New global commitments by governments and the international community to protect education spending and transform education to drive the post-COVID recovery and sustainable development are welcome. Engaging with and supporting the global higher education sector will be essential to their success.
On 20-22 October UNESCO demonstrated their global leadership in education by convening an extraordinary session of the Global Education Meeting in light of the impact of the “unprecedented social, human and economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic”.
The meeting was attended by heads of state, numerous ministers and representatives from across the UN system and civil society, all calling for a renewed commitment to meeting Sustainable Development Goal Four (SDG 4), highlighting the need to invest in inclusive and equitable lifelong learning and to reinforce global cooperation in education.
The Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie and the International Association of Universities – under our recently signed partnership agreement – are working together to raise the visibility of higher education in these global discussions.
We believe that the declaration resulting from the Global Education Meeting is a strong one. It carries the urgent and essential message to protect education budgets and to support all education institutions during the time of COVID-19 and beyond.
It also contains commitments to the safe reopening of educational institutions; supporting all educational personnel as frontline workers; addressing the shortage of trained teachers and the professional development of educators at all levels; and narrowing the digital divide in education.
The global higher education community welcomes recognition of the importance of skills development and lifelong learning alongside the undeniable urgency to get children back to school and learning. This represents progress from the Millennium Development Goals, in acknowledging that SDG 4, unlike its predecessor, articulates a whole sector approach to education – from cradle to grave.
The role of universities
Reflecting on the declaration, it is clear that higher education has a significant role to play in realising these ambitious aims. Universities are a critical component of the education ecosystem. Their role in strengthening and informing education policy and practice at every level – training teachers, creating pedagogical content and leading educational research – is central to reimagining education to address the challenges of COVID-19.
Universities can and will work in partnership with business and the technical and vocational education and training sector to upskill and reskill young and adult learners for an inclusive recovery. Tackling the challenges we face will require universities to unlock the full potential of our young people and to nurture future leaders with the skills, values and competencies to drive sustainable development.
The pandemic has also demonstrated higher education’s critical contribution to wider sustainable development through its unique combination of teaching, research and social engagement.
Universities have been at the forefront of local and international scientific responses to COVID-19, from clinical and vaccine research, epidemiology and public health to behavioural and social sciences; and central in informing national policy-making and media coverage.
There are also countless examples of institutions and students mobilising to provide direct support to their communities.
At the same time, in common with the rest of the education sector, higher education has been hit hard by the pandemic.
In April 2020, universities and other tertiary education institutions were closed in 175 countries and communities and over 220 million post-secondary students – 13% of the total number of students affected globally – had their studies ended or significantly disrupted due to COVID-19. Universities predict an ongoing impact on student intake and on research.
This will have a major financial impact on the global higher education sector in both the short and long term.
In addition to the economic shock that will likely lead to a sharp reduction in private funding from both households and business, public funding might also be affected. This will impact the sector and will need to be monitored closely.
Without protection, this could result in the permanent closure of courses and universities across the world, reversing decades of progress on access to quality higher education.
This will have a disproportionate impact on the most underrepresented students, who have worked hardest to get there, and as a sector we must redouble our efforts to improve equity and inclusion as we adapt to new models of online and blended provision.
An inclusive recovery
Universities also have a wider role to play in forging an inclusive recovery from COVID-19 – they provide significant economic, social and cultural value for their local, regional and national communities. Their contraction and closure will lead to a loss of these social goods, as well as research, human capital and educational opportunities.
It is therefore more important than ever that higher education is supported and protected as an integral part of the education sector and an important social and economic actor.
In turn, we – the higher education sector – must show that we are ready to play a full and active role in supporting the wider education sector and our societies in the collective efforts towards an inclusive recovery, building on our critical contribution to the pandemic response.
In order to do so effectively, as we look towards the 2021 Global Education Meeting, we urge UNESCO to take forward the commitment to strengthen the mechanisms for international collaboration and provide a platform for higher education to engage, recognising the sector as a key stakeholder alongside our colleagues in civil society, the teaching profession, youth and private sectors.
Dr Joanna Newman is chief executive and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities; Professor Slim Khalbous is rector of the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie; and Dr Hilligje van’t Land is secretary general of the International Association of Universities and executive director of the International Universities Bureau.