Partnerships based on the Sustainable Development Goals are key to universities tackling global challenges

13-10-21 USAf 0 comment

Dr Hilligje van’t Land, Secretary-General of the International Association of Universities (IAU) based in Paris, was one of the international speakers at Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) 2nd Higher Education Conference from 6 to 8 October. She said the mission of IAU is not very different to that of USAf’s.

She added that she might borrow the concept of USAf’s strategy groups, which focus on different priority areas of higher education and their contribution to society. USAf operates through five strategy groups comprising experts from the university system and partner entities. Their core responsibility is to develop and implement strategies within their respective areas of focus. They also conceptualise projects on behalf of the Board of Directors of USAf and report regularly on these interventions while advocating on behalf of the Board on issues pertaining to their respective portfolios.

Namely, these are: the Funding Strategy Group; the Research and Innovation Strategy Group; the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group; the Transformation Strategy Group and the World of Work Strategy Group.

“I think those strategy groups you’ve created within USAf could be scaled up and shared as an example with countries around South Africa, on the continent, but certainly way beyond, in Europe, in Latin America, in North America, in Asia.

“And this scaling up could lead to the development of the roadmap that UNESCO [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] will be developing in the coming months for the World Higher Education Conference to take place in May,” she said, also encouraging delegates to attend the event to be held in a hybrid format in Barcelona, Spain.

She pointed out that IAU’s conference topic, The Relevance and Value of Higher Education, is similar to that of USAf’s The Engaged University.

USAf is a member of IAU, which was created under the auspices of UNESCO in 1950. It is a membership-based organisation serving the global higher education community through endeavours such as trends analysis, publications, events, and global advocacy.

Dr Hilligje van’t Land (left) is also Executive Director of the International Universities Bureau. She co-edited the Council of Europe’s book, Higher Education’s Response to the CoViD-19 Pandemic: Building a More Sustainable and Democratic Future, with one of the USAf conference’s other international speakers, Professor Ira Harkavy of the University of Pennsylvania in the US.

The session’s chair, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town, introduced Van’t Land as having “a bird’s eye view of how universities around the world are making social impact part of their mission, often by focusing creatively on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”.

Phakeng also recognized Van’t Land for having positioned higher education as a key stakeholder for the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Transforming our World.

Are universities complicit in the big world challenges today?

Van’t Land said she wanted to begin her presentation by answering the question Phakeng had asked Harkavy earlier in the session: “Do you think the university is complicit in the big challenges that we have in the world today?”

“Yes they are,” said Van’t Land, “but they also have this incredible opportunity to transform the world”.

In its vision, the IAU sees itself as contributing to peace and human development, which includes generating and disseminate new knowledge and creating insights and finding sustainable solutions to local and global challenges. That is also why its most recent book, a collection of essays by 82 contributors in honour of IAU’s 70th anniversary, is titled The Promise of Higher Education – available online through open access.

IAU continuously looks at the role of higher education and what it stands for in society by “engaging in collaboration” – a term Van’t Land said USAf’s CEO Ahmed Bawa had used several times when opening the conference. “We need more collaboration. We need not compete – in the rankings we’re challenged already – but to collaborate, to bring insights together, and to co-create something for the future of our society,” said Van’t Land.

The values needed for transformation

She noted that Professor Harkavy had advocated for the same things as IAU: “the fundamental values and principles that underpin the kind of education we want to build, the kind of societies that we wish for,” she said. Higher education institutions needed to pursue these policies and practices that “respect diverse perspectives, promote social responsibility and contribute to the development of a sustainable future”.

The IAU’s work is based on a set of values: ethics, integrity, equity, solidarity, cooperation, and global responsibility towards all communities. Another key value is quality – of learning, research and knowledge.

Admittedly, “the appreciation of diversity is easier said than done,” Van’t Land said. However, she said it needs to be fostered repeatedly, “not only in the way we teach, but the way we bring the students into the classroom, and the way we make their knowledge and perceptions contribute to the development of a knowledge base,” she said.

The IAU also believe in the butterfly effect, whereby small changes can lead to large-scale effects later. “The transformation of one student in one institution will have an effect on the global level, no doubt about that,” she said.

The pillars of engagement

Dr van’t Land said she had noted how the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, had called for increased collaboration, both between institutions and with stakeholders.

She said this engagement depends on:

  • its ability to translate and resonate locally, regionally, nationally and globally;
  • transformative teaching and learning — where those who teach and those who learn “have the opportunity to continuously re-educate, retrain, reskill in order to never fall asleep, never to lay back on what we knew or what was”;
  • internationalisation, not just for the sake of mobility, but for the sake of better understanding and connecting; and
  • community engagement.

She referred to the above as the four pillars of engagement.

People in higher education need these hard-to-teach skills and attitudes

IAU has worked with the Council of Europe and colleagues from all around Europe and internationally for five years to develop a reference framework for competencies for democratic culture. She said this framework would be worth workshopping at USAf because it looked at the competencies needed to transform students when they come into the institution and contribute to society later.

They involved a series of skills combined with a broader sense of competencies, such as autonomous learning, linguistic communicative, cooperation — absolutely essential; conflict resolution, flexibility, adaptability, and empathy. These were all part of what has to be learnt through higher education, she said, as well as the attitudes of openness, respect, civic mindedness, responsibility, self-efficacy, and tolerance of ambiguity.

“This is not easy to teach but it is something that needs to be at the heart of what we do, on the teacher side, on the student side, on the staff side,” she said.

Agenda 2030: Transforming our World

She said institutions tended to focus on the Sustainable Development Goal of climate change when they considered global challenges. But that could not be viewed in isolation. “It is about water, about sanitation, food security; it’s about all the 17 SDGs that have been identified in the UN Agenda 2030,” she said. Universities with their large spectrum of disciplines could take up these SDGs at all levels “because the agenda is universal; it has to do with all the dynamics that we foster in teaching, research, and community engagement,” she said.

This interconnectedness was also an opportunity to transform the university by breaking down silos and offering multi- and transdisciplinary perspectives. Bringing together unexpected communities of practice — such as a professor of chemistry with a professor of literature – brought opportunities to generate a different kind of approach to the knowledge they teach and research.

In 2018, IAU invited institutions from around the world to take the lead on any of the SDGs. A university in Colombia was focusing on SDG 2, about zero hunger; one in Sweden was looking at SDG 8, about decent work and economic growth; and another e in Ghana on SDG 16, about life on land.

“We looked for very diverse universities to take the lead, not the highest-ranked, not the best in whichever table, but the universities who really wanted to make a difference,” she said. They were invited to create networks around these SDGs and create sub-clusters of up to 20 universities from different continents to develop capacity, better understanding of the goals and how to work on them with different stakeholders.

“We bring them all together on a regular basis, to connect them in a way that will transform the perception of what we can do, and how the university can transform to actually address the global world that we all face,” she said. “Partnerships are key,” she said. There was a need for a new culture of collaboration for the future, and the SDGS and Agenda 2030 offer the basis for this transformation, said Dr van’t Land.

She spoke of four pillars of higher education, identified by the Delors Commission of the European Union in 1996:

  • Learning to know;
  • Learning to do;
  • Learning to live together; and
  • Learning to be.

Comment from the chair

Professor Phakeng said she wanted to add “unlearning to be, and to do” to the four pillars of higher education. “We have a lot to unlearn because there is a lot of baggage, and the unlearning is not only in relation to the SDGs, but in relation with who we are as a university, who owns it, and how does that ownership manifest, and who decides,” she said.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.