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UN High-Level Political Forum hears universities play a critical role in supporting the SDGs

Published on 30 July 2020

On July 9 and 10, over 100 universities from about 65 countries, led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), gathered to explore how academia as a sector can support the Decade of Action on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly in the new era of COVID-19.


None of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved without the contribution of higher education – through research, teaching, and community engagement.

Universities are the key to healthier, greener, fairer societies, and whilst COVID-19 is making it harder to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), their response to the pandemic has demonstrated the critical contribution they make to their communities.

The need for equitable quality higher education is arguably greater than ever, as is the need to advocate for the role of higher education in sustainable development at the highest levels, such as the United Nations.

This was emphasised by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the SDSN President’s meeting at the UN High-Level Political Forum. He noted that we are at a critical juncture, where new thinking is needed more than ever and there is an important role for universities to play.

UN SG

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed called for accelerated action to achieve the SDGs. She also noted that crises can present opportunities, and the pandemic gives us a chance to address pre-existing inequalities through evidence-based policy.

UN DSG

We were delighted to join the event panel, during which our Chief Executive and Secretary General Dr Joanna Newman presented the new memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the ACU, the International Association of Universities (IAU) and the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF). Our three organisations, representing over 2000 universities in 140 countries, have committed to three priority areas for collaboration to help achieve the 17 SDGs:

  1. Higher education for sustainable development
  2. Quality and vitality of higher education systems
  3. Internationalisation in higher education.

She stated that higher education institutions play a crucial role in achieving the SDGs, as they produce new knowledge and innovation to address global challenges. Although the role of universities and experts has been challenged in recent years, during the COVID-19 crisis, universities have risen to the challenge and proved critical contributions to the fight against the pandemic. She closed by saying that sustainable development faces a triple threat from COVID-19, climate change, and rising inequality, but that education is the necessary solution to these complex and pressing issues. 

Commenting on the MoU, Dr Joanna Newman, said: ‘International collaboration in higher education is more important than ever. We are delighted to have signed this MoU with our partners, the AUF and the IAU. It will enable us to build on our existing complementary activities and develop joint initiatives to engage our members and the wider higher education sector’.

A full summary of the meeting is available online.

An original version of this article was shared by SDSN.