After 120 roundtable sessions, 86 ‘HED’ talks and five youth-led activities, the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022 concluded on Friday 20 May in Barcelona, Spain, with the announcement of a common ‘Roadmap to 2030’ and a demand that barriers to change be “blown down now”.
UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education Stefania Giannini described the roadmap as being “about next steps for the future and the vision we are bringing”.
But it came with a number of caveats.
“It is a working, living document; it is not a negotiated outcome document. This is not an intergovernmental process,” she explained.
So rather than being an action plan agreed by governments, it represents a synthesis of the agreed priorities to guide future development of higher education.
They have been drawn up after two years of extensive consultations, the production of 10 reports by technical expert groups – and three days of discussion at the world conference and they may evolve further in coming months during a second phase of consultation.
“This World Higher Education Conference was about provoking a debate globally and bringing all the perspectives to build a new vision, a new phase for higher education and universities to be at the core of a new more sustainable, peaceful world,” Giannini said.
Call for transformation
The roadmap calls for change, for transformation, for shifts in mindsets and behaviours, Giannini said.
Crucial shifts were needed to focus on “cooperation over competition, diversity over uniformity and flexible learning over traditionally well-structured, hierarchical models of education”, she added.
But openness was critical too. “You need an open system of higher education to build bridges and promote partnerships around the world.”
Also, the roadmap was not just about achieving the internationally agreed 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, designed to protect the planet and build peace and prosperity, but also more ambitiously, looking ahead to 2050 and “going very much beyond the focus of discussions over last few years”.
Giannini said the world is faced with a set of interconnected challenges, from the global health pandemic and its disruptive influence, to the climate crisis threatening our survival and that of our planet, to the “drift towards political privatisation” increasingly visible in many countries and regions, other factors “making societies more fragile and tense”, and a backsliding on democracy, as well as on the SDGs.
“Higher education is somehow impacted by all these threats but very much part of the solution and must respond to them, and that is what we heard through all the panels in the last few days,” she said.
At the same time higher education is having to grapple with its own dynamics, including massive expansion, increasing mobility, changing funding approaches, and the all-encompassing role of technology.
Urgent change is needed, barriers to change “must be blown down now”, and structural transformations put in place, she said.
But education needed transformation, not reinvention, and this meant evolving into a new form, one that is “reflective, cooperative, agile”, with special effort made to give students the space to be to be co-creators of this change.
Six guiding principles
Throughout the process the following six principles – the Roadmap to 2030 – should be followed, she said:
• Greater inclusion and promoting diversity.
• Academic freedom balanced by public accountability.
• Inquiry, critical thinking and creativity, unlocking the potential of every kind of science literacy.
• Integrity and ethics, “generating a new kind of citizenship” for the future.
• A commitment to sustainability and social responsibility, having a dynamic relationship with the community.
• Cooperation for excellence rather than competition.
“Competition is important when it is about improving our institution, but it is not about putting in the rankings and having a competitive approach to the common public good,” Giannini said.
Higher education, training, research and social engagement needed to be shaped by three missions.
First, educating citizens for this century means ensuring they are able to negotiate complexity – “one of the most difficult and main missions of higher education today”.
Second, there is a need for a holistic approach and humanistic approach. Following complexity requires knowledge to be produced through transdisciplinarity, not simply putting together different competences as interdisciplinarity requires, and it entails connecting the sciences and humanities.
Giannnini urged scholars to break out of their disciplinary silos, which will encourage “open dialogue and openness of institutions”.
Third, it is about social engagement and ethical responsibility.
“From exclusion to inclusion, higher education needs crucially to be part of the right to education and higher education as a public good, a common good and this is the main pillar of our vision,” Giannini said.
This entails transforming higher education into lifelong learning institutions, something UNESCO has been pushing for since the launch of the 2030 Agenda and “this is very much related to the importance of having the right to education as a pillar of SDG 4 from pre-childhood to university level and beyond”, she said.
“For sure it is a very ambitious roadmap, but it is not something being concluded here in Barcelona. The conference is the beginning of the process.”
In 2027 a Barcelona+5 session will reflect on what has been implemented from the roadmap.
