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UNESCO: Knowledge-driven actions for global sustainability

In mid-February (09Febr, 2002) 2022, UNESCO launched the report on Knowledge-driven actions: transforming higher education for global sustainability. The report is an urgent global call on what is needed globally for achieving the SDGs.

Universities, and by extension higher education institutions, must use the knowledge they produce and the training of new professionals to help solve some of the world's greatest problems, as addressed in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations (UN). Humanity is facing unprecedented challenges, particularly in relation to climate change, loss of nature and biodiversity, inequality, health, the economy, and a range of issues related to the 2030 Agenda. Given this new reality, where the future of humans and other species is at stake, it is time for higher education institutions and their stakeholders to systematically rethink their role in society and their key missions, and how they can serve as a catalyst for a rapid, much-needed, and equitable transition to sustainability. Given the complexity of the issues at hand, solutions should be part of a radical agenda that requires new alliances and new incentives. It is also time for higher education institutions to make sustainability and SDG literacy a basic requirement for all faculty and students. Sustainability education should expose students to real-world problems and immerse them in real-world issues. Valuing the well-being of people and the planet and contributing to values beyond just making money will excite and inspire students and faculty alike. Ultimately, the educational culture at universities and colleges must encourage students to learn through experimentation and critical thinking from diverse perspectives. This report is undoubtedly about the SDGs, but it is important to recognize that they will be phased out in 2030. We therefore strongly recommend that while universities are part of this agenda, they should also look forward - not only to the implementation of the SDGs, but also to engage deeply in the elaboration of the next steps and goals beyond 2030. A long-term perspective must be taken for both activities and policies HEI. The UNESCO report calls on universities and colleges to actively participate in an agenda that has the consensus of 193 countries and aims to solve some of the world's most pressing problems, as outlined in the 17 SDGs. The challenge for higher education institutions is to embrace the 2030 Agenda because if they do not, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the SDGs. The SDGs represent a unifying challenge for all universities and higher education institutions, which must be reflected in plans and actions for research, education, and outreach. Universities have played a critical role over the centuries as agents of social enlightenment and change, maintaining their role as free and critical institutions while seeking, to varying degrees, to provide service to society. It is critical to maintain and promote this important role and to enable universities to combine their traditions of critical thinking with problem-solving activities while adapting their role in light of societal changes. The future of humanity and our planet is threatened, and the need for critical thinking and social change is, therefore, more urgent than ever. Higher education institutions should, when necessary, stimulate societal change, take a leading role in the transitions necessary for humanity, and emphasize that change is immediate. This also means that higher education institutions should critically rethink their own practices, curricula, and research and consider how they can motivate their staff, students, and society at large to do the same.

Executive Summary

The opportunity to answer this call is now. Higher education institutions, their leaders, faculty, and students have specific roles and responsibilities in societal transformation, depending on the nature of the institution and the issues at hand. To that end, the structure and culture of higher education institutions must change, and the barriers to needed change within higher education institutions must be identified and progressively addressed. This report focuses on and advocates for three main areas of change HEI: the need to move toward inter-and transdisciplinarity in education and research; the compelling need for institutions to become open, promote epistemic dialog, and integrate other forms of knowledge; and the call for a much stronger presence in society at large through proactive outreach activities and partnerships with other societal actors to raise awareness and influence policy on environmental degradation and the SDGs in general. This includes direct involvement in experimental projects that test solutions with student participation. The report addresses some of the systemic barriers that could impede progress in these three areas of transformation. Recognizing the value of life and the need for all people to have a quality of life requires reaffirming the human rights-based approach to the education we provide and the research we conduct. This means recognizing that human rights for all can only be achieved if we actively protect our natural resources and all forms of life, and continually struggle against the power relations that foster inequality and all forms of violence and discrimination. This includes valuing cultural diversity and recognizing the contribution that different cultures can make to achieving these goals. Equality and inclusion are values that are also at the forefront of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda; the commitment to leave no one behind becomes key. The contribution of higher education is multifaceted: theoretical, philosophical, and, of course, ethical. The recommendations in this report address how higher education institutions - taking into account the very different cultures and contexts in which they have emerged and operate - can make progress toward each of these goals, and how the existing structural and cultural barriers discussed in the body of the report can be changed.

General recommendations

HEI has ethical principles and values. It is time to make them explicit and to promote awareness and discussion about them. Critical thinking is one of these values and must remain a central theme for HEIs, not least in relation to complex issues of sustainability and achieving the SDGs. Moreover, sustainability should become a core practice and objective of higher education institutions and be reflected in structures, programs, and activities. Universities are called upon to address the complex problems of today's world. Therefore, they should incorporate inter- and transdisciplinary activities in education and research and strengthen the relationship between research and education. It is also time to ensure that different ways of knowing, learning, and sharing knowledge become visible and that universities commit to this. In addition, universities should encourage dialog and engagement with diverse communities-particularly those traditionally marginalized in these areas-recognizing the value of difference. The roles of higher education institutions include sharing and democratizing knowledge, as well as raising awareness of the consequences of unsustainable modes of production and consumption and the problems of inequality and exclusion, and the need to make progress toward the 2030 Agenda. It is strongly recommended that higher education institutions strive for a more equitable representation of all segments of society in both the student body and the faculty, and strengthen lifelong learning activities.

Recommendations for Education

Students will be the workforce of the future and as such need a strong ethical foundation to advocate and strive for sustainability and inclusion in their activities. To provide a holistic view of the problems and their potential solutions, more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary programs and courses should be offered.

To this end, degree programs need to include inter- or transdisciplinary courses related to the SDGs, and education in general should take inclusive approaches and respect for different cultures and knowledge systems. Students need more opportunities to engage in experiential and dialogic activities with diverse communities in society. Student and faculty participation in building an education that addresses sustainability should be strongly encouraged in a continuing effort to democratize universities internally around priority issues.

Recommendations for Research

Universities should not stop protecting and expanding academic freedom to promote systemic change. Basic and curiosity-driven research should also be maintained as a fundamental principle where relevant. However, universities should also strive to overcome the traditional separation of basic and applied research. Internal incentives should be adapted to encourage research projects, programs, and centers that address nature degradation, climate change, and inequalities, as well as those that require the participation of multiple disciplines; these should certainly include the social sciences and humanities. Alternative research methods such as participatory action research should be tested and refined to advance knowledge co-production with diverse communities and transdisciplinary research. More emphasis should be placed on SDG-related achievements and broad-based research for careers, curricula, and researcher advancement. Ranking systems that discourage collaborative and engaged research should be radically revised. Consistent with universities' role as democratizers of knowledge, open access publishing and open science policies should be phased in and the dissemination and application of research results should be expanded.

Recommendations for Outreach and Community Engagement

Outreach and community engagement policies need to be much more proactive to fulfill universities' role in sustainability. Policy advocacy, engagement in societal projects for sustainability, and the involvement of various sectors of society as partners in the implementation of the SDGs need to be strengthened. Awareness raising that explains sustainability issues and promotes policies, societal actions, and personal behaviors that address climate change, loss of nature, and inequality in different sectors of society clearly needs to be strengthened. Free, open knowledge platforms should be part of these activities. Building and participating in networks among academics, civil society, and business sectors focused on collaboration on the SDGs should also be intensified. Existing multilateral networks between universities to promote joint research and education projects should be strengthened and new networks developed. Partnerships among HEIs in high-, middle-, and low-income countries should be revised to create space for more equitable and productive relationships and focus on capacity building for sustainability.

Specific recommendations

The following specific recommendations that emerged from the group's discussions emphasize the need for support from external institutions:

  • Quality assurance mechanisms sponsored by governments. Such mechanisms should give due recognition to what is being done in higher education institutions to promote and advance the SDGs:
  • A global SDG Central Fund for Research and Education to support faculty scholarships and fellowships for SDG-related programs and projects.
  • A global SDG college benchmarking system could be established that compares qualitatively and quantitatively how universities are advancing the various SDGs in the three areas of education, research, and outreach, as opposed to a ranking system that creates top-down competition, with the highest recognition given to those that holistically address a large number of SDGs in all their activities.
  • An annual SDG research and education conference could be held under the umbrella of UNESCO to promote the exchange of ideas and best practices to address current global challenges and deepen exchanges between countries and regions.
  • Donor agencies should consider greater investment in institutions in the Global South to strengthen the capacity of local researchers, research institutes, and think tanks to avoid a brain drain from the South to the North and enable all countries to find sustainable solutions that meet their needs.

    The following three specific recommendations for HEIs deserve to be included in this summary:
  • To embed and monitor sustainability activities in HEI governance structures, HEIs should consider establishing the position of a Chief Sustainability or SDG Officer and/or a Sustainability Committee at the highest level.
  • Universities must refuse to conduct research that supports unsustainable practices (e.g., the fossil fuel industry) or invest their endowment funds in support of the fossil fuel industry.
  • Universities should adopt SDG-aligned and "sustainable campus" policies that develop prototypes of sustainable institutions. Once these are well developed, universities could certify their institutions in sustainability at various levels, with clear targets for achieving higher levels of certification.

    In keeping with its mandate, the report aims to look at the interplay between research, higher education, and sustainable development from a global perspective. We have sought to achieve this by, first, developing the idea of collaboration for the SDGs and making the case for a move toward inter-and transdisciplinary education and research. Second, we have tried to convey the importance of embracing the pluriverse and opening higher education to deep epistemological dialog with other forms of knowledge and with different sectors of society, including those that have been marginalized in higher education. Third, we have emphasized the importance of enhancing the role of higher education institutions in society and building a strong voice in policy and practice through strong partnerships and networks. These three areas of further development of higher education have strong cultural, structural, and even organizational and financial implications. The final recommendations are therefore intended to be studied and discussed not only by the global higher education community, but also by governments, funding agencies, and civil society organizations that can work with higher education to better fulfill its role in working toward a more sustainable and equitable society. We conclude this report at a time when many countries are experiencing a new wave of COVID -19 that has now affected numerous aspects of humanity for more than a year and a half. COVID -19, which involves endangering lives, in this case, human lives, is a serious consequence of unsustainable ways of interacting with nature. The impact of this pandemic on poverty, inequality, and also on the environment underscores this group's call for higher education to become more engaged in the 2030 Agenda for a healthier, more sustainable, and more inclusive world.
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Ebba Ossiannilsson is an e-learning expert and consultant with a range of research interests in the use of digital technologies for learning, teaching and research.
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