UN demands more global spending on education and science

The secretary general of the United Nations has called for a significant increase in education spending and investment so that targets in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for the sector are met.

At present, said UN Secretary General António Guterres, in comments for the UN’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) this month (July 10-19), progress towards SDG 4 to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” is weak.

“Recent analysis shows that almost US$100 billion per year is needed to allow countries to meet their national benchmarks for achieving Goal 4,” said Guterres.

He said to deliver on Goal 4, “education systems must be reimagined, and education financing must become a priority national investment”.

One benefit of such investment would be that the other 16 SDGs, for which progress is also lacking, might be boosted through better universal education. Indeed, a background note from the UN secretariat for the forum argued that science could be a saviour in achieving the SDGs, helping reverse a negative trend.

Weak progress on half the SDGs

The note said: “At the halfway point of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we are not on track to achieve the SDGs. Only 12% of the SDG targets are currently on track; progress on 50% is weak and insufficient; the world has stalled or gone in reverse on more than 30% of the SDGs.”

However, it added: “Science, technology, and innovation (STI) can play a critical role in disrupting business-as-usual practices to help the world change course and get on track to achieve these goals.”

The report recalled how “rapid scientific research and global collaboration” developed vaccines combating the COVID-19 pandemic, with technologies, such as mobile applications, helping ease the disease’s economic fallout.

“Climate resilient technologies such as climate-smart agriculture, renewable energy technologies, and satellite technology for monitoring weather events can help address climate and environmental crises.

“Similar technological developments can improve efficiency and sustainability to reduce resource scarcity, which is an underlying cause of both human conflict and the rising cost of living,” it stated.

STI funding needs to be aligned

Overall, science, technology, and innovation could "contribute immensely to advancing sustainability”, but to achieve this, may require better alignment of scientific funding and priorities with sustainability priorities and the UN SDG 2030 agenda, argued the report.

Also speaking on Monday, Lachezera Stoeva, president of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), highlighted the importance of innovation, technology, and high-impact partnerships between governments, civil society, private sector and academia in driving “meaningful change”.

She said: “We are halfway to 2030 and yet nowhere near to achieving the SDGs,” she said. “The bad news is we’ve lost seven years. The good news is, we still have seven years and victory is within our reach.”

All these discussions in New York have been preparing the ground for a major SDG Summit scheduled for September 18-19 (2023), again in New York.

Marking the halfway point between the launch of the SDG process and its 2030 implementation deadline, this summit will deliver "high-level political guidance on transformative and accelerated actions...”, said a UN note.

Gender challenge in green tech sectors

A synthesis of submissions by functional commissions of the Economic and Social Council and other intergovernmental bodies and forums to this week’s preparatory forum added that one focus of future efforts might be to overcome gender imbalances in green technology sectors.

This is needed through better access to technical vocational education and training for women, including those capacity-building initiatives for training women who are already professionals in green industries, said the synthesis of submissions report.

Looking at regional issues, a report for the forum by the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development argued that the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) should “accelerate the evolution of an African-driven science and technology education in universities that includes indigenous knowledge and innovative approaches”.

It also urged African UN member states to promote open science, such as free academic publishing, following UNESCO recommendations, “as an essential framework for transformative international scientific cooperation”.

Guterres said, there had been some progress on education, despite his concerns about SDG 4 – at the sub-tertiary level, between 2015 and 2021, school completion rate increased from 85% to 87% for primary; 74% to 77% lower secondary level; 53% cent to 58% upper secondary level. Should SDG 4 be better achieved “to better prepare learners of all ages for the future” – it will further support acceleration of all SDG goals, said the secretary general.

Aurélien Decamps, managing director and co-founder of Sulitest, a key partner of the UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI), and a sustainability progress assessor, told University World News that he accepted more work is needed on sustainability, including in higher education.

Green employability skills needed

“There is room for specific tasks working on employability and green jobs, working on sustainability and knowledge transform the curriculum and equip students with relevant skills and knowledge for sustainability.”

Speaking to University World News in New York as the SDG forum sessions were under way, he said the liaison work of HESI is important, because it can “connect different stakeholders who are not used to collaborating”, helping to launch and advance new projects.

“It’s an unusual initiative. This is a platform where you have 10 UN agencies working together with academic networks, higher education institutions and student organisations.”

It is being effective in bridging these government institutions with HE, he said.

HESI pushing for change in HE

The involvement of students in HESI can be particularly important in pushing change in higher education, which can be conservative, he said.

“I have been in academia myself. I was teaching in a business school, and I could see sometimes ideas that we were pushing for a long time, and then suddenly students ask for it, and suddenly it's more audible and the school will change faster.”

Decamps added: “Sustainability has become a trendy topic. It is everywhere now. There is some greenwashing but at least we're talking about sustainability, so it’s important to connect all those initiatives that are popping up on the student side; on the university side; on the UN and the [governmental] institution side, so that the SDGs are providing us with a coherent road map.”

The key is moving sustainability into the arena of decision-makers, especially in higher education: “We’re going to be a bit more professional about this issue.”

He said that although measuring and assessing sustainability progress “might not be the sexiest part of the's a crucial piece”.

Sulitest’s work as a data provider for accreditation bodies and initiatives aids managers delivering quality assurance and performance in education. “If we don't change the dashboard and the indicators that are assessing performance, we will still teach business as usual and leadership as usual. It’s time to advance on that.”