United Nations – Why universities need to look ahead to 2050

While a focus of the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC) in Barcelona last month was on drawing up a roadmap for higher education to 2030, the Paris-based United Nations agency is looking even further ahead to what higher education should look like in 2050 – almost three decades into the future.

This, according to conference participants, needs a change of mindset, new ways of doing things and requires rethinking the role and purpose of higher education if the problems of the last 30 years – including inequality and conflict – are not to be repeated for the next 30 years.

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay noted during WHEC 2022, held in Barcelona from 18 to 20 May, that forward-looking work carried out by UNESCO “recalls that education is and must continue to be a public good”.

This underpinned the Barcelona conference and will also be a major theme of the UN Transforming Education Summit, convened by UN Secretary General António Guterres and to be held in September 2022 at the United Nations in New York during the 77th UN General Assembly.

The September summit is described by the UN as “an opportunity to renew international political commitment to education as a fundamental public good, reimagine education for the future and reignite global efforts to deliver education-related Sustainable Development Goals by 2030”.

World Higher Education Conference 2022. This conference is convened by UNESCO and University World News is the exclusive media partner.

Scenarios report

UNESCO is charged with preparing for the summit. A background document Reimagining the Futures of Higher Education: Insights from a scenario development process towards 2050, commissioned by UNESCO and coordinated by Mpine Makoe, dean of the college of education at the University of South Africa, was presented at WHEC 2022.

Different scenarios were specifically developed to provide a set of desirable futures to 2050, “to address the current and past injustices inherent in higher education systems, policies, structures and practices”, according to the report.

“Engaging with futures research can help to reimagine higher education of the future and revisit the purposes of higher education in order to address its social, cultural, individual and community value,” the report noted, adding: “It is difficult to address every dimension of higher education in every scenario, however, this should not stop us from thinking about the future.”

The scenarios sought to answer questions on how stakeholders would like higher education to be in 2050 and how higher education can contribute to better futures for all in 2050.

Scenarios included open higher education where access to education is through a variety of routes, with education made available to all at no cost.

The second scenario focused on technology-enabled learning hubs that are accessible and inclusive and can bridge developmental and geographic divides, democratising knowledge.

Another scenario was ecologically sustainable higher education to promote the care, sustainability and well-being of the planet, regarding higher education as a common good.

The final scenario was constructed around development-driven higher education aligned with development needs of societies and sharing knowledge systems to uplift communities, thereby contributing to equitable and just human development.

International commission on futures of education

The report authors also drew on the work of the independent International Commission on the Futures of Education convened by Azoulay in 2019 under the leadership of Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde, to “reimagine how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet”.

As part of UNESCO’s Futures of Education initiative, the commission delivered its report Reimagining our Futures Together: A new social contract for education, published last November. According to the report, a new social contract would “redress some of the societal injustices that exist and help shape sustainable futures”.

It asserts that higher education is essential to changing course and shaping more just, inclusive and sustainable futures.

With the planet and humanity under threat, urgent action taken together is needed to change course, the International Commission’s report said.

“To transform the future, we must reimagine the futures of higher education within a new social contract for education,” Sahle-Work Zewde told the WHEC 2022 session via a video link.

“Higher education can and must be part of the new social contract for education. Solidarity is core to the visions of higher education, while research and innovation will enable us to learn together to co-create and reimagine our futures together.”

Thinking about these futures is vital because it encourages us to visualise unknown possibilities, she said, considering: “What should we continue doing? What should we abandon? And what should we creatively reimagine?”

Another member of the commission, António Sampaio da Nóvoa, honorary rector of the University of Lisbon and until November 2021 Portugal’s ambassador to UNESCO, said “The entry point of the [commission’s] report is human rights. Education as a human right but also the role of education in promoting human rights.”

He referred to inequalities, democratic backsliding, the future of work, the demographic revolution, the need for education throughout life, and the “rise of eruptions and mobilities as a consequence of conflict and fragility”, noting: “It is from these multiple overlapping crises and challenges that the future of education needs to be reimagined.”

