Higher education to play an urgent role in tackling global challenges

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Fariba Soetan ACU
Fariba Soetan

Fariba is Head of Policy and Research at the Association of Commonwealth Universities 

This article was originally published on HEPI.

As 13 nations across the Commonwealth head to the ballot box this year, and families, parents and citizens consider their priorities for the ensuing decade, attention turns towards the global effort to tackle world challenges, outlined in the UN sustainable development goals and slated for achievement by 2030 and beyond.

Positioned at the forefront of this major task is higher education, assuming a pivotal role in shaping the world’s response through leadership, research, and the facilitation of learning and teaching.

At the invitation of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) has taken a proactive stance, establishing a higher education taskforce comprised of 20 vice-chancellors across our 400+ institutional membership to address key challenges and recommendations declared by Education Ministers at their last Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (CCEM) meeting in 2022.

Despite the huge differences and diversity of problems that persist across higher education, there are five key areas that remain consistent and need urgent attention across the Commonwealth.

Access and inclusion

Universities are at the forefront of driving innovative solutions to global challenges, particularly in addressing gender and equity disparities and outcomes and ensuring every citizen can achieve their full potential. The critical work of universities extends beyond theoretical discussions to practical implementations, emphasising the need for a multifaceted approach to make access to higher education inclusive at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

This involves addressing accessibility hurdles that create barriers for students with disabilities, scrutinising the intersectionality of equality characteristics, addressing the evidence gap on disability and accessibility, and establishing explicit connections between access to higher education and economic outcomes. Tackling the gender divide in thematic areas such as the digital realm and employability is paramount, as is recognising the unique needs of indigenous and refugee groups. Moreover, higher education institutions play a pivotal role in challenging the moral legitimacy of colonial legacies, addressing reparations, and promoting dialogue. Higher education institutions must prioritise proactive measures to dismantle these barriers, fostering an inclusive culture that values diversity and ensures equal opportunities for all.

Higher education funding

Globally, the state of higher education funding is at a critical juncture, with many institutions grappling with financial challenges that impact their ability to provide quality education and research opportunities. Rising operational costs, technological advancements, and the increasing demand for skilled professionals underscore the pressing need for sustained and increased funding in higher education. Increasingly, there is an urgent need to demonstrate the value of higher education and drive social consensus of higher education as a public good.

Digital access and artificial intelligence

Digital access and artificial intelligence (AI) present both opportunities and challenges for higher education. As AI integrates rapidly, institutions must adapt their curricula while addressing concerns related to data privacy, ethical AI use, and potential socio-economic disparities. Faculty training and development have become critical in harnessing the full potential of AI for educating students and equipping them with the skills needed. Moreover, the resources required to develop effective digital infrastructure and AI-integrated learning environments pose a challenge, especially for institutions operating within constrained budgets. 

Research ecosystems and infrastructure

The pursuit of research excellence is central to higher education’s role in sustainable development. Balancing the quantity and quality of research, addressing disparities in access, resources, and opportunities, and developing assessment frameworks to gauge research impact remain persistent challenges.

Employability, entrepreneurship and skills

The evolving job market demands a re-evaluation of higher education’s role in employability, entrepreneurship, and skills development. Rapid technological advancements necessitate continuous adaptation of curricula to align with industry needs. The increasing complexity of global challenges, such as climate change and socioeconomic disparities, also places pressure on universities to instil a broad range of skills, including critical thinking, adaptability, and intercultural competence, preparing graduates for an unpredictable employment market.

These five areas will remain the focus of the taskforce for the next two years as we develop a programme of work, involving stakeholders, partners and the expertise of our membership to feed into recommendations that will go to the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November in Samoa.

To further refine these initiatives, feedback will be gathered from vice chancellors and higher education ministers at an event in London in May 2024, where participants will feed into closed-door roundtables to offer innovative solutions, share best practice and collaborate to develop understanding and address challenges faced by governments across regional contexts.

Innovative solutions require thought leadership, collaboration amongst partners and insight from beyond just one institution, regional context or economic framework. It needs all of us. We look forward to working with academics and experts from our ACU member universities to feed into the work of the taskforce.