Universities as catalysts of transition to sustainability

The world is facing unprecedented challenges and this requires universities to be bold and to think critically and innovatively. At the same time, they must take care of their more ‘traditional’ role as independent institutions with responsibility for basic questions and basic research, but also strive for systemic changes where necessary.

Given this new reality where the human future, along with other species, is at stake, it is time for higher education institutions (HEIs) and their stakeholders to systematically rethink their role in society and their key missions, reflecting on how they can serve as catalysts for an urgently needed and fast transition towards sustainability.

The complexity of the global issues at stake implies that solutions should be part of a radical agenda that calls for new alliances and new incentives.

In 2020, UNESCO partnered with the University of Bergen to establish the Global Independent Expert Group on the Universities and the 2030 Agenda (EGU2030) to address these themes.

Written by 14 independent experts from different nations and different fields of research, their report was released online at the SDG conference in Bergen in February 2022, and will be officially launched and discussed at UNESCO’s third World Higher Education Conference in Barcelona, from 18-20 May 2022.

As noted in the Futures of Education Report recently launched by UNESCO’s International Commission, universities and higher education institutions must be active in every aspect of building a new social contract for education.

It is essential to unpack what this means and how these institutions can best amp up their support for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Continuum and change

Universities (and higher education institutions in general) have played a crucial role as providers of societal enlightenment and change over centuries, maintaining their role as free and critical institutions while also – to varying degrees – aiming to perform a service role within societies.

It is essential to maintain and encourage these important roles and enable universities to bring together traditions of critical thinking with problem-solving activities, while also adjusting their role in light of societal changes.

Universities have a specific role and responsibility for educating new generations for a sustainable society. This must be adjusted to the type of institution and problem faced, but the SDGs represent a unifying challenge that calls upon all universities and this must be reflected in plans and action for research, education and outreach.

HEIs must even go beyond this to societal interactions and transformation when demanded. The report of this Expert Group does not shy away from discussing the many challenges associated with HEIs playing this important role and adjusting their practices in support of the SDGs.

The Expert Group’s report focuses on three major topics and provides a number of examples and recommendations related to these while also addressing the overarching role of HEIs in society.

The first theme is that major challenges require new approaches, or inter- and trans-disciplinarity across academic silos. There is wide consensus on the need for more collaborative approaches, but not necessarily on how this should be implemented.

Complex issues like the drivers and effects of climate change require insights from across various disciplines and all branches of sciences, and horizontal structures across scientific disciplines must be established.

Secondly, universities need to open up to diverse ways of knowing. It is imperative that HEIs promote knowledge that comprises a diverse range of traditions, institutions and epistemologies to promote a truly global knowledge base for the SDGs, yet clearly not one that opposes rational thinking and scientific insights.

HEIs must be spaces that foster epistemic dialogue and integrate other ways of knowing and the transformation towards a fairer and more sustainable future for all will not be possible without this.

The third theme of the report deals with the need for a more proactive presence of HEIs in society through partnerships. HEIs should aim not only to transform their own activities for addressing the SDGs, but also in relation to different sectors of society: the government, private sector and civil society as well as social organisations and communities.

This should be a two-way flow of interaction where universities take insights from other sectors and communities. The role of universities and HEIs in this context will be even more important as lifelong learning becomes more prevalent.

Democratising knowledge

HEIs in general have a strong standing in society and are trusted. With this in mind, they should utilise this standing to expand their relationships with the different sectors of societies, attend to their educational needs and learn from their problems and difficulties, as well as from their views of the world.

Knowledge and science should be democratised and universities have an accepted role to play in this process. However, some of the knowledge generated, and much of the education that students receive, can be translated into policies and intervention projects that involve solutions to problems or potential improvement of well-being and social justice.

This involves strengthening the outreach that HEIs already do and directing it towards advocacy for change, transformation and social impact.

HEIs have an imperative role to play in decision-making and must commit to having a place and a voice in government and society in congruence with their ethical principles.

Because they occupy the highest level in the educational system, HEIs in general can play a key role in democratising quality education for all, as well as in educating society regarding sustainability and the SDGs.

The EGU2030 report provides a number of examples of universities or science academies that are engaging in climate appeals and other SDGs and emphasises the importance of providing scientific advice for knowledge and transformation in society.

A diversity of institutions and responses

The authors of the Expert Group are aware of the diversity of universities and HEIs in general, as well as of the diversity of contexts in which they are located. As such, the Expert Group freely admits that this report will not be able to do this incredible diversity justice.

In navigating how to best contribute to the SDGs and a more sustainable world, it is paramount that each higher education institution finds its own way of responding to this call. The work of this Expert Group does not mean to dictate solutions but rather to open up areas for debate and discussion and to guide decision-making.

The authors of the EGU2030 report are convinced that various institutions must do this together with governments, civil society, the private sector and with those who suffer most from the problems of our world today.

Dag Olav Hessen is professor in the department of biosciences and head of the Centre for Biogeochemistry in the Anthropocene, University of Oslo, Norway, and EGU2030 co-chair.