I am writing this en route to Kingston from Barcelona, where I have been attending the third United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Higher Education Conference. At the invitation of the International Association of Universities, I participated in a session focused on “Leading universities into the future – finding pathways to transformation.” It was, of course, a privilege to be able to contribute to that discussion, especially in a global context, but it was also invigorating to discover how profoundly Queen’s new strategy, For the Future, aligns with the new UNESCO report unveiled at the conference. Entitled Knowledge-driven actions: transforming higher education for global sustainability, the report is the work of an Independent Expert Group on the Universities and the United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
For the 2030 Agenda to be successfully realized – and the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to be achieved – the report asserts that higher education institutions are critical, particularly in three respects: in moving “towards inter- and transdisciplinary modes of producing and circulating knowledge;” in “becoming open institutions, fostering epistemic dialogue and integrating diverse ways of knowing;” and becoming “a stronger presence in society through proactive engagement and partnering with other societal actors.” Broadly speaking, these are the central components of Queen’s new Strategic Framework, approved by the Trustees one year ago, and as more and more institutions across the globe commit themselves to the 2030 Agenda, the possibility of building partnerships with real and demonstrable impact on the good of society and the planet increases dramatically. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, geopolitical tensions, and the mounting evidence that we are facing a climate emergency, it is hugely consoling to reflect on the role institutions of higher education, co-operating with each other, can and will play in assuring a better world for the young people whose futures these days seem so much in question.
In the halls of the conference, I could divine that in three or four years the collective imagination of UNESCO will be looking far beyond 2030 and the current set of SDGs. We should all hope that when the next World Conference on Higher Education occurs, the goals of Agenda 2030 will have been realized, global deficits in education, equity, and environmental sustainability will have been addressed, and universities and other civil institutions will be free to focus more exclusively on positively building a better future for humanity. In the meantime, however, Queen’s recently announced top-10 placing in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings confirms we are on track to make a major contribution to Agenda 2030. Standing second worldwide for “Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions,” as well as for “No Poverty,” we are working to build “peace in the minds of men and women,” as the preamble to the constitution of UNESCO puts it. At this point in history, there is no more important task.