Universities have an important role to play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, but with major gaps in progress, institutions need to build partnerships, including in research, regionally, with industry and with the community, a regional Asian policy dialogue on higher education and the SDGs has heard.
The policy dialogue on the contribution of higher education partnerships towards achieving the SDGs, held from 29-31 March in Bangkok, Thailand, was organised by the European Union’s Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region (EU-SHARE) programme.
It included the ASEAN Secretariat, Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development (SEAMEO RIHED), the ASEAN University Network, the European Union, British Council and other stakeholders including the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Netherlands agency Nuffic.
The discussion on how best to promote partnership between higher education, the private sector and civil society in the region will feed into the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference – a once-in-a-decade event to be held in May in Barcelona, Spain, as part of the Southeast Asian regional contribution.
“The role of higher education in partnering with society at large in achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals is timely with just under eight years remaining to achieve the 2030 SDGs agenda,” Darren McDermott, SHARE team leader, told the regional conference.
“The recent UN reports on the SDGs assert that progress remains uneven. We are not on track to meet the goals by 2030.”
Reversal of gains
“Worse again, it seems that the pandemic has reversed years and, in some cases, decades of progress. This means we need to redouble our efforts,” McDermott said.
Despite being far away from achieving the goals, higher education institutions in Southeast Asia have shown a readiness to act, McDermott said. “We are increasingly seeing that institutions want to go beyond institution-to-institution partnerships, and they want to develop partnerships with industry, civil society and any number of organisations that can help … towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”
The goals include SDG 4 to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all, and SDG 8 on ensuring decent work and economic growth, which directly concern higher education. However, said McDermott: “It’s important to look again at the SDGs as 17 interlinked goals.
“Education and higher education are cross-cutting concerns that can impact multiple goals. Higher education partnerships with industry and civil society can address wider societal, regional and international issues better than single-sector initiatives.”
“In relation to the Sustainable Development Agenda, higher education plays a significant role,” said Roger Chao, head of the education, youth and sports division of the ASEAN Secretariat in Bangkok.
“And, as such, building partnerships in higher education is very important, not only for us to advance how we can contribute to adjusting to the changing challenges of a changing world of work, but also contribute to socio-economic development, social development, human development, and basically building a sustainable and peaceful global community.”
SDG relevance in higher education
“SDG relevance should be one of the important quality indicators and should be integrated into the programme development and course planning tools of higher education institutions,” said Libing Wang, chief of the section for educational innovation and skills development at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok, in a keynote address. Much had been done towards achieving the SDGs, but a great deal more remained, he said.
Wang said: “To enable higher education to support the achievement of the SDGs, partnerships are more important than ever before. They are key enablers, given the interconnected nature of global and local challenges as well as the need to build a shared commitment towards a shared future.”
For higher education teaching and learning programmes to be relevant to and aligned with the SDGs, higher education partnerships with communities, employers, industry, professional bodies and international organisations “are essential in ensuring that the learning programmes are globally aligned and locally relevant”, Wang said.
“Partnerships between higher education institutions and their local communities should be mutually beneficial. We need to recognise different ways of knowing and doing as a source of strength and sustainability. A deeper awareness of and partnership with our local communities and cities will help to transform the higher education sector itself.”
Wang said in teaching and learning programmes there was a need to identify gaps in whether they are SDG-driven, including in upgrading content and pedagogy. “Awareness of SDGs and relevant global targets needed to improve among teaching personnel, and their capacity to integrate the SDGs into their teaching and learning activities enhanced,” he said.
For the research sector, the 17 SDGs and their respective targets provide an “overarching framework for governments in the region to review their research policies and priorities and increase public investment accordingly”, Wang said.
“The 17 SDGs have served as a catalyst for higher education institutions to restructure their research priorities and make organisational reforms, with more centres of excellence and centres of development based on interdisciplinarity to address the pressing issues pertinent to the achievement of the SDGs.”
Gaps in achieving the SDGs
Several experts in the region pointed to the specific gaps that still need to be bridged.
“We have an evidence base gap, we have lack of progress in many indicators. The challenges are many, but partnerships are the way forward and higher education has a central role to play,” said Wesley Teter, senior consultant for educational innovation and skills development at UNESCO Bangkok, noting that the May UNESCO World Conference is to create a roadmap to bridge the gaps along the path to the 2030 goals.
“Southeast Asia is not on track yet,” he emphasised.
