Disruptive digital era demands a higher education rethink

Education is both a powerful enabler and a significant divider. In a disruptive digital era, with growing global inequalities, a “fundamental rethink” of higher education is required, said Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, rector of the United Nations University, at the UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) Global Forum last week.

“It is essential to highlight and support key higher education initiatives that drive implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda,” with its 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Marwala said. It was also imperative to consider the challenges and opportunities posed by digitisation and artificial intelligence in the context of higher education.

He was speaking in a high-level panel at the HESI Global Forum held in New York on 17 July, a side event to the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development 2023, convened from 10 to 19 July to support the mid-term review of the SDGs and the 2023 SDG Summit in September.

Launched in 2012, HESI serves as an open partnership between UN entities and the higher education community, providing an interface between universities, science and policy-making, and raising the profile of the higher education sector in supporting sustainable development.

Its UN partners include UNESCO, the UN Environment Programme, the Global Compact, UN University, UN Habitat, UN Conference on Trade and Development, UN Institute for Training and Research, the UN Office for Partnerships, and the newly formed UN Academic Impact.

Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and inter-agency affairs in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, told the Forum: “This partnership has steadily grown into a vibrant community of over 700 members – higher education institutions, networks, and student organisations representing thousands of students from around the world committed to sustainable development.”

A higher education rethink

In a keynote address delivered virtually from Tokyo, Marwala said the purpose and the content of higher education must be re-examined: “grounded in the principles of a new social contract for education that ensures the right to quality education throughout life and strengthened education as a public endeavour and a common good.

“We must strive to build higher education that is accessible to all, leaving no one behind.”

The first rethink is to redefine the changing role of universities. “In the face of digitisation and AI, the role of universities is evolving. We must recognise the transformative potential of these technologies in shaping the future of education and preparing students for an AI driven world,” he said. Digital tools must be made more accessible, which would help advance the SDGs.

Secondly, with information more rapidly available, universities must prioritise teaching students how to think critically and how to learn in the digital era – the ability to discern, evaluate and apply knowledge is a human skill – including how to discern fake information. Not all teachers will be able to adjust their skills to handle this, in the Global South or North.

Thirdly: “AI has the potential to revolutionise learning experiences by personalising education, providing adaptive feedback to learning, and supporting individual visualised instruction. By leveraging these technologies, universities can cater to diverse learning styles and address specific learning needs much more effectively than before.” This too would advance SDGs.

Fourth, there are ethical and legal issues around AI and related technologies. “Specifically, transparency, fairness, privacy and data security are paramount,” Marwala said. It is crucial that universities develop robust ethical guidelines and regulations governing the use of AI, ensuring the ethical use of data, and safeguarding the rights and well-being of students and educators.

The fifth rethink is around equitable access. There are AI divides across the Global North and South. “Universities must strive to bridge digital divides and ensure equitable access to technological resources, infrastructure and digital skills training,” he said. Efforts should be made to address socio-economic, geographic and cultural barriers to AI access.

Marwala spoke about the Global Digital Compact – a proposed initiative from UN Secretary-General António Guterres – which will help to address global challenges and opportunities arising from the digital revolution.

It will require complicated collaboration between the private and the public sectors because much technology knowledge resides in private hands. “How do we ensure that in an environment where profit maximisation is gospel we can still extract infrastructure that can be available for the billions of people who need it?” Marwala asked.

To achieve sustainable development, Marwala continued, transformation is needed in every sector. “This includes fostering cross institutional partnerships, promoting innovative practices in higher education, quality evaluation, promoting academic publications on sustainability issues, and responding to the increasing demand for green jobs.”

United Nations University

The United Nations University, in its role as a bridge between the UN system and the global academic community, advances education debates at all levels, Marwala said.

It is also working closely with local communities to mobilise multi-stakeholder efforts on education for sustainable development, offering “inspiration and valuable insight for translating global sustainable goals such as the SDGs into localised actions”.

The university’s Institute for Advanced Study of Sustainability produces evidence-based knowledge and solutions to inform policy-making and tackle priority issues for the UN system. It integrates expertise – academic and policy-making – to mobilise sustainability knowledge and advance global SDG efforts.

Another innovative initiative of the institute is the SDG University Platform, a network comprising 30 universities in Japan, which complements an international network of 50 leading universities. “The goal is to integrate sustainable development into postgraduate curricula and foster collaborative research between member institutions,” he said.

Universities, Marwala concluded, have a unique role to play in driving sustainable development. “Let us seize these opportunities to collectively raise our ambitions for accelerating the COVID-19 recovery and achieving the SDGs in full, leaving no one behind.”

UNESCO’s SDG focus on Africa

Stefania Giannini, assistant director-general for education at UNESCO, agreed. “Higher education institutions are key partners in our search to address planetary challenges and find the right answers to common problems,” she said, speaking virtually from Paris.

UNESCO’s vision is for universal access to a higher education sector driven by the principles of quality, equity and inclusion as part of the broader notion of the right to education.

Today there are more than 236 million students enrolled in universities and tertiary education around the world, translating into a 40% gross enrolment ratio in tertiary education. The enrolment of women in higher education has more than doubled over the past two decades, rising from around 19% in 2000 to 43% today.

But this “huge progress” is only part of the story, Giannini said, given that significant discrepancies and inequalities remain. For instance, in Sub-Saharan Africa less than 9% of the tertiary age population has access to higher education, and women comprise one in three researchers in science, technology, engineering and math.

COVID-19 made matters worse. “Almost one third of students had no access to remote learning during the pandemic, while digital learning was the only way to ensure continuity of learning. UNESCO is working to bridge higher education divides.

“Focusing especially on Africa, which is our global priority, we are spearheading an ambitious programme called Campus Africa.” It aims to make higher education more accessible and inclusive to young people and strengthen the quality of PhD programmes.

Campus Africa works around three pillars: top-tier research and knowledge production; mobility and cross-continental cooperation, especially at PhD student level; and the post-secondary pivot. Integrating these components of higher education development can support African governments to achieve the SDGs, said Giannini.

Giannini stressed the “vital role of mobility and free circulation of students and researchers to fully implement the core mission of universities”.

There are now 22 state parties to UNESCO’s Global Convention on the Recognition of the Qualification Concerning Higher Education – the first UN treaty on this important topic – which provides the framework for recognition of qualifications across borders in a fair, transparent and standardised manner.

“It’s a huge step forward,” she said, calling on other countries to ratify the convention: there are more than 20 in the pipeline. “We see this as a game changer to make the dream of a global Erasmus+ programme a reality.”