Lingnan University Hong KongHow education underpins all 17 Sustainable Development Goals

How education underpins all 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Inclusive and equitable education can help promote global progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) all contain some relevance to the higher education space. Universities around the world, for example, have a responsibility to promote gender equality and develop technologies that aid the fight against climate change.

However, perhaps none of the SDGs is as relevant to the higher education sector as SDG 4 – ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. 

“Given the importance of higher education to individual growth and achievement, as well as the evolution of key aspects of human existence and well-being, access to quality education is one of the most crucial factors to achieving sustainability,” said Leonard K. Cheng, president of Lingnan University.

During a fringe event with Lingnan University, held as part of the 2022 THE Global Sustainable Development Congress (GSDC) and hosted by Times Higher Education in partnership with the University of Glasgow, academics from across the globe, as well as public sector stakeholders, came together to discuss how universities are addressing the challenges of sustainability and ensuring equal access through online learning.

Covid-19’s impact on higher education

The GSDC provides attendees with an opportunity to be the driving force that breaks down barriers to equality. These barriers were thrown into stark relief by the Covid-19 pandemic, which led many universities to adapt their delivery of in-person education through digital technology for remote learning.

“Do university missions fit the UN’s SDGs currently?” asked Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technologies at University College London. “Universities certainly orient themselves towards an ambition of reducing inequality, but the challenge is enormous. Impact rankings indicate that even some of the best-performing institutions in terms of certain metrics, like academic outcomes, are failing when it comes to the SDGs.”

The objective of promoting lifelong learning for all that is contained within SDG 4 underpins all the other SDGs. Universities are responsible, therefore, not only for educating their students to become the professionals of the future but for supporting current professionals around the world today.

“Since the pandemic, universities have adapted their teaching and assessment methods by adopting blended and hybrid solutions,” Laurillard said. “But concerns around student engagement persist.”

Universities shifted at great speed due to the pandemic despite the challenges this created for students and staff. However, significant investment is needed to maintain the digital transformation that higher education has pursued.

“The teaching profession turned on a sixpence to achieve great things for students during the pandemic,” Laurillard acknowledged. “But there remain over 250 million children without access to basic education. It’s clear the digital divide is closing faster than the physical divide – and that is something that the sector needs to continue working on. The good news is that post-pandemic, there is a route to achieving this.”

Digitally divided or digitally mobile?

During the pandemic, a number of global innovations in academic mobility emerged. These innovations have helped maintain the demand for higher education around the world. While there were more than 6 million globally mobile students in 2020, this figure is predicted to reach 8 million by 2025 despite the disruption caused by the pandemic. 

“Research reveals the many benefits of mobility,” said Emma Sabzalieva, head of higher education research and policy analysis at Unesco. “International experiences contribute to graduate success, equip students to work across cultures, and can lead to enhanced degree and career outcomes.” 

The proliferation of digital tools certainly helped enable this mobility but, even so, 220 million students worldwide faced disruption to their learning because of the pandemic. As many as 73 per cent of European universities reported disruption to academic mobility and 58 per cent of global researchers experienced delays in their projects.

“Where does the sector go from here?” Sabzalieva asked. “To answer this, universities need to think holistically, turning their attention to virtual student mobility. We live in a world of virtual opportunities. Our research has found that universities can grasp these by leveraging institutional champions, previous partnerships and a willingness to innovate.”

How liberal arts education promotes peace and justice

Liberal arts is not one thing. The idea revolves around freedom of thought and understanding the relationship between society and learning. There are 228 liberal arts institutions in the US alone and there has been a huge amount of investment in this area in Asia. Globally, liberal arts institutions vary substantially. 

“Is there a tension between the neoliberal tendencies of higher education and liberal arts?” asked Catherine Montgomery, deputy executive dean (global) of the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences at Durham University.

Looking at various examples of liberal arts institutions, Montgomery highlighted Antioch College in the US, one of the more radical institutions in the sector. There are no programmes or courses. Activities are entirely student-led, prioritising enquiry-based learning. The principles at the heart of institutions like Antioch raise interesting questions about how liberal arts can engage with some of the challenges facing the world today.

“As outlined, there are still a huge number of problems around basic educational infrastructure,” Montgomery said. “There are also many countries facing protracted socio-economic crises. Liberal arts could have an impact here because education can’t make a difference in a vacuum. It must be considered intersectionally with global and local initiatives. Interdisciplinarity is a core principle of liberal arts education.” 

Decolonising and decentring approaches are also key to liberal arts education. Liberal arts institutions embrace both global and local empowerment. Capacity-building has to be local and global to be effective and liberal arts institutions understand the importance of these connections in our volatile world.

Creating sustainable citizens

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the progress that universities have made in terms of supporting SDG 4, but also the challenges to further improvement. “The pace and efficacy that universities displayed when forced to transform their existing pedagogies during the pandemic demonstrated that digital tools are very much a part of the future for higher education,” Cheng said. “The number of students that continue to face barriers to educational access suggests that a divide – both digital and physical – persists.”

The purpose of a liberal arts education was a prominent talking point during Lingnan University’s GSDC fringe event, which identified some of the ways universities can tackle the challenges facing the world today. They can help foster the development of students who are truly both local and global citizens – ones that can move the world towards a more sustainable future. 

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