Informed by a wealth of research
The Roadmap to 2030 is backed up by and informed by a wealth of research into 10 themes, produced by technical expert groups, including the report by the UNESCO Global Independent Expert Group on the Universities and the 2030 Agenda entitled: Knowledge-driven Actions: Transforming higher education for global sustainability; and Reimagining the Futures of Higher Education: Insights from a scenario development process towards 2050.
The former constitutes an urgent call for universities to play a much stronger role in the societal transformation needed to achieve the SDGs and in solving some of the world’s greatest problems.
It also urges higher education institutions to embrace the 2030 Agenda by making sustainability and SDG literacy a core requisite for all faculty members and students, to connect students with real world problems and to foster immersive experiences.
Dr Budd Hall, co-chair of the UNESCO chair in community-based research and social responsibility in higher education, told an earlier session of the conference: “I am thrilled with this report. I think it is the best report on higher education ever to come out of UNESCO and will reverberate around the higher education world. This report is going to be referred to time and time again.”
The Reimagining the Futures of Higher Education report envisaged four desirable scenarios for higher education towards 2050, using the common good as the visionary lens and social justice as the framework to support the idea of accessible, inclusive and equitable higher education systems.
These scenarios are:
• Open education
• Technology-enabled networked learning hubs
• Ecologically sustainable higher education
• Development-driven higher education.
A strong message coming out of the conference sessions on leading transformation for sustainability was that whole institution approaches are needed, but there are formidable barriers, including trends towards marketisation of higher education and the increasing focus on rankings, which drives up competition between universities.
This is making some university leaders question whether transformation of universities in the ways envisaged by the roadmap can be achieved without first transforming the context in which they operate.
University World News asked delegates attending the closing session of the conference what they made of the roadmap and what they took away from the three days of discussions.
Takeaways from the roadmap
Carlos Romero Rostagno, head of higher education at the Ministry of Education, Uruguay, said that “taking up the idea again of higher education as a social good and that states are responsible for funding and promoting higher education” caught his eye.
“Also, the references to the importance of taking care of the environment – that this is something which we all have a part in and something which universities must pay more attention to.
“Plus the fact that we must acknowledge how difficult it can be for people who are displaced by war and who have to start over again. They need to be given the room to do so.”
Dr Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams of the Lil’wat First Nation, who is professor emerita at the University of Victoria, Canada, and chair of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, said she did not recognise the roadmap as a roadmap.
“It’s very vague. There are some indications that they are looking at a broader view of higher education, but I still feel that their knowledge of the diversity of populations is very narrow.”
Katrin Kohl, UNESCO chair co-ordinator, York University, Toronto, Canada, said the most useful takeaway for her job was “that the six areas for transformation allow enough flexibility to integrate our ongoing efforts for the SDGs both in our work at York University and in our research”.
“We have a whole-institution approach to integrating them and they are good guiding principles. As UNESCO chairs that are meant to be at the forefront of knowledge on this, we are now starting to look beyond 2030 and this is extremely useful.”
Charles Hopkins, UNESCO chair in reorientating education towards sustainability, York University, Toronto, Canada, referring to the focus on 2030 and beyond, said: “Education systems move at such a glacial pace so having a heads up, 10 years ahead, is really useful because the system takes so long to move.”
Dolly Montoya, rector of Universidad Nacional de Colombia (the National University of Colombia), said a key message was that “education is a right for citizens not a commodity”.
“The idea is that education leads to lifelong learning and that students can access higher education or at the very least have the choice.”
Daniel Nivagara, minister of science, technology and higher education, Mozambique, noted “the fact that higher education is a universal right: this is a challenge”.
Maria Luisa Chicote, president of the Agency for Guaranteeing Quality, Mozambique, mulled the implications of describing higher education as a common good in a country dominated by private provision.
“How are we going to do this when, in our context, we have more private than public universities? How do I say to a private university that they are a public good? This means they will ask me for funding.”
But she also said universities have to be “more the protagonists, they have to be more active”.
“We feel we need to transform universities into something more active. They need to be change agents, with the role of the student at their centre.”