Romyen Kosaikanont, director of the SEAMEO RIHED centre, said higher education “hasn’t done enough to actually prepare job-ready graduates”.
She added: “Although we haven’t actually been close to achieving the SDGs, there are many good practices and initiatives by various sectors including some evidence-based research initiatives underway.” However, these were “unfinished business”, she said. “There’s a long way to go.”
Choltis Dhirathiti, executive director of the ASEAN University Network, concurred. “How we assess the education of our young people to become global job-ready citizens with a lifelong learning mindset and practices … there’s still a huge gap in this area.”
He also pointed to gaps in access to knowledge and quality of teaching and learning. “Even though there’s a lot of talk about bringing in technology-assisted or technology-enhanced or even open access knowledge, there is still, in our region, a gap in terms of our citizens’ access to knowledge.”
The approximately 7,000 higher education institutions in Southeast Asia were not all of the same quality. “There’s a huge gap in terms of the quality of learning and teaching, and also the quality of research,” Dhirathiti told the conference.
The ASEAN Secretariat’s Chao pointed to major gaps in data. “Evidence-based policy-making, evidence-based research, evidence-based actions need to be driven by data. [It’s a] very key point. But that data needs to be comparable. It needs to be verifiable, and it needs to be accurate,” he said.
Chao noted although many international agencies such as UNESCO, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the OECD are working on data and indicators, but “unfortunately, it’s still lacking”.
He also pointed to deficiencies in inclusion in the region, a key SDG indicator. “If we do business as usual, we will not achieve the SDGs,” Chao said.
“We have to revisit the role of higher education, not only to focus on teaching, research or engagement, but in particular when we talk about engagement, we have to be more inclusive.”
Partnerships do work
While a number of initiatives and case studies of working partnerships to meet the SDGs were presented at the conference, research evidence also showed that partnerships and collaborations actually work.
Adam Krcal of the consultancy group Technopolis, which last year in collaboration with King’s College London carried out a study for the British Council and Association of Commonwealth Universities on the value of higher education partnerships in contributing to the SDGs, told the conference that one of the findings of the study was that international higher education partnerships “make a very significant contribution to the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda”.
“We have been able to find links between outcomes of the partnerships and the SDGs for all partnerships that we studied, which also reflect the crucial and pivotal role of higher education for national development,” he said.
“Partnerships are relevant for all SDGs, although we have seen outcomes linked to SDG 4 – the education goal – and SDG 17 – the partnerships goal – more often than to the other goals.”
Krcal said: “Our consultations have confirmed that the SDGs are interlinked. And it is very important to look at the SDGs as a set of 17 goals rather than single goals. So, one SDG cannot be achieved without the others. And this also means that higher education, and international higher education partnerships can address the wider societal issues better than single organisations.
“Benefits stemming from partnerships are, in general, better defined for Southern partners, and they typically include new curricular design, innovations in pedagogy, and others. And what is important is that these benefits often generate impact in communities locally, which is something that we don’t see that often in the Global North.”
Partnerships for societal challenges
Partnerships are particularly important for tackling broader, societal challenges, which the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively brought to the fore, several speakers noted.
“Education is essential to the achievement of all the Sustainable Development Goals. And it is necessary to reduce inequalities and to promote inclusive and sustainable growth. In the post-COVID era, it will be important for the global recovery,” David Daly, the EU’s ambassador to Thailand, said.
“Education is the basis and a catalyst for the green transition. It enables citizens to harness the opportunities of digital development and brings hope and protection to those affected by humanitarian crises and forced displacement,” he noted.
“We want to make sure that no one is left behind, even in difficult times,” he said.
SEAMEO RIHED’s Kosaikanont said a broader approach was needed. “In the past we thought higher education was for economic development or for social development. But now with COVID-19 and the challenges that we face, we have to think further for sustainable development of the region and beyond. We have to rethink who you’re partnering with – maybe with more of the stakeholders,” she said, adding that there was a need to focus on the impact of partnerships.
“We must rethink the future of higher education amid this outbreak of COVID-19 and the multiple disruptions of climate change, conflicts and inequality facing us,” she said.
Many of the challenges were interconnected, she added, pointing to conflict over international resource management, natural disasters caused by climate change, environmental problems of haze and ocean debris, the pandemic, and also changes in the nature of work and livelihood, as well as many other non-security threats.
Shigeru Aoyagi, director of the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Bangkok, said higher education “should prepare all learners to be ground-breakers, world citizens and creative thinkers. It must serve to build sustainable, peaceful societies”.