The role of university education in driving equality and sustainability

by Victoria Burns, Fredrik Bengtsson, Fernando Botello Villagrana, Martha Chadyiwa, Mapaseka Dolo, Nicola Goldmann, Camille Huser, Rodrigo Mariño, Jane Nicol, Cliona O'Sullivan and Louisa Remedios

Universities are often lauded as key stakeholders in addressing global challenges, such as COVID-19 and those outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals. However, the focus usually remains on the research conducted by these institutions, rather than their potential contribution as sites of education and the subsequent impact of their graduates. This is a missed opportunity given the large numbers of students attending universities worldwide. A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that the number of graduates among 25 to 34 year-olds worldwide will more than double to 300 million by 2030. With such a scale of influence, we believe that universities have a unique role to play in ensuring that our populations have the skills, knowledge and attitudes to make the world a better place. 

Historically, universities were “ivory towers”, educating a minority of privileged people in traditional academic subjects; indeed, in some areas of the world, notably in lower income countries, this is still largely the case. More recently, many countries have moved to a different, but similarly individualistic model, in which the primary motives for degree-level education are the prospect of stable and well-paid graduate employment and a positive student experience. While this change has increased access to higher education and a subsequent increase in the average income of graduates, it has also led to (and indeed is caused by) increased marketisation and privatisation. This fundamentally changes the nature of the interaction between student and university. As students are often seen to have “paid” for an education in a transactional way, achieving the necessary grade to enter a particular career or profession is prioritised over the development of knowledge and skills. 

In this article, we propose that we need to move to a “third way” in which a university education is considered to be an opportunity to develop individuals who can effect positive change in the world. As such, the actual learning outcomes of the degree, both in terms of the knowledge learned and the skills developed, becomes more important than achieving a threshold grade, because these attributes enable graduates to make a difference. This is not a new concept; universities have for decades provided a platform for societal transformation, including the civil rights movement, feminism, and gay liberation. Our proposals build on the work of Marginson (2011) who considers the role of universities in terms of the ‘public good”. He argued that universities operate like Habermas’ Public Sphere: a site somewhat between the state and civil society. They provide a space for discussion, debate and criticism, often directed at the state and which constantly generates new ideas and strategic directions for states and governments to consider, contributing to the renewal and reform of society. However, traditionally, these have usually arisen through informal networks and actions pursued outside the main curriculum, rather than as a core raison d’être of the experience. We believe that the collective benefit of higher education itself surpasses the individual. There is a ‘public good’ which has political and socio-cultural dimensions and which reflects our vision for our world. The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a timely opportunity for a renewed focus on higher education to promote social and values-based education. 

Our proposal is that Universities educate students to be future thought leaders and agents of change for a sustainable world. We believe that there are three broad categories of change needed in tertiary education to promote this agenda. Firstly, in addition to their specialist professional knowledge and skills, students need to be educated to have influence and impact. Students need evidence-based, and culturally-informed knowledge of the social and environmental threats to our world and the skills to diminish these threats. It is important to note that these skills also promote employability, which is repeatedly identified as a key driver for university attendance. Employers have been calling for graduates who are creative and innovative with transferable skills for collaborative problem solving in complex and shifting contexts. Focusing on these skills will educate graduates for career excellence and a global contribution. Secondly, students need to understand systems and structures that are the root causes of social and environmental damage. They need the capacity to operate upstream, preventing issues, rather than working downstream on problems, once damage has been done. Preventing social and environmental damage is as important as learning how to mitigate established concerns. Finally, education needs to explicitly encourage students’ civic skills, global citizenship and leadership, supporting their identity as political beings with stewardship for social, environmental and economic protection. It is essential that graduates recognise that they have the expertise to be effective advocates and influencers for change, both within their professions and social communities. With informed ethical leadership graduates can intentionally influence the global agenda and have meaningful and profound impact for a healthier earth. 

It is important to emphasise that all academic disciplines have the potential to positively impact global challenges and social development. For too long, the focus has been on science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) subjects. While many solutions for key issues will inevitably be driven by technological innovation, the role of arts, humanities and social sciences should not be underestimated. History, theology, and social policy help us understand how communities behave and likely consequences of these responses; in turn, literature, art, and music help us navigate the human condition, enhancing well-being and creating social change. We believe that the real power is at the intersection between subjects; for example, a project at the University of Birmingham that brings together the arts and nursing to explore loss, grief and bereavement. Similarly, COVID-19 has demonstrated that it is impossible to separate the influences of health, the environment, and economic policy and that to have true impact, we must understand, and be able to work at, this nexus. 

A further way in which higher education can enable us to address global challenges is through the opportunity to develop intercultural understanding and collaboration. Cultural diversity within the classroom and university community is now the norm rather than the exception in modern universities. At an individual level, this gives the potential for students and graduates to develop global perspectives and intercultural competency that prepare them to work in and influence the modern global and interconnected world. Strategies to promote internationalisation in higher education have focused on increasing numbers of international students and building opportunities for international mobility. While these are examples of mechanisms of internationalisation, they do not in isolation guarantee that students develop an understanding of the dynamics and power interactions of multicultural settings nor how they can modify their own beliefs and behaviours to function as responsible professionals in a global workplace. Instead, higher education institutions must develop strategies to promote purposeful and inclusive integration of students from all backgrounds, to enable the development of true intercultural competence and understanding. 

