Through global education universities can realise the SDGs

Institutions of higher education across the globe are facing unprecedented times. Whether the result of shifting world politics, institutional financial dynamics, student enrolment trends, heightened awareness of systemic inequalities, the impact of COVID-19 or the intersection of all these factors, institutions of higher education are in a time of critical examination regarding their strategic goals and directions.

The United Nations has raised the alarm, noting that COVID-19 has eliminated 20 years of educational gains with an additional 101 million children in grades 1-8 falling below minimum reading proficiency levels in 2020. The impact on all of education, including higher education, is, without a doubt, profound.

This current dynamic is particularly relevant for higher education’s ongoing commitment to campus internationalisation and education abroad opportunities for students. Universities cannot address these challenges without taking into consideration how best to prepare students to meet their post-graduation realities and opportunities.

This commitment involves not only robust education abroad opportunities as part of student mobility plans. It also involves integrating global education into the core mission and goals of higher education institutions and fostering classroom- and discipline-specific engagement to achieve equal access to international learning for all students.

Current international education possibilities

Global education offers several comprehensive approaches to foster and enhance student learning. Traditional education abroad student mobility through short-term faculty-led programmes as well as semester and academic year programmes will continue to attract students and are currently on a carefully structured rebound after the COVID-19 peak.

These opportunities are complemented by applied learning through in-person as well as virtual internships that build professional competencies within an academic framework.

Virtual internships, in particular, have seen an exponential increase, as students and faculty utilise this accessibility for targeted learning and development for all students on campus.

A third area of increasing growth is to bring global education directly into the classroom and engage all students in discipline-specific topics and cross-cultural learning.

COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) engages students and faculty in learning through coordinated virtual course and project activities across two or more institutions with the ability to develop team projects, practise language skills and share classroom discussions on relevant topics for both locations.

A growing number of entrepreneurial organisations are also offering virtual learning units with embedded student activities, assessment rubrics and complementary streaming options that allow students to engage in real-time conversations with entrepreneurs, students, business executives, guides and artists, among others, who live outside their own country.

Supporting this rich range of opportunities as part of a holistic student experience requires commitment and engagement from university leadership.

Comprehensive internationalisation

The American Council on Education recently launched an Internationalisation Toolkit focused on ‘comprehensive internationalisation’ at all levels of institutional engagement.

Important to this initiative is the emphasis on a ‘coordinated framework’ to build and sustain a global orientation and international connectivity among institutions of higher education.

Global education plays a vital role in this objective, providing students not only with possible second language and cross-cultural facilitation skills, but also broader skill sets, including flexibility, adaptability, tolerance of ambiguity and complex goal setting.

In a world propelled by the impact of COVID-19 to utilise technology to build virtual teams across geographical boundaries, conduct research and product development through international collaboration, and reframe the concept of a single physical location for offices and staff, the ability of upcoming young professionals to adapt and maximise this expansive and intercultural dynamic is key to a successful future, both for the individual and for society at large.

The SDGs

As we consider effective frameworks to guide our next course of planning and action, the importance of sustainability is on the minds of all who are responsible for the strategic success of their institution and its mission. It is in this context that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a unique guiding framework for our long-term future.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined on the United Nations website provide thought-provoking objectives for all constituents, including institutions of higher education. Four of these goals and their accompanying guidelines are of particular relevance for institutions of higher education in navigating comprehensive internationalisation post pandemic:

Goal 4: Quality education

This United Nations’ goal clarifies that a quality education “is the foundation to improving people’s lives and sustainable development”. Global education plays a critical role by providing comparative perspectives on the different and unique approaches that institutions and decision-makers utilise to build an educated and sustainable society and to meet the needs of citizens.

Providing students with the opportunity to understand these perspectives plays an important role in building young future leaders. This can be achieved through all of the global education venues mentioned above.

Goal 10: Reduced inequalities

The United Nations focuses this goal on the importance of policies that are universal in principle and pay attention to the needs of disadvantaged populations.

Global education provides students with the opportunity to compare policies and structures that are familiar to them with those from other cultures in order to consider what universal principles apply across different needs and peoples.

The greater our ability to address the needs of the many, the greater our success in sustaining long-term goals for a continuously changing world.

Goal 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

The United Nations highlights in this goal the critical link between justice, security and strong institutions. As the world faces renewed East-West political and military tensions, the importance of strategic communication and alignment is paramount.

Students who have the opportunity to gain exposure to different perspectives through any of the many venues of education abroad and to consider the value and applicability of these new perspectives through guided reflection will be strategically poised to build and lead the strong institutions needed for our future.

Goal 17: Partnerships

This final United Nations goal emphasises the need to revitalise global partnerships and cooperation built on a shared mission and goals.

Global education, in both its in-person and virtual manifestations for students, faculty and staff, grants access across cultural and geographic boundaries for those looking to find areas of commonality and insight. It is through this kind of engagement that new ideas and types of collaboration and cooperation can be identified and implemented.

A roadmap for the future

In a world of rapid change and unpredictable change, identifying sustainable guiding principles, such as those proposed by the United Nations, the American Council on Education and many others, provides a roadmap for a shared future that we can build and sustain together.

Through purposeful incorporation of global education opportunities, higher education leadership can realise the SDGs and prepare their student constituents to play a critical and active role in the world.

Dr Heidi M Soneson is a senior international education professional and an affiliate with the Gateway International Group, an organisation that supports institutions and organisations with leveraging strategic new directions and emerging opportunities in international education. Dr Soneson has a PhD in German literature, has taught at the university level, served in senior leadership in international education and published and presented extensively on topics in international education nationally and internationally. Acknowledgements: The author expresses gratitude to Gateway International colleagues Martin Tillman, Donna Anderson and Ann Hubbard for their insights and comments regarding this article.