The important role of human capital in tackling the SDGs

Education (at all levels and in all forms) and lifelong-lifewide learning are universally recognised as essential to driving economic development, social development and other forms of development.

Development depends on capital (a resource or asset). Thus, human capital can be broadly defined as a set of resources (for example, knowledge, skills and creativity) that one possesses and uses to facilitate the development of other forms of capital such as economic, social and cultural capital.

In addition, the usefulness of physical resources (buildings, machinery and tools) and financial resources (money) depends on how knowledgeably they are used.

So, regardless of the type of capital, knowledge is foundational and necessary to the creation of all other forms of capital. Individuals accumulate human capital primarily through learning – formal, non-formal and informal. Without human capital, the productive capacity of individuals is limited.

Thus, universal education and lifelong-lifewide learning have become the basic building blocks in the development of modern nations. This reality has major implications for how education is structured and delivered and how lifelong-lifewide learning opportunities are made available to all people.

It is within this context that higher education institutions are expanding their focus to include the implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – also known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or the 2030 Agenda, for short.

Approved in 2015, the 2030 Agenda consists of 17 goals needed to help achieve a sustainable future for planet Earth. To date, the 2030 Agenda is the most ambitious, wide-sweeping and potentially the most impactful agenda in human history for improving the welfare of the planet for current and future generations.

The broad remit of higher education

The 2030 Agenda reflects a collaborative commitment to address the world’s most intractable problems like poverty, hunger, conflict and climate change. The 2030 Agenda embodies a rational and comprehensive framework for improving the welfare of all people, as well as animals and the environment.

Since humans live in an interdependent relationship with all living and non-living things on the planet, without protecting animals and the environment, humanity will not be able to protect itself.

The 2030 Agenda demonstrates a clear paradigm shift in humanity’s mindset towards the current and future development of the planet, and as a transformative agenda, it represents a major reset point in the history of humanity. Working towards implementation of the 2030 Agenda not only helps humanity but also improves animal welfare.

To that end, one of the key steps in implementing the 2030 Agenda is to take the broad goals of the 2030 Agenda and translate them into effective policies and rules that are contextualised to the specific conditions of each region, nation, city, community and organisation.

But what is the role of higher education institutions? The broad set of academic disciplines within higher education is well suited to address the broad set of goals embodied in the 2030 Agenda.

This is one reason why higher education plays a key role in implementing the 2030 Agenda – higher education institutions are uniquely positioned to not only serve as exemplars of sustainable organisations, but they also possess the intellectual capital (competencies, expertise and problem-solving abilities) needed to know how best to address the goals expressed in the 2030 Agenda through their teaching, research and service.

Sustainable mindset

At the American University in the Emirates (AUE), for example, the Sustainable Development Goals are integrated into all levels of the institution to help create a sustainable mindset throughout the institution.

AUE focuses on sustainability education for knowledge transfer and on building a workforce with traits like leadership, hard work, perseverance and inventiveness, which are necessary for a sustainable nation.

As Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, first president of the United Arab Emirates, said: “The real asset of any advanced nation is its people, especially the educated ones, and the prosperity and success of the people are measured by the standard of their education.”

Considering the magnitude of the change required in higher education to reorient its focus on sustainable development, major structural reforms are also required in basic education to address the issue of sustainability.

Part of the sustainability mindset required in education, at all levels, entails equipping youth with the global values of fairness, tolerance, empathy, peace and lifelong-lifewide learning, all of which play an instrumental role in ensuring sustainability at a national level.

For anything to be learned, it must first be taught in one way or another. Thus, these values should be infused into the curriculum and instructional practices at all levels and modelled by teachers, professors and educational leaders.

In addition, the role of women is critical to ensure lasting peace since they represent over half of the world’s population. Thus, the national capacity-building needed to create a sustainable future will not be possible without the active participation of women.

Investing in human capital

Human capital is the most valuable of all assets. Without it, a nation cannot grow and prosper. Education at all levels, therefore, becomes the main mechanism through which to develop human capital. Higher education institutions have a leading role to play in developing human capital, through a more engaged curriculum, teaching, learning, research and community involvement.

The global challenges being addressed by the SDGs are complex, interconnected and interdisciplinary. One way of advancing these goals is to progressively overcome barriers within and between higher education institutions to promote the inclusion of all within society.

Institutions need to strengthen their role as knowledge creators and focus on producing the highest quality education possible. They also have the social responsibility to collaborate with all stakeholders from different sectors of the community to develop ways to create a sustainable future for all.

Patrick Blessinger is adjunct associate professor at St John’s University, United States, and president of the Higher Education Teaching and Learning (HETL) Association, USA; Abhilasha Singh is professor and vice-president for academic affairs at the American University in the Emirates in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Fareeda Khodabocus is director of quality assurance at the University of Mauritius.