Reinventing Higher Education for a Sustainable Future | Report from the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022

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From 18-20 May ACU Chief Executive and Secretary General Dr Joanna Newman attended the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC22) in Barcelona, Spain alongside an ACU delegation.

Aiming to reshape ideas and practices in higher education to ensure sustainable development for the planet and humanity, WHEC22 was the third version of the conference and brought together relevant stakeholders to define and prepare a roadmap for ‘a new era of higher education’.

The roadmap will respond to the challenges faced by humanity and the planet, with special attention to the global disruption created by COVID-19. It will look at both  higher education systems (norms, policies, structures, stakeholders) and institutions, including universities, specialised entities and networks.

As an international university association advocating for the key role that higher education plays in sustainable development, the ACU was invited to actively participate in conference discussions,  hosting and contributing to a series of panels and roundtables alongside our member universities and international partners.

Over the course of the week, the ACU used its platform to advocate for higher education’s vital role in delivering progress across all 17 UN SDGs; for the importance of investing in higher education to further strengthen this contribution; and for the added value that international higher education partnerships have compared to other forms of international aid.

As part of the process for developing the roadmap, a UNESCO rapporteur was present for all sessions, including those led by, and involving the ACU. UNESCO presented the roadmap in the closing of the conference, however, it remains open for improvement, and contributions are encouraged. The ACU looks forward to working with UNESCO to ensure our key messages are reflected in the final document, and working with UNESCO and other key partners to support its implementation.

Day 1 highlights

The first day saw ACU Secretary General, Dr Joanna Newman, make key contributions to a discussion on trends in international aid for tertiary education, advocating for the role of equitable partnerships and the important role that scholarships have in contributing to sustainable development.

The panel was brought together to launch a new UNESCO-IESALC report ‘Understanding International Aid for Higher Education’ which explores tends in aid flows for tertiary education.  

Dr Newman outlined the important role that the ACU has had in administering Commonwealth scholarships, including the Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarship scheme, which promote both South-North, and South-South mobility. She noted that scholarships are not only transformative for the individual, but vital for driving sustainable development at the national level too.

Dr Newman also highlighted recent ACU research commissioned in partnership with the British Council which found that higher education partnerships are not only effective in driving progress on the SDGs, but offer added value to funders compared to other forms of international aid.

Our delegation also attended a roundtable session on ‘The impact of COVID-19 in Higher Education’, during which an excerpt from a joint IAU/AUF/ACU statement was promoted as a key contribution to work in this area.

Day 2

For Day 2 of WHEC22 the ACU was privileged to co-host a roundtable with the University of Victoria on transformative change makers in higher education, moderated by the ACU’s Secretary-General.

Panellists included four distinguished university leaders who are transforming higher education – Professor Cheryl de la Ray, ACU Chair and Vice-Chancellor of University of Canterbury in New Zealand ; Professor Kevin Hall, President  University of Victoria, Canada; Dr Julian Skyrme, Director of Social Responsibility at the The University of Manchester, UK; and Professor Pamela Dube, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

Our Secretary-General outlined how networks like ACU play a crucial role in convening universities to deliver transformative change through a range of initiatives, including strengthening capacity at all levels. However, the importance of international networks like the ACU goes further with Dr Newman noting the significance of the partnership that the ACU has with the International Association of Universities (IAU) and Agence universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF) that has allowed the three organisations to speak on behalf of more than 2,000 universities  at the United Nations and other global platforms to advocate for recognition and investment in higher education.

Panellists set out how transformative change in higher education begins with examining the purpose, sense of place and role of universities, and that systemic change was needed at all levels. Through research universities drive impact in society, address real challenges and respond to emerging global issues, and whilst partnerships with communities and global networks are essential for impact, partnerships must be equitable and sustainable to realise transformative change.


The panel was repeated at a side event in the afternoon, with representation from ACU members Kevin Hall, University of Victoria and Pamela Dube, University of the Western Cape.

Day 3

For the third and final day at WHEC22 the ACU delegation joined the IAU, UNESCO and the SDSN/Mission 4.7 for a joint session exploring higher education’s role in securing a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable future.

Panellists explored systemic approaches to Higher Education and sustainable development. Our Secretary-General outlined how although the global challenges we face are numerous, higher education has an essential and unique contribution to play in addressing these and realise the SDGs through teaching, research and community engagement.

Dr Newman added that transformative change in higher education begins with examining the purpose, sense of place and role of universities, and that systemic change is needed at all levels including decolonising not just higher education courses but practices, process and operations.

The panel agreed that University associations such as ACU, IAU and AUF are essential in addressing Global Challenges, as they bring universities across borders to work together and learn from each other.

The ACU is proud to be working in partnership with the IAU and AUF to represent universities and champion the value of higher education at UNESCO and the United Nations. Our joint submission with IAU to WHEC2022 outlines how higher education partnerships and associations can accelerate progress on the SDGs.

Our delegation concluded day three with meeting our partners from the IAU and AUF, including IAU Secretary General, Dr Hilligje van’t Land, and IAU Rector, Slim Khalbous to plan next steps of our partnership. This will include engagement at  the UN High Level Political Forum in July and the UN General Assembly in September.

Together, the three associations represent more than 2,000 higher education institutions across more than 140 countries – providing a strong base to advocate for higher education on a wide international scale.

More information

As part of the formal contribution to the conference, the ACU submitted two ‘knowledge products’:

Find out more about the ACU’s partnership with IAU and AUF.