Addressing the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda

Addressing the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda

We are closing the three-part 2016 Conference Conversation Starter series on the EAIE blog with a call to action for sustainable development within European universities in response to the UN Sustainable Development Agenda. Today’s author, along with his colleague Alva Bruun – Chair of EAIE Expert Community Cooperation for Development – explored how European higher education could contribute to this important discussion. The answer? It’ll be multifaceted and take commitment from our higher education community at large.

About one year ago, in September 2015, the 193 countries that make up the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “Finally!”, one might conclude, “better late than never”. The challenge to make and keep our world liveable is urgent and – with less than 14 years to go until 2030 – it becomes ever more urgent every day. Has this wake-up call triggered a sense of urgency in the higher education community? Eh… Not really.
The UN 2030 Agenda is aptly called Transforming our World, implying that its message addresses everyone and everywhere on the planet. Only by joint efforts, including North and South, East and West, rich and poor, we can ensure a future world that will enable a decent life for everybody and that will be sustainable at the same time. The 2030 agenda includes 17 goals, one of them addressing particularly education, emphasising basic education. While higher education is not specifically addressed in the Agenda, it is asserted that it is important to achieve sustainable development and, for that purpose, access to higher education worldwide needs to be expanded.

Initiative and leadership

Obviously, not everything can be included in the Agenda. Thinking about education, I believe that the higher education community itself should show initiative and leadership in this respect. It should begin considering how to address the challenge of sustainable development and respond to the new Agenda right away. In so doing, expanding higher education and increasing access to higher education is just one area. There is much more that can be done.
While the 2000 Millennium Development Agenda primarily focused on the poorest parts of the world, the new Agenda explicitly targets all people, in all nations on the planet. It is assumed that everyone is somehow contributing to an unsustainable world due to how we live, behave and consume. We all need to change our way of living in order to transform our global village into a sustainable one. We all have to change our behaviour, consumption patterns, the way we handle nature and natural resources, as well as the way we relate to other people – both in other parts of the world and at home.

Broad perspective

Looking at sustainable development from this broad perspective, it is easy to see that higher education can – and should – play a role that goes far beyond increasing access. The very contents of higher education programmes need revision. The future world will be led, governed and administered by people – most of whom will be highly educated. What sustainable development is, entails, implies and how it can be achieved, is to be learned in higher education. This, in turn, offers an interesting parallel with internationalisation. Approximately 25 years ago, internationalisation went from being a rather exotic phenomenon to taking centre-stage. At the same time, there was a call to internationalise not only in terms of more cooperation and exchanges, but also in terms of reviewing and internationalising the contents of many higher education programmes. This happened in many disciplines. The world’s research community – which, for a great part, is made up of the world’s (leading) research universities – is paving the way in exploring what sustainable development actually means, entails and implies, as well as strategies and actions of how it can be achieved. These institutions should take a leading role in investigating different dimensions of sustainable development and relate their findings to advice that leads to concrete strategies, policies, actions.

Global higher education community

In short, the global higher education community can contribute to the sustainability Agenda in many ways, including:

  • Expanding access to higher education, especially to underprivileged groups.
  • Making the contents of higher education ‘sustainability proof’ by addressing relevant aspects of sustainability in each discipline, and by raising awareness and promoting general knowledge of sustainable development among students.
  • Preparing the leadership of tomorrow’s world by exploring ways of governance, administration, management, etc that contribute to sustainable development.
  • Investigating different dimensions of sustainable development and how it can be achieved.
  • Internationalising higher education further, including international cooperation and exchange, in ways that address and support the Sustainable Development Agenda.
  • Lead in the promotion of sustainable development, both locally and globally.
  • Contribute to the debate in society about development, especially by providing scientifically sound perspectives that are as factual and evidence-based as possible.

Whether or not and to what extent the higher education community around the world will assume these roles remains to be seen. Thus far, we do not see a very explicit response from higher education institutions. What we do see is unsystematic responses, often initiated by scientists or students of disciplines in which sustainable development is already an important theme. This may change for the better soon. Higher education institutions everywhere are already climbing down their ivory towers and reaching out more than they used to. New forms of partnerships are developing, often involving the private sector and other important stakeholders in society. The pressure to produce research and offer education with high societal relevance has increased, and institutions are responding. Seen from such a perspective, the sustainable development challenge, with its unavoidable implications for all dimensions of life, will automatically come into sight.

Time is of the essence

Time is ticking away. In my view, waiting for the unavoidable is not good enough. Higher education institutions, especially in the more affluent parts of the world, specifically the research universities, have to show leadership in this respect. They should lead the way to knowledge and understanding on how to create a sustainable society – globally and locally. As for the EAIE, we will have to support and facilitate this process, embracing this as a crucial new dimension in the internationalisation of higher education.
Han is Director of MUNDO at Maastricht University, the Netherlands.
The full publication is available for download on the EAIE Events App and online, and you’ll have your very own hard copy in your conference bag. If you’re joining us in Liverpool, do make sure to attend the Expert Community Feature session Cooperation for Development presents: Sustainable Development Goals and the role of higher education. It’s an interactive forum to debate and discuss the role of higher education for a sustainable future and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals. 

Han Aarts
Maastricht University Centre for International Cooperation in Academic Development, the NetherlandsHan is the Director of the Maastricht University Centre for International Cooperation in Academic Development (MUNDO) in the Netherlands, where he works with partner universities in developing and emerging countries to build knowledge capacity, strengthen education at partner institutions and develop research cooperation and other collaborative activities addressing (local and global) development challenges.