Unlike other organisations, the strength and usefulness of universities is precisely that they are not confined to specific areas, and can take broad, multidisciplinary views, he said.

“The biggest risk for universities is not being able to take risks.”

Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of the International Association of Universities, noted that whatever comes through the higher education system goes back into society, “and that’s where the social contract comes in”.

Setting a course based on values

Keri Facer, professor of educational and social futures at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, said in Barcelona that the commission report is “about setting a direction, setting a course and that course is a set of values that helps us make decisions”.

“What we need is something that helps us answer the question, are we going in the right direction? And that's precisely where this conversation about values is absolutely essential – it allows us to make those judgments as we go,” she said.

“Our key challenge is to recognise that the world will change, to recognise that our education will change. And to recognise that hard challenges require more than wishful thinking. Our key question is how to influence the direction of change.”

Facer added: “Whose ideas are we listening to when we imagine the future?” and pointed to commercial interests investing in pushing education in undesirable directions.

“Imagining our universities to ensure equality and sustainability will not come from the same old mindsets. It is time to let go of these histories if we want to open up new futures and if we want to encourage many different approaches and different experiments to what higher education can be in a changing world.”

Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, rector of the International Islamic University Malaysia, pointed to a need to humanise education.

Consultation process

The UNESCO Futures of Education initiative includes consultations with almost one million stakeholders to date.

In constructing the scenarios to 2050, most participants during the consultation process imagined connected communities of people living together, learning together, sharing knowledge and using scientific knowledge and technologies. Higher education institutions were described as mirrors that reflect the current problems in society.

“It was felt that the root problems of higher education are caused by the general lack of support from governments, policymakers, society and other communities that are serviced by these institutions,” the report on scenarios to 2050 said.

“Participants shared that, in some countries, governments tend to view themselves as having the right to appropriate how higher education functions.”

There was also a general apprehension about financialisation and neoliberalisation practices that led to privileging certain types of knowledges, degrees and jobs, and that “unintentionally risk perpetuating inequalities within and between countries”.

“All these factors show the need for change in the future of higher education,” the scenario report said.

Emma Sabzalieva, a senior policy analyst at UNESCO’s International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, who is involved in UNESCO-IESALC’s Futures of Higher Education Project involving youth and higher education experts, noted that it involved a huge consultation process over a two year period, with the youth consultation currently in its final stages.

Sabzalieva said there was a need for vision, “not future singular, but futures plural, because there are multiple promising pathways. So within that, students have to be at the centre of everything that higher education does”.

But, she said, there was a need to look back as well as forward. “There are a number of issues that we brought forward from history, which we haven't yet adequately addressed,” she told University World News, pointing to colonial era practices and the specific idea of the university that tends to be elitist “because of the time and the space in which it was developed and how that was pushed out”.

“When we talk in this conference about the need to decolonise knowledge and the need to decolonise higher education, that's where it comes from – it's trying to address the fact that we haven't yet done enough.”

“Whether it's about the research that we do, the connections that we have to the community, the way that we organise our higher education institutions – everything needs to be done with students at the centre,” Sabzalieva added.

Sebastian Berger is executive director of the Global Student Forum, an umbrella group of student unions and groups in more than 120 countries.

He said it was important to reflect collectively on how education might need to be re-thought “in a world of increasing complexity, uncertainty and precarity, taking into consideration recent geopolitical shifts, accelerated environmental degradation and climate change, changing patterns of human mobility, and the exponential pace of scientific and technological innovation”.

At the same time, it needed to look at “technological, social, economic and environmental disruption and how education might both affect and be affected”, he said.

Unjust practices continue to dominate across higher education systems, and the commission report looks at areas that still need to be eliminated. Berger noted: “This framework assisted us to identify legacy issues that stand in the way of moving towards our ideal higher education of the future.”

He said areas that need to be addressed include the privatisation of knowledge production and dissemination, the individualisation of the learning process, the elitist model of education, continuing discrimination and many others.