How higher education is driving sustainable development

“None of the SDGs can be achieved in isolation: to truly deliver lasting change, collaboration between universities and partners around the world will be critical”

In an opening address to the Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers late last month, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta sounded a clarion call to government education ministers around the world.

They should, he said ‘be alarmed to note that, by 2050, Korea and Japan will be enrolling 80% or more of their high school graduates to higher education, while countries such as the Central African Republic and Niger will be struggling to reach 5%.’ This gap, he said, was a critical issue for the Commonwealth, whose 54 member states are home to one in three of the world’s young people.

The comment set the tone for a meeting that saw ministers give unprecedented recognition to higher education’s contribution to global social and economic development, and to worldwide recovery from Covid-19. What makes this so striking is that the focus of such international meetings is often on basic education reform, leaving higher education struggling to compete for funding and recognition. Higher education – and the right to access it – can end up pitted against primary education and the need to first achieve basic universal literacy for all. But this ‘either/or’ dynamic overlooks the bigger picture – one in which universities are a cornerstone of international development and of the education ecosystem as a whole.

Therein lies the fundamental shift in thinking that arguably still needs to happen at the highest levels of global leadership: from viewing higher education as primarily benefitting the individual towards its role as a public good and, in particular, its contribution to global sustainable development. Indeed, April’s CCEM marks the first time that Commonwealth education ministers collectively have directly recognised the pivotal part universities play in realising all 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from ending poverty to tackling the climate crisis.

This vital contribution comes in myriad forms. University research produces the knowledge and innovation needed to tackle global challenges, from the development of drought-tolerant crops to life-changing vaccines. Through teaching and learning, they shape generations of skilled, employable graduates whose knowledge and training will move the world forward and bring social and economic benefits to their societies. Through community engagement, universities combine academic knowledge with the knowledge and experience of their communities to address social disadvantage and exclusion. And, in a polarised world, universities offer a space for critical thinking and the open exchange of ideas that can broaden minds and transcend borders.

But recognition of this contribution is not enough. Higher education’s capacity to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals hinges on three key factors. First, universities need the funding and resources to realise this potential. Second, opportunities to access higher education must made available to all those who would benefit, with too many still left behind as a result of wealth, geography, and gender. And third is the fact that none of the SDGs can be achieved in isolation: to truly deliver lasting change, collaboration between universities and partners around the world will be critical.

Organisations such as the Association of Commonwealth Universities provide a valuable framework for such partnerships. With 500 member universities across 50 countries, we bring institutions together – and with partners from governments, business, and civil society – to deliver real progress on the SDGs, with existing collaborations including a pioneering project to widen access to online learning in east Africa, the Commonwealth Sustainable Cities Initiative, and networks to pool knowledge on climate resilience, peacebuilding, and more.

In the months ahead, we will continue to represent our global community of universities to major decision-makers, including the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June, where we will be relaying our members’ call for greater recognition of their contribution to society and for improved access to higher education. But universities everywhere can play a part. Linking their activities directly to the SDGs is a way for universities to demonstrate their commitment to a better future for all and to help us deliver our core message: that to invest in higher education is to invest in a more peaceful and prosperous future for people and planet.

About the author: Joanna Newman is Chief Executive and Secretary General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.