Universities are also institutions grounded in their local area, acting as anchor institutions for their communities. Too often, the emphasis of discussion around global challenges, and in particular inequality, is portrayed as a discrepancy between high income and lower income countries, yet inequality is a local issue everywhere. The historical cultural assumption that inequality does not exist within our own communities is too often impeding progress by allowing ignorance surrounding an issue to continue. Encouraging our students to engage with their local communities, and indeed question their own personal opinions and bias can be where conversations about global inequity start. In examples provided by the students from around the world who helped author this piece, this could involve students at Mexican universities discussing the LBGT rights movement or gender representation in their area; or those from Glasgow exploring why there is one of the largest life expectancy discrepancies within a city and why health inequalities are rising; or those studying in Johannesburg considering why there is such high unemployment among highly qualified young people. Increasing students’ awareness of local social and economic issues can be the catalyst for change. We hope to demonstrate to students, and in turn graduates, that anybody can be a social agent of change. We want our students (and indeed our staff) to understand that whilst one person cannot do everything, everybody can do something if they take the time to listen, learn and apply their skills collaboratively. 

To enable such a change in the focus of higher education, we must start at primary and secondary education and support children to change the way that they decide whether to attend university and, if so, which subjects they study. At present, students typically choose subjects that they enjoy and that they are good at, with some consideration of what job they might like to do afterwards; the balance of emphasis here may of course vary and to some extent be culturally driven, but it is largely influenced by the beliefs of parents and teachers. We propose working to change this narrative and instead encouraging young people to consider what change they want to see and recognise what part they can play in the development of a sustainable world. University then becomes a route to manifesting that change and young people would choose subjects that would enable them to effect this change. A cultural shift of this magnitude requires strong role models who can change attitudes locally. Educating prospective university students about sustainability and the benefits of social capital rather than individual earnings before they apply to higher education is important. Given the number of university students around the world such a change in attitude, even in only a fraction of the students, would have a significant impact. We need to start marketing higher education in terms of sustainability and to make sustainability something that counts.  

One challenge in such an ambitious proposal is how to implement this level of change. It is clear, however, that external drivers can promote university action for positive change. When the United Nations introduced the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, they noted that universities had an important role in achieving the goals. In 2019, the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Ranking of universities was launched specifically to encourage universities to take action to achieve the 17 goals as well as measuring their progress towards this. Consistent with our recommendations, THE specifically called for educating students to deliver and embed the SDGs in their future careers, clearly articulating that universities must educate for change. This ranking system has proved popular with 450, 768, and 1,115 universities respectively seeking assessment over the three years, demonstrating a rapidly increasing number of universities choosing to be involved with the ranking. While this league table has been criticised as driving competition between universities and having some methodological limitations, it does provide incentive for action. It articulates indicators of how universities can powerfully contribute to the social, environmental and economic protection of all life on the planet. It allows universities to compare their performance and encourages innovation and better practice to improve scores over time. It now operates as a globally recognized guide and measure of the societal contribution of universities. With annual reporting of outcomes, universities can be motivated to take purposeful action with greater accountability within the public domain. Visible global benchmarking activities acknowledge and reinforce that universities must be ethical and responsible corporate citizens, leaders and actors for positive change. However, given that there are an estimated 18,000 higher education institutions worldwide, a considerable shift in thinking is required to ensure that all are placing sustainability at their core. 

We  recognise that our proposal represents a sharp change in direction from the way universities and other higher education institutions tend to operate at present. To facilitate this move, faculty training and recognition needs to align with an aspiration to develop the social capital of communities. Lecturers and researchers currently focus on specialist or measurable outputs (research articles, percentage of students finding employment, student satisfaction rates) motivated by the need to generate individual human capital. Similarly, faculty are recognised and promoted based on individual achievements (publications, positions of esteem, teaching awards). Researchers and lecturers receive increasing, but still minimal, pedagogic training and the training provided is focussed on delivering specialist knowledge and skills and promoting “student engagement” with the discipline itself. Without prior experience of developing a social rather than human capital, faculty need to develop their teaching to incorporate the development of these skills and attitudes in their courses. They must be encouraged and enabled to explicitly discuss and model societal investments of their time and effort. To encourage faculty to take part in such a sharp departure from their normal activities, reward and recognition systems need to be updated. In the same way that a mandatory requirement to obtain AthenaSWAN status was needed to obtain research funding in some countries led to nationwide improvements in gender equality, policymakers need to encourage institutions to develop cultures which encourage the development of social capital. This would drive a change in promotion criteria, create recognition for good practice, and lead to much needed funding for such initiatives. 

To conclude, we believe that universities are unique institutions, full of able and motivated students who have the potential to lead us in the future to a better world. We need to ensure that potential students, and society more generally, recognise the opportunity that higher education provides to develop communities of skilled, thoughtful and inclusive citizen, and that we structure our programmes to ensure that sustainability, in its widest sense, is at the heart of our purpose.

  • Victoria Burns, University of Birmingham
  • Fredrik Bengtsson, Lund University
  • Fernando Botello Villagrana, Tec de Monterrey
  • Martha Chadyiwa, University of Johannesburg
  • Mapaseka Dolo, University of Johannesburg
  • Nicola Goldmann, University of Glasgow
  • Camille Huser, University of Glasgow
  • Rodrigo Mariño, University of Melbourne
  • Jane Nicol, University of Birmingham
  • Cliona O’Sullivan, University College Dublin
  • Louisa Remedios, University of Melbourne

On behalf of the Universitas 21 Health Sciences Sustainable Development Goals Initiative