Universities have demonstrated to the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, why their proficiency matters in embracing the digital transformations and why international collaboration in higher education is essential to solve the world’s pressing challenges, arising from the global pandemic.
Five years after the United Nations’ declaration on the Sustainable Development Goals & underlying objectives, Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) has continued to detail the needed measures for their implementation in national and international communities. These 17 objectives, published in September 2015, are the constituent of the 2030 Agenda which encompasses and extends the Millennium Declaration. Each one comprises of specific goals to be attained over the next 15 years and addresses the motifs for optimal human resource development and planetary wellbeing.Universities are the prime institutions for the creation and dissemination of knowledge, a crucial player in the attainment of these goals. Since its incorporation, Academia has come up with new educational measures and transformations to be adopted for playing a leading role in achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda.
Since the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainable development has been on the agenda of universities along with imparting education. As such, universities have embarked on the whole agenda and make sure that the hundreds and thousands of graduates who join the workforce possess a sound understanding of the implications of SDGs in society, especially when they take up leadership roles in the various sectors where they serve.
The SDGs can be grouped into three broad areas: well-being, the environment, and the economy. Along with ensuring high-quality education, universities encourage cutting-edge research, and ground-breaking innovation (Goal 4 and 9). Prominent universities are a significant part of civil society (Goal 16) and they are outstanding promotors of global and local partnerships (Goal 17). So, now is the time for the international community to recognise the fundamental importance of HEIs in achieving all 17 SDGs, which aim to eradicate poverty, protect the planet, uphold gender equality, safeguard human rights, promote cultural understanding, and assure prosperity for all, among others.
Through the various platforms of mass media and virtual sessions, discussions are thriving on how the COVID-19 has exposed huge inequalities in higher education, which is significantly evident in developing nations, creating bottlenecks in the development endeavours. Much has been said to deal with the social, financial, and technical constraints in accelerating educational interventions in the digital landscape, yet the HEIs have a great potential to accelerate the journey towards the 2030 Agenda. This article outlines a holistic approach for the HEIs to work on the 2030 Agenda - Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).
• Knowledge sharing – Universities through their extensive research expertise and actions, can play a vital role in providing the required knowledge, technical know-how, and innovative solutions to reinforce the achievement of SDGs. This can be achieved through incorporating the SDGs in university curricula, as well as encouraging more research initiatives on the themes related to the SDGs. In addition to this, universities can help make future leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, decision-makers, and citizens with the knowledge and inspiration to work unitedly towards the SGDs.
• Capacity building - HEIs can utilise the unique opportunity to manifest their commitment and capability to get actively engaged in community development interventions and make a meaningful contribution to the global development agenda. Particularly, during the pandemic, the academicians, technical experts, and specialists can help to develop and re-skill the workforce for supporting recovery from the crisis. It is now more evident that universities are central in uniting the youth for raising social awareness on reducing inequality, digital disparity, and environmental preservation.• Collaborative Network –SDGs provide the HEIs with a novel and inclusive way to collaborate with internal and external stakeholders (as illustrated in figure 2), leaving no one behind in accomplishing the shared goals of humanity and prosperity. This requires the stakeholders of HEIs to expand their spheres of connection both within and outside their institutions through joint programs and multilateral endeavours. Thus, working collaboratively to support each other will strengthen the collective measures towards the 2030 Agenda in the regional and global context.
• Sustainability roadmaps – For developing a shared approach towards the SDGs, universities need to align the governance policies and operational framework from the perspective of attaining these goals. In this regard, a roadmap can be devised to prioritise and strategise university-wide as well as discipline-wise action plans relevant to specific SDGs.
As we embark on this collective journey towards Agenda 2030, it is high time for the HEIs to work on a shared vision and come up with a concrete plan of action that might serve as a catalyst for the universities in Bangladesh to support the achievement of SDGs. However, at the same time, we should recognise the crucial fact that the ongoing COVID-19 has offered a unique opportunity to rethink what we do and how to do it, triggering the need for strengthening the interaction between the higher education community and policymakers. In this scenario, the sustainable development agenda 2030 has pushed for better interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary research, as well as the international collaboration that is required for resilience planning in a more complex world.
The writer is Deputy Director (Research), Centre for Higher Studies and Research, Bangladesh University of Professionals