboratively across disciplines,” Van’t Land says.

IAU has 17 universities – one for each SDG – each working with 11 other universities from five continents, from Iran to Colombia, China, France and Sweden for instance.

Van’t Land says such collaboration can work well despite the neo-nationalist context in some countries because universities still benefit from a bit of autonomy in those contexts.

In the United States for instance, sustainable development remains high on the agenda and even if President Donald Trump does pull out of the World Health Organization, universities will continue to work on those issues.

“Another example is Brazil, where [President Jair] Bolsonaro is trying to get out of international cooperation, but universities themselves are increasingly creative and strongly committed to these international agendas,” van’t Land says.

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