Forum Examines Evolving Role of Higher Education in Achieving the SDGs

The event discussed challenges and opportunities for higher education to accelerate recovery from COVID-19 and implement the 2030 Agenda.

The 2023 Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) Global Forum was held on 17 July 2023 at UN Headquarters in New York as a special event at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The forum discussed challenges and opportunities for higher education to accelerate recovery from COVID-19 and implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at all levels.

A video recording of the session is available here.

In opening remarks, Maria-Francesca Spatolisano (Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs, UN DESA) highlighted the unique role of higher education in supporting and advancing the SDGs. Stefania Giannini (Assistant Director-General, UNESCO) emphasised that access to higher education should be driven by the principles of quality, equity, and inclusion.

A keynote address by Tshilidzi Marwala (Rector, UNU and UN Under-Secretary-General) discussed the impact of digitalisation and artificial intelligence (AI) on higher education. He underlined the importance of teaching critical thinking and adaptability; augmenting learning experiences with AI to cater to diverse learning styles; promoting responsible AI practices and ethical use; and ensuring equitable access to digital technologies. Considering the evolving role of higher education, he stressed targeting levers of sector transformation to achieve sustainable development. These include fostering cross-institutional partnerships, supporting innovative practices in higher education quality evaluation, promoting academic publications on sustainability issues, and responding to the increasing demand for green jobs. He concluded that higher education institutions — as centres of knowledge and innovation — were uniquely positioned to raise ambition to accelerate recovery from COVID-19 and achieve the SDGs, leaving no one behind.

Ángel Cabrera (President, Georgia Institute of Technology) emphasised that technology was crucial for access to education, which should help students grow as leaders who can develop solutions to global challenges. Considering COVID-19 recovery, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi (Chancellor, Nelson Mandela University) observed that there was a greater need for foundational, augmented, and extended curriculums to meet students where they are as they enter university. Romeela Mohee (Commissioner of the Higher Education Commission, Mauritius) reflected on her experience in Mauritius, noting that