HESI Special Event Looks at Higher Education’s Role in Rebuilding for the Future

On 8 July 2020, UNU-IAS co-organised one of six Special Events of this year’s UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) Special Event focused on how higher education can be redesigned to support sustainable development and regeneration, as well as how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the higher education sector. There is not only an opportunity to rebuild in a more inclusive and equitable way, but a pressing need to do so.

Ms. Stefania Giannini (Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO) described how the pandemic had amplified inequalities around the world, stressing the need for commitment from higher education to address inclusion and equity. It has provided a stark reminder of the need for science and scientific cooperation, in terms of research, training, and education processes.

The role of quality education to eradicate inequality was highlighted by H.E. Mona Juul (President of the UN Economic and Social Council). She underlined the importance of equal access to higher education, with challenges remaining for many students from marginalised groups, including ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. COVID-19 is also likely to exacerbate the gender gap, especially in developing countries, hence targeted measures such as scholarships are critical in these efforts to leave no-one behind.

The pandemic has brought a unique opportunity to build back better, stated Mr. Elliott Harris (Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs; DESA). He warned that if responses to the COVID-19 crisis were ad hoc and underfunded, the consequences would be long-lasting and risk reversing decades of progress.

Sam Barratt (Chair, HESI and Chief of Youth, Education and Advocacy, UN Environment) emphasised that it was imperative to raise the voice and influence of the higher education sector, and in turn for it to be recognised as a key contributor to the SDGs. Universities can make valuable contributions through changing the mindsets of students to make better choices, creating new habits to reduce their carbon footprints on a university-wide level, not only in the Earth Sciences faculties.

Looking at how COVID-19 has impacted the higher education sector, a keynote presentation by Dr Hilligje van’t Land (Secretary General, International Association of Universities; Executive Director, International Universities Bureau) explored the closure of campuses, access to technology, and pedagogical challenges associated with moving teaching online. Opportunities have also arisen as we consider the values we wish to foster for the future, as part of a paradigm shift to enable increased access and more equality, bringing global engagement with local and societal relevance.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs (President, SDSN; Professor and Director, Center for Sustainable Development, Columbia University) discussed how COVID-19 was exacerbating pre-existing challenges. These include the digital divide, with unequal access to quality broadband hindering access to education and healthcare, and the need for global cooperation, which university networks are crucial in fostering. The substance of education is another key issue, with the need to orient research and teaching towards problem solving and interdisciplinarity, and reassess values in higher education. Professor Sachs noted that mixing online with multi-site learning could build capacities for the use of digital technology in higher education.

With COVID-19 only one of the deep crises facing humanity, the higher education sector has a great responsibility to build more resilient and sustainable societies. A key question is how we can empower young people to be true leaders, who will ultimately work towards saving the planet. Universities must advance sustainable development across the globe, building empathy and empowering students to realise their potential. This session made clear that there is a need to radically reform education systems and the teaching of sustainability, reflect the value of interdisciplinary thinking, and break down barriers between departments. We must also consider the value of nature, civics, and empathy to ensure that we can meet the challenges ahead.

Click here to watch the full recording of this event.