9 July 2020
HLPF Special Event Considers Higher Education’s Role in Building Back Better
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
story highlights

The event sought to understand the impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education; to explore new ideas as to how we can regenerate, renew and revitalize Higher Education; and to be inspired by new, propositional fresh thinking as to what we can achieve collectively while also ensuring that we consider inclusion and equity at all levels.

Participants were left with the conclusion that it is clear that we are faced with the opportunity for a paradigm shift.

The 8 July special virtual event of the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) focused on the impacts of COVID-19 on education and the lessons to be learned from the pandemic and featured esteemed speakers from all over the world.

The event, which took place on the margins of the 2020 High-level Political Forum, sought to understand the impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education (HE) so we know “where we are”; to explore new ideas as to how we can regenerate, renew and revitalize HE and explore different pathways that would offer ideas on how to redesign “Higher & Further Education” for the future; and to be inspired by new, propositional fresh thinking as to what we can achieve collectively while also ensuring that we consider inclusion and equity at all levels, everywhere.

Economic Contraction

Elliot Harris, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, warned that global GDP contraction has the potential to be larger than it was during the Great Depression. Many of the other speakers expressed concern over what this economic contraction would mean for education. For many students, a need to delay education may arise, due to a decrease in employment opportunities. Nathaniel Smith, Founder and Chief Equity Officer for Partnership for Southern Equity, expressed concern over the loss of intellectual capital that this pandemic is causing.

Equity and Inclusion

With in-person classes out of the question due to social distancing measures, the pandemic has exposed the global digital divide and exacerbated inequalities. Students without reliable internet access are left out of education. Entire institutions without the proper resources for online learning are also left behind. This also presents technical and pedagogical challenges for faculty who have not received formal training for online learning. Going forward, Smith emphasized the importance of including the communities where universities are located in those universities’ operations and goals.

Speakers also said there is still a way to go before gender equality in education will be reached, and COVID-19 is exacerbating many of education’s inequities at a time when inclusive education is most needed. In times like these, speakers said everyone needs to be considered an asset, because everyone has a unique talent and idea that can aid others. Sam Barratt, Co-Chair of HESI and Chief of Youth, Education and Advocacy at UN Environment, added that sustainability is not for the few, but for the many. Mona Juul, President of the UN Economic and Social Council, summed up the thoughts of many when she said that “education is lifesaving.”

Scientific Cooperation

Many speakers emphasized the need for free sharing of scientific information, instead of hoarding knowledge at universities. Harris laid out some goals for scientific research: to enhance public trust in science, strengthen national capacity for science, and collaborate across science and technology. He finished by saying, “let us be ambitious and bold.” In addition to increased movement of ideas among scientists, speakers mentioned the increased importance of applied research and connection to communities where universities are seen as a public good.

Global Curriculum

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) encourages a global curriculum and prioritizes taking care of communities and the environment. Barratt stated that we should recognize HE as a key contributor to the SDGs. Arizona State University President Michael Crow warned that universities are on a non-sustainable trajectory, and do not produce sufficient systems-level tools. Their intellectual contributions are increasingly narrower, and often leave out insight from the lenses of gender and indigenous knowledge. Crow asserted that universities should take activist positions and accept moral responsibility for the state of their communities, and HE could benefit from becoming less reductionist.


In agreement with the sentiments of many speakers, Barratt stated, “sustainable development isn’t specialism, it’s every-day-ism.”

Three youth speakers emphasized the importance of improved and expanded sustainability and ecology education, especially for those in leadership positions. Teach the Future Youth Representative Zamzam Ibrahim said young people understand the intersections of sustainability while leaders making sustainability decisions are often not educated on such issues. Amelie Deloche, representing Reveil écologique youth movement, added that ecological issues must be integrated into all HE programs, “regardless of appetite for ecology.” Crow said education is a lifelong process – it does not end at 21 – and renewal of education should take place throughout one’s career. He suggested that universities might do more alumni outreach in order to encourage continued education, instead of severing the student/school relationship at graduation.

Building Back Better

Speakers agreed that COVID-19 has given the world the unique opportunity to never return to “normal,” but to build back our systems to be better than they were before. Harris brought up the need to maintain past progress in eradicating inequalities, and Smith spoke on the pervasive influence of structural racism in education. Satya Tripathi, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Secretary of the UN Environment Management Group, suggested thinking about the process as “turning the Titanic around.” Vice-Chairman of NITI Aayog, Rajiv Kumar, suggested a reorientation of society’s view of nature: as humanity living with and in a benevolent environment.

Participants were left with the conclusion that, for those concerned with sustainability, it is clear that we are faced with the opportunity for a paradigm shift.  

This article is the second of a two-part series on the role of universities in implementing the SDGs. The first article titled, ‘How Can Universities Meaningfully and Effectively Use the SDGs?’, is here.

This article was authored by Lydia Grund, IISD Generation 2030 intern and biology and environmental science and policy major, The College of William & Mary. 

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