56 university presidents commit to joint action on SDGs

University presidents from 30 countries have signed a ‘Joint Statement of Global University Leaders on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, witnessed by United Nations officials.

At what was described as the first global online forum for university presidents on the ‘Role of Universities in the 2030 Agenda’, hosted by Zhejiang University in China on 24 March, presidents from 56 universities across six continents committed to working together to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The joint statement highlighted that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by UN member states in 2015, provides a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet”, but the sustainability of the planet remains “severely challenged by numerous threats ranging from natural disasters, climate change, pandemics, to inequality and unemployment”.

The statement said: “With less than 10 years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda – it is more important than ever for the global community to mobilise for collective resolve and accelerated action.

“With their unique advantages in generating knowledge, uniting stakeholders and enabling transformation, leading universities around the world should play an active and essential role in forging a sustainable future through dialogue, solidarity and collaboration.”

The initiative includes five key aspects which all signatories have agreed to:

• Implementing the concept of sustainable development across their activities and operations.

• Improving sustainable development competence of students, faculty and staff.

• Supporting a wider spectrum of scientific research, including blue-sky discovery and transdisciplinary research, in response to global challenges.

• Working with global partners to provide innovative solutions and leveraging technology.

• Upholding open science to facilitate constructive cross-border collaboration to solve specific problems.

It was the first time that leading universities across six continents had jointly made a statement on the SDGs, reaffirming collective commitment of the global higher education community to solidarity, resilience and prosperity, according to Zhejiang University (ZJU).

According to Wu Zhaohui, president of ZJU, the purpose of the forum was to bring together leaders from some of the best universities to share their visions and best practices on the SDGs and explore opportunities for potential cooperation in safeguarding a sustainable future.

Among the world’s top 50 universities as ranked by the QS World University Rankings, 80% have developed their university-level sustainability strategy, plans or operational activities, the forum was told.

With less than nine years to go to meet targets and the pandemic slowing progress, the forum allowed leaders to share essential expertise on how to scale up efforts to deliver on the 2030 Agenda. The event gave academics a platform to outline their action plans for human-oriented, innovation-driven and down-to-earth sustainable development.

UN officials, including Nikhil Seth, UN assistant secretary-general, and Stefania Giannini, UNESCO assistant director-general for education, joined the panel of speakers, who also included Pam Fredman, president of the International Association of Universities (IAU), Peter Salovey, president of Yale University in the United States, and Eric Labaye, president of École Polytechnique in France.

More than one million viewers

The forum was livestreamed to more than one million viewers around the globe via different social media platforms, according to ZJU.

Speakers reinforced how universities can work together to harness the power of technology to expand access to quality education. They also discussed how they should draw on their academic ecosystem to support scientific collaborations and knowledge transfer across disciplines.

Universities that have signed the initiative include Peking University, China; Kyoto University, Japan; Korea University, South Korea; the National University of Singapore; Harvard University and Yale University, both US; the University of Toronto, Canada; University College London, UK; École Polytechnique, France; the University of Oslo, Norway; Peter the Great St Petersburg Polytechnic University, Russia; the University of Sydney, Australia; Stellenbosch University, South Africa; and Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Brazil.

UN Assistant Secretary-General Nikhil Seth said: “SDGs belong to each of us and everything we do impacts on [their] achievement, in the aggregate.”

Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO Stefania Giannini said: “The organisation of the forum is timely, especially given the increasingly pivotal role of universities not only in fostering understanding and knowledge, but also in contributing to the building of knowledge-based societies and for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

IAU President Pam Fredman said: “Co-operation and cohesion among higher education institutions and organisations will foster knowledge development and sharing.”

Yale University President Peter Salovey said: “Yale University has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 43% over the past 15 years, even though the campus square footage has increased significantly.”

And University of Oslo Rector Svein Stølen said: “More equal and mutually beneficial partnerships must be developed upon scientific principles, academic values, a shared vision and shared goals which place people and the planet at the centre.”

Global plan for ‘social good’

At the forum, Zhejiang University (ZJU) launched its own sustainable action plan to enhance its engagement with the SDGs.

President of ZJU Wu Zhaohui said: “The ‘Global ZJU for Social Good’ plan establishes five objectives and associated actions to improve our sustainability-related education, research and practices within the ZJU community and among other stakeholders in China and beyond.

“We aim to advocate for responsible sustainability, educate for a sustainable future, advance scientific collaborations, partner for collective well-being and create greener campuses.”

Under the plan ZJU will:

• Ensure that the concept of sustainability is deeply rooted in the campus culture. Interregional and international exchanges will be used to ensure ZJU’s community understands the importance of working together across cultures for common goals and ZJU will disseminate knowledge and best practices on sustainability through its global network.

• Strive to nurture “visionary and responsible citizens who will be able to meet the future needs of sustainable development” via themed courses and international programmes.

• Create a “university-centred ecosystem characterised by interdisciplinarity and cross-sector interactions” to drive technological advances and inform policy-making in areas such as water, climate, food, environment, energy, health and poverty reduction.

• Embrace the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, promote sharing of scientific knowledge and expand and deepen partnerships to foster a “strong network comprising academia, government and the private sector, allowing us to take a co-operative approach to regional and global development challenges”.

• Transform ZJU into a “leader of low-carbon action” and turn its campuses into “resource-conserving and environmentally friendly living laboratories”.

Speaking at the forum, Wu Zhaohui said innovation-driven universities should “further unleash their unique potentials in terms of education, research and partnership to make substantial contributions” to achieving the SDGs.