New partnership shines light on HE’s key roles for sustainability

The extraordinary work that universities have done over decades to advance sustainable development is not sufficiently recognised by society at large, governments or the United Nations system. A new partnership between University World News and the International Association of Universities will address that problem.

Acknowledgement is crucial if the world is to benefit fully from the significant transformative potential of universities through their core missions of teaching and learning, research, and community engagement.

Indeed, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be achieved without the contributions of higher education and research, as University World News points out in our SDGs Hub, which shares articles on university activities, research and developments around sustainability.

This is also a major focus of the International Association of Universities (IAU), and the aim of our partnership is – through reporting, case studies and analysis – to support and amplify each other’s work, and through this help to raise the global visibility of the sustainability efforts and positive impact of higher education.

Brendan O’Malley, editor in chief of University World News, says: “We firmly believe that universities can play a vital and leading role not only in generating knowledge and enabling students to fulfil their potential but also in helping to transform society and our relationship with the planet.

“We are very pleased to be partnering with IAU because we recognise that IAU provides a strong voice internationally, including at the United Nations, on the powerful contributions higher education can make to creating a better, fairer and more sustainable world – in line with the internationally agreed agenda set out in the SDGs.”

International Association of Universities

The mission of the IAU is to connect and support universities from around the world. Founded in 1950 under the auspices of UNESCO, the association is membership based and serves higher education globally through expertise and analysis, publications and portals, advisory services, peer-to-peer learning and global advocacy.

Today, the IAU brings together around 600 members from 120 countries, universities and other higher education institutions along with 29 national, regional and international associations of universities such as the European University Association, the Association of Arab Universities and the Association of African Universities, as well as a wide range of non-governmental organisations or networks, whose primary mandate is related to education and sharing the IAU’s goals and values.

Its priorities include fair, inclusive and value-based leadership; fair and inclusive internationalisation; higher education and research for sustainable development; and the digital transformation of higher education – all based on strong pillars of ethics, values and quality.

IAU Secretary General Hilligje van’t Land says: “Regarding sustainable development, we’re working tirelessly on promoting the important role of higher education in addressing the global goals set out in the UN Agenda 2030, in particular all the Sustainable Development Goals.

“We started 30 years ago with environmental education, moved to education for sustainable development, and have stepped up our activities around higher education and research for sustainable development and engaging universities in the different aspects of all of the SDGs.

“Without strong universities and high quality higher education, we will never be able to address the goals set and we will not be able to educate the world in order to behave differently, to become more aware of the challenges that we face and also of the opportunities that are out there to make a difference as individuals and as a collective.”

Universities help to advance the SDGs through teaching and learning, research, community engagement and by promoting thought leadership. Global higher education comprises hundreds of millions of people, from staff and students and researchers to its colossal alumni community and vast networks with the private and public sectors, business and industry and civil society – and therefore has major transformative and innovation potential.

Over and above this, universities worldwide have become proactive in promoting the SDGs by embedding education for sustainable development into curricula, by themselves becoming more sustainable as institutions, and by massively expanding research into issues affecting sustainability, among many other things.

The IAU has created a global cluster on Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development. In 2018, IAU invited 16 universities to take the lead on each of the SDGs and to create sub-clusters of universities interested in working on the goals and developing projects around the different challenges they highlight.

Since then, the cluster has grown to around 70 institutions, sparked further projects and organised expert meetings. The IAU is the lead on SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals).

Increased visibility

Van’t Land emphasises the importance of higher education working on all 17 of the SDGs. “You will not be able to address poverty issues if you don’t address health issues, if you don’t address clean water and sanitation issues, if you don’t address gender equity,” she says. This means highlighting specific work that universities do on particular topics, and also working in an inter- and transdisciplinary fashion and throughout the institution.

One of the reasons why higher education’s role in engaging with the SDGs is not recognised sufficiently is because universities in many countries are independent and autonomous institutions.

Today, universities understand the imperative to advocate for their role, vision and mission to governments and to society at large. “They have to stand up for the sector and explain what it stands for,” says Van’t Land. It is very important to showcase the local mission of universities, to re-emphasise the importance of universities to society at large.

The community engagement work of universities will be highlighted in the IAU partnership with University World News, which publishes articles continually on sustainability issues. Together, the two organisations hope to help strengthen sustainability in higher education.

There is so much more that can be done to promote sustainable development through stronger engagement between higher education, governments and other key stakeholders.

This is what the IAU and University World News aim to achieve, by working together to uncover and explore some of the myriad sustainability activities and initiatives, good practices and research across the higher education community. Together, we will promote the role of higher education in engaging with and addressing the global Sustainable Development Goals.

The new partnership – announced during the week of the 2023 UN SDG Summit and at the halfway point to the target date for achieving the SDGs – comes on the heels of another partnership, with the global quality assurance agency ABET, that supports our reporting on education for sustainable development.