Synergies in Higher Education Are Imperative

When universities work together, the likelihood for scientific breakthroughs in moving humanity forward will increase and the risk of misunderstandings will reduce.

The world is undergoing dramatic changes. Prosperity and peace are no longer taken for granted, and prospects for the future tend to look grim. Young people across the globe have to pay a high price for crises they are not responsible for. The situation is becoming critical in developing and least developed countries, for example those in Africa. Against this backdrop, cooperation in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), decided by the UN in 2015, is widely considered a necessary and urgent way forward.

At first glance, the contribution of higher education to the SDGs does not seem direct. Goal 4 “Quality Education” mainly refers to free primary and secondary schooling for all children by 2030. As UN data exhibit, 57 million primary-aged children remain out of school, and more than half of them are located in sub-Saharan Africa. A reference to higher education is only made in relation to the need to increase the number of scholarships for enrollment in relevant institutions.

Nevertheless, the role of higher education remains cardinal. Goal 17 “Partnerships for the Goals” unleashes the potential of joint actions toward the implementation of the SGDs. It is here where universities, colleges and other institutions can work together, not only to raise the awareness about the SDGs but to incorporate them into their mission objectives. Climate action, for instance, defined in Goal 13, cannot but be an inseparable part of higher education programs designed to raise leaders able to respond to the critical challenge of protecting the environment. This is also the case for Goal 9 “Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.” Knowledge is key to science and technology, and the latter have the potential to foster innovation and cementing quality growth.

Graduates attend the 2019 commencement ceremony of Tsinghua University held in Beijing, capital of China, Jul. 7, 2019. (Photo/Xinhua)

Even before the official launch of the SDGs, the Higher Education Stability Initiative (HESI) proposed by the UN in 2012 had already functioned as an open partnership in the spirit of linking higher education to sustainable development. A July 2022 HESI communiqué calls on governments, UN entities, higher education institutions and other relevant stakeholders to support higher education in transforming, integrating, and advancing the SDGs as well as building resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Relevant actions include improving the capacity of rankings and ratings organizations to guide the academic sector, education for green jobs and a publishers’ compact to align research with the SDGs. UNESCO, for its part, has a mandate in higher education and places a special focus on developing countries, notably African nations.

China is actively engaged in these UN initiatives. In 2019, for instance, the country signed an agreement with UNESCO to support higher technical education in Africa. As China is aiming to build world-class universities, its global responsibilities grow. In 2021 and 2022, two Chinese universities, namely Peking University and Tsinghua University, were included in the top-20 list of the Times Higher Education ranking. It is within this framework that the Chinese Government is also supporting conferences such as the World Youth Development Forum that took place in Beijing in mid-July. This forum was also supported by several UN agencies and the World Economic Forum is the hope it would lead to a productive conversation and exchange of views.

While the significance of higher education in creating a better and safer world in line with UN principles ought to be taken for granted, more practical steps in cementing collaboration are required. Synergies among education partners will facilitate the building of a common lens for understanding common problems and looking for common solutions. The experience of the pandemic shows that no single actor has been able to respond to this unprecedented challenge alone. When universities work together, the likelihood for scientific breakthroughs in moving humanity forward will increase and the risk of misunderstandings will reduce. And once all citizens of the world have access to higher education, including refugees and displaced people, the sentiment of injustice will be eliminated and the horizon for better living conditions will broaden.


The author is EU-China Program director at the Centre International de Formation Européenne.