Building a global partnership between higher education institutions and schools to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Delivered at UNESCO 40th General Conference. High Level Meeting on Higher Education.

Fernando M. Reimers

November 13, 2019

Thank you very much Director General Audrey Azoulay and Assistant Director General for Education Stefania Giannini, for the invitation to share a few thoughts at this important meeting and thank you all very much for the gift of your time and attention. My message today is simple, universities must collaborate with schools in the development of curriculum and programs of teacher preparation so that all students gain the competencies necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. If they do this work as part of global networks, this can accelerate the effectiveness and reach of the process. UNESCO is called to lead the creation of this global educational network.

This global convening of Ministers of Education and University Presidents to discuss Inclusion and Mobility in Higher Education at the 40th General Conference at UNESCO is timely and important. The topics of inclusion and mobility are indeed relevant to the 2030 development agenda. Just as important, however, is the urgency of aligning all educational institutions, from elementary and secondary schools to universities, so they can help build the necessary competencies that enable the achievement of the seventeen goals agreed upon at the 2015 General Conference of the United Nations, a set of goals outlining a vision of a more inclusive, peaceful and sustainable world. The Sustainable Development Goals represent indeed an ambitious compact, comparable in scope and complexity to the thirty human rights articulated in the Universal Declaration adopted at the UN General Assembly seventy one years ago, in December of 1948. Just as many were skeptical then that those rights could be achieved, so there are many today that question whether the Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved in the short eleven years that remain until the target date of 2030.

Take for example SDG4, the education goal, the ambitions articulated in this goal are daunting. Free and equitable quality primary and secondary education that is relevant for all girls and boys; quality early childhood education for all girls and boys; equal access for women and men of affordable technical, vocational and tertiary education; significantly more youth and adults with employable skills; inclusion in access to education for vulnerable populations; universal literacy and numeracy for all youth; universal knowledge to promote sustainable development.

The reason the SDGs are significantly more ambitious than the Millenium Development Goals is two-fold. First, the process followed to articulate them was one of the most inclusive ever followed in the history of the United Nations. These goals reflect, to a much greater extent than those of previous UN compacts, the views of governments around the world, about the challenges we must address, and about what constitutes inclusive and sustainable development. The second reason these goals are ambitious is because the nature of the challenges we face requires nothing short of such ambitions. Take climate change, for instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recently issued compelling reports that underscore the urgency of determined steps to stop global warming and mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Similarly urgent challenges concern persistent forms of social exclusion, inequality and poverty, intra and interstate violence, challenges facing democratic institutions and the growing number of internally displaced people and refugees.

The Sustainable Development Goals are an imaginative and bold effort to address some of those challenges. Achieving them will require access to the best available knowledge, and in many cases the creation of new knowledge and technologies, precisely the task of Universities and research institutions. All of these goals have implications for the development of human capabilities, and therefore education is not only one of the goals, but is essential to the achievement of all others. School and university education are the pillars on which the achievement of the SDGs rest.

It is for this reason that this meeting, which brings together leaders of higher education and of school systems, is so significant. It signals the necessity, and provides the opportunity, to develop new forms of collaboration across the entire continuum of education institutions.

In order to support the achievement of many of these goals, schools and universities should develop and implement curriculum which helps students gain the necessary capabilities to achieve them. This is precisely target 4.7 in the UN SDGs. For instance, achieving goal 5 gender equality, requires not only that all education institutions provide equal opportunities for students of all gender identities, and address the systemic barriers that disadvantage girls and women, it is necessary that students learn to appreciate the importance of equality, and develop the capacity to identify and dismantle barriers where they exist. Similarly, in order to achieve goal 13, climate action, students should first understand how climate works, and have the knowledge of how climate is changing and of the options to slow down the pace of climate change. Developing such knowledge, skills and dispositions falls squarely in the domain of school and university curriculum. It is unlikely that the SDGs will be achieved unless schools and universities align the curriculum and programs of study with these goals. More ambitious curriculum designed to help students develop those competencies, will in turn require support for school teachers and university faculty to gain knowledge and develop new skills. This too is a task that Universities can embrace, to partner with schools for the purpose of supporting teachers so they are able to deliver an education which is relevant to the challenges of our times.

In addition, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will require access to specialized knowledge, the product of research which is typically conducted in universities. Just as universities already make significant contributions to addressing the social and economic challenges of the societies in which they exist, the global compact of the SDGs requires a significant effort of knowledge mobilization and utilization in the design and development of programs, policies, initiatives and institutions which lead to a decline in poverty, in inequality, advances in health, clean water and sanitation, sustainable cities and communities and so on. Universities are, as is science, one of the most cosmopolitan institutions invented by humanity. Just as challenges such as climate change, health epidemics, or global instability have no passport, so must the efforts to deploy science based knowledge to address them be based on collaborations across national borders.

Given the complexity of the task at hand, it is understandable that some would call for a readjustment of these goals towards more modest aspirations. The President of the World Bank, for example, has proposed a new focus for the Bank’s education efforts, addressing ‘learning poverty’ defined as the ability to read and understand a simple text by age 10. Important as such a goal is, it is undoubtedly a dim reflection of the broader set of education aspirations reflected in SDG4.

But downscaling the aspirations adopted at the UN General assembly four years ago in the face of their complexity will not make the challenges we face go away. Global warming, or the challenges to governance caused by social exclusion and discrimination, or the challenges caused by cyberwarfare will not wait until we are ready to take on goals of greater ambition than helping children read a short paragraph by the age of 10.

What our times call for instead is the same resolve and leadership demonstrated by the international community in the wake of world war II when a group of imaginative and courageous leaders adopted the universal declaration of human rights. That compact was indeed a bold aspirational statement. Yet it was precisely the breadth of the ambitions reflected in the thirty articles contained in the declaration which transformed humanity. Take article 26 in the declaration, for instance, establishing education as a basic human right. The inclusion of that right launched the most significant silent revolution experienced by humanity. Whereas in 1945, with a world population at 2.5 billion, less than half of the world’s children had the opportunity to set foot in a school, over the next seven decades, as the world population reached 7.7 billion, over nine in ten children now attend school. Such dramatic increase in access was achieved precisely because UNESCO took it upon itself to organize meetings such as this one, convening ministers of education and others, and supported policy change and the transfer of experience to accelerate the pace of educational expansion.

And this is the role UNESCO can play again at this crucial time in history when we need universities and schools to strengthen their collaboration: to convene those of you leading these institutions, create networks of universities, learn from the ongoing good practices, and accelerate the process of innovation in producing curriculum and teacher professional development by disseminating best practices through these networks. UNESCO can play the important role of supporting collaboration relying on the good and crucial work of universities to make education more relevant at all levels by developing curriculum and strengthening the development of the capacities of teachers and professors.

In addition to serving as the research and development engine of this process of collective intelligence to align all educational institutions with the SDGs, Universities must tackle two important challenges. The first is the democratic challenge of inclusion, the challenge of ensuring that access and completion of higher education is equally available to students from different genders, sexual orientation, ethnicities, religions, socio-economic backgrounds and migratory status provided they are qualified to pursue higher education. In too many institutions of higher education structural barriers make a university education available only to those born into the most privileged groups of society. This is not only a challenge to democratic ideals, but it is also a factor which contributes to social inequality and to the ensuing discontent with the functioning of institutions which fuels social instability and challenges governance.

Addressing the challenge of inclusion will require in many places expanding access to higher education, where distance education and more flexible modalities can meet the needs of a more diverse group of learners. It is especially important that in a world rapidly changing and which demands different and broader skills, universities ensure that their curriculum indeed provides students opportunities to develop competencies which matter to become architects of their own lives and contributing members of their communities. Ensuring that more gain access to and complete higher education requires also that universities collaborate with pre-collegiate institutions in the design of high quality curriculum and teacher professional development so that all students receive an elementary and secondary education of quality and relevance.

Because universities are at the core cosmopolitan institutions, mobility of students and faculty is essential to their functioning. The development of knowledge to address the challenges of our times should know no boundaries, and we can only accelerate the pace of the process of advancing knowledge by enabling researchers to collaborate seamlessly across institutions. Many of the problems we need to solve, whether it is the discovery of treatments of diseases, or the development of approaches to accelerate the reduction of poverty, require substantial intellectual, financial and institutional resources, exceeding the capacity of even the best endowed universities. Collaboration across institutions is therefore essential to do our work. In addition, mobility across institutions is critical to the educational mission of the university, of educating cosmopolitans. Unfortunately, the very same forces of rising authoritarian nationalism that are challenging democratic institutions, are also challenging universities, particularly regarding their cosmopolitan aspirations and activities, such as the mobility of faculty and students. This is the kind of emerging challenge that can best be faced as part of large networks of peer institutions, including an organization such as UNESCO, with the strength and moral courage to stand for the very values on which the UN was founded. Just as UNESCO has vigorously advocated for the essential freedom for the exercise of journalism, so it must advocate for academic freedom and for the elimination of the barriers which are been erected to disrupt academic exchanges and mobility.

A particular challenge that is both a mobility and an inclusion challenge is assisting those students and faculty displaced by persecution, violence and conflict. Universities can make a meaningful contribution by developing systems that facilitate transfer of credits and the recognition of academic credentials for students, the growing interest in competency-based education may facilitate such recognition and by supporting specifically the opportunity to access higher education for students who are refugees.

We live the best of times, also challenging times. To the challenges of sustainability, inclusion and peace we must add the challenge of the forces that would like to go back to a time in which national borders limited the extent of ones concerns and the opportunities to address them. The forces of nationalism are strong and they challenge every transnational institution imaginable, particularly those concerned with the creation of global public goods such as universal human rights. Those challenges extend also to the United Nations, and to UNESCO, and they range from diminishing financial support, to challenging the authority of this institution to lead in the creation of opportunities to collaborate democratically, bringing together government representatives, universities and other organizations of civil society. What could be more difficult than getting such multistakeholder and diverse coalitions to work, particularly in tackling problems that have no easy answers, such as educating children and youth to make the world better, more inclusive, more peaceful and more sustainable.

But this house has done this work before, and I hope will do it again, with the help of all of us. For if we don’t collaborate, all of us, in preparing our students to achieve each of the seventeen goals that guide us to a better world, who will do it?

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Fernando M. Reimers

Expert in Global Education, researching and teaching how to educate children and youth so they can thrive in complex and fluid times.