UN calls for more education funding to boost sustainability

With the world halfway to the 2030 target date for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the United Nations this week urged governments globally to create solid national SDG policy and greater spending commitments. But the key roles of universities in advancing sustainability continue to be underplayed.

A political declaration – including commitments impacting upon higher education and research – was approved at the 2023 UN SDG Summit, held in New York on 18 to 19 September to mark the beginning of a new phase of accelerated progress towards achieving the SDGs.

A UN report on transforming education, released at the summit, said progress towards education-related SDG targets, which include the SDG 4 on education was significantly off track.

The political declaration committed the UN’s 193 member states to “continue increasing investment in inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

This included digital education, education for sustainable development, skills enhancement, affordable higher education and vocational training, plus teachers’ continuing professional development. Governments committed themselves to reducing barriers to girls’ education, and gender and disability gaps.

On science, member states said they would help developing countries benefit more from science, technology and innovation by promoting access to open science, affordable and open source technology and research and development, and looking to better realise the benefits of artificial intelligence, while addressing its challenges.

Two days ahead of the UN SDG Summit, the G77 – the Group of 77 developing countries – at a G77+China summit held in Cuba, called on the international community to support a more open, fair, inclusive and non-discriminatory environment for the development of science, technology and innovation in order to accelerate progress in achieving the SDGs.

Higher education still out in the cold

Many higher education leaders around the world remain disappointed in governmental failure to recognise the centrality of higher education to achieving the SDGs, not only through the millions of graduates produced each year but also through research and community action.

Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of the International Association of Universities (IAU) – the global body representing higher education, and itself part of the United Nations system – told University World News: “What we realise is that universities’ role in engaging with the SDGs is still not recognised sufficiently, certainly not at UN level, where much of the focus remains on the other levels of education, from pre-primary to secondary education and even lifelong learning, but less so when it comes to higher education.”

One reason for this is that other levels of education are controlled by governments while higher education operates more autonomously and this independence is respected in many countries. “But in not recognising the role of universities in engaging with the SDGs governments are making a mistake,” Van’t Land stressed.

The IAU and others across higher education are concerned that – given the clear and agreed urgency for environmental action – attention globally will drift backwards towards a focus on environmental issues rather than all of the SDGs during the second half of Agenda 2030, the United Nations roadmap for sustainability that contains the 17 SDGs.

This may be tempting for universities, as climate and related issues can be grasped more readily than other areas, such as eradicating poverty, said Van’t Land. “But we will never be able to address any environmental issue if we do not continue our journey towards education for sustainable development.”

She said it was important to continue looking at the very broad SDG spectrum, with its bright colours that highlight the many aspects of sustainability that are essential to understanding environmental issues in their broad complexity.

The need to continue focusing on all of the SDG areas has been vigorously advocated for many years by the IAU, which is highly involved in many UN sustainability initiatives, and many other organisations worldwide, including the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, which also operates within the UN system.

The IAU partners in these efforts with influential global groups such as the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Agence universitaire de la Francophonie and the Association of African Universities. Higher education organisations are working together to raise the visibility of the immense amount of work in universities that advance sustainability.

Ramping up SDG action

Going forward to 2030, the SDG goals are to be based on more detailed costed actions by UN member states than have been released thus far.

At the 2023 SDG Summit UN Secretary General António Guterres promised to deliver an SDG Stimulus “by massively scaling up financing and other measures such as debt relief”, said a UN secretariat statement.

National government commitments, urged the secretariat, could include clear benchmarks for achieving progress towards the SDGs such as working with civil society and the private sector.

Juan Manuel Ostoja, the CEO of Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola (USIL) corporation in Peru, which operates numerous education institutions including universities in Peru and around the world, agreed that governments need to step up on sustainability.

Policies and frameworks for action are key to promoting and mainstreaming a sustainable development approach at all levels of education, he told University World News.

For example in Peru, the university law establishes three objectives for universities, to: train high quality professionals with a full sense of social responsibility, matching the needs of Peru; project actions and services towards the community to promote change and development; and to promote human and sustainable development at local, regional, national and global levels.

“This framework is being implemented by Peruvian universities, both public and private, including USIL,” which has as a result incorporated human and sustainable development into its educational model over the past two years, said Ostoja.

“One way in which states could encourage greater involvement of universities in projects linked to the SDGs is through competitive funds aimed at undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as through scholarships or flexible financial instruments that allow greater access to quality education in institutions with a strong commitment to sustainability,” said Ostoja.

Leveraging science and technology

The SDG Summit will be followed by a planned UN Summit of the Future in 2024, whose key goal will be to “turbocharge the implementation of the 2030 Agenda”, said the UN.

Government leaders at this week’s summit debated priorities for action. A key focus was on leveraging science and technology to achieve sustainable development. It is clear that governments are increasingly recognising this area, in which higher education with its huge research output plays a key role.

A UN SDG progress report indicated that global research and development spending is up, particularly since the pandemic, but is still too low in those least developed countries

Global expenditure on research and development (R&D) as a proportion of GDP increased from 1.69% in 2015 to 1.93% in 2020, primarily driven by increased R&D investments and substantial declines in gross domestic product (GDP), the report noted.

There were gaping regional differences. In 2020 Europe and Northern America, and Eastern and Southeast Asia, spent 2.62% and 2.31% of GDP respectively. But many regions still spend less than 1% of GDP on R&D, such as 0.32% in Sub-Saharan Africa and 0.90% in Northern Africa and Western Asia.

The number of researchers per million inhabitants has increased worldwide from 1,022 in 2010 and 1,160 in 2015 to 1,342 in 2020. Women comprise 31.2% of global researchers.

“The capacity for humanity to use science, technology and innovation to confront crises in transformative ways, and for science, technology and innovation to deliver for the public good, was clear during the pandemic,” the progress report noted.

“The potential for science, technology and innovation to be applied to the SDGs is vastly untapped, and institutional and other barriers that stand in the way of STI progress must be recognised and lowered,” said the report, which outlined several measures that would help to strengthen the capacity of countries to use STI and data for transformative action.

According to another SDG Summit document: “The world is equipped with levels of knowledge, technologies, and resources that are unprecedented in history. Yet the potential for science, technology, innovation and data to be applied to the SDGs is vastly under-utilised.”

One reason highlighted in background papers was the continued weak participation of women, girls and minority groups in developing science, technology and innovation.

Leaders at the summit discussed potential measures to strengthen the capacity of developing countries to use science, technology, innovation and data for what they termed “transformative action”.

In a letter to UN heads of state and governments earlier this year Guterres said the need for such policies has been intensified by “the multiple crises of the last three years” which “have dealt a major blow to SDGs implementation efforts”.

He wrote: “Millions have been pushed into poverty. Inequalities have risen considerably. The rights of women and girls have been under siege. And the urgent and existential business of averting climate catastrophe has been undermined.”

Transforming education report

More focused action was outlined in a Transforming Education report released to the summit. It concluded that “progress towards the education-related targets of the 2030 Agenda is significantly off track; with the world going through profound and existential changes. Education, as we know it, is not fit for purpose.”

Weak equity, access, quality and relevance, “compounded by a lack of adequate financing, are having dramatic consequences for learners worldwide, especially the most vulnerable”, the report said.

As a result, the UN Transforming Education Summit initiative will move forward under a road map that includes talks on education finance and supporting efforts to increase national education budgets, country networks working together to transform and improve education, and measuring progress towards education-related SDG goals.

Another more detailed action plan was released in a Power of Data report that outlined steps to encourage UN member states to improve data systems, boosting research and informed policy development.

It said: “Data is the fuel that powers progress across all the SDGs. Stronger data systems are essential to good policy, and foundational to the digital transformation and improvements in public services that will accelerate progress worldwide.” It argued that investments in data “pay an average ‘dividend’ of US$32 for every US$1 invested”.

Despite this, UN member states have failed to boost data collection and analysis through a lack of political prioritisation, fragmentation, inadequate and siloed investment, and capacity shortfalls. A UN Power of Data High Impact Initiative is planning to tackle these barriers and strengthen national data systems to accelerate SDG progress.

“We cannot achieve, accelerate or transform what we cannot measure,” said the report, noting that the initiative aims to launch 50 national data partnerships to boost government decision making, advance digital transformation and fuel economic growth and development.

Guidance will be developed, including advice on effective investment in data and mobilising funding for national data partnerships. A secretariat run by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data will hold meetings, monitor progress, coordinate participants and share best practices.

Some expert’s views

University World News interviewed three members of the Independent Group of Scientists who were appointed by the UN secretary general to prepare the Global Sustainable Development Report 2023, published ahead of the SDG Summit.

Dr Opha Pauline Dube, associate professor in the department of environmental science at the University of Botswana, told University World News: “We have to acknowledge that the unsustainable development witnessed so far was facilitated through science, technology and innovation since the first industrial revolution.”

Science and technology have been pivotal in elevating humanity, but also leading the world to the current level of unsustainability. “Science, technology and innovation are therefore more than ever challenged to introspect and undergo rebirth to change the current course of human actions on Planet Earth to a sustainable pathway,” Dube said.

“To be a game changer and truly transformative towards sustainable development, science must be holistic, visionary and fearlessly objective. Science, technology and innovation are products of society and hence must be cognisant of ethics and principles of justice. They should aim to be inclusive and build and sustain trust at policy level and society at large.

“To me these are hallmarks for coherent and strategic application of science, technology and innovation for game changing transitions,” Dube said.

Jaime Montoya, professor of medicine at the University of the Philippines, told University World News: “To make game changing transitions, science, technology and innovation should be contextualised in the local setting, identifying possible impediments and barriers with the appropriate policy instruments and involvement of all critical actors to ensure rapid adoption.”

Social scientist Shirin Malekpour, associate professor at Monash Sustainable Development Institute of Monash University in Australia, told University World News: “In discussing STI, often much attention is put on technologies.”

For instance at the UN SDG Summit, in a Leaders Dialogue on STI, participants emphasised technologies. “Not much is discussed about social sciences that are urgently needed for understanding the roadblocks to transformation, such as powerful interests, or limited institutional capacities for implementation,” said Malekpour.

“Technologies are key to implementing the SDGs, but they are not the only game changers. Systemic transformations to achieve the SDGs will need to involve changes in policies and regulation, practices and behaviour,” said Malekpour.

Botswana’s Dube said: “Developing countries need to realise that development and science are strongly coupled, encompass values and therefore can be context specific. As a result despite globalisation it is necessary to enable growth in local science capacity, and prioritise and trust homegrown science.

“With this mindset, developing countries will move towards establishing appropriate measures to embrace science, technology, innovation and data for sustainable transformative action.”

In the Philippines, Montoya said that to strengthen and deploy the STI and data capacity of developing countries for transformative action, international organisations and governments should strengthen foresight capacity to develop visions for long term development.

Greater investment in R&D is needed in developing countries, Malekpour said. A focus should be on how to strengthen countries’ adoption and use of STI. “We also know that much of the research on the dynamics of transformation and how to navigate them comes from developed countries, and the insights might not always be directly transferable to the developing world. This is much harder than technology transfer.

“So dedicated context-specific research in developing countries is needed in different areas of transformation, including on understanding key impediments, strategising for change, and navigating change,” Malekpour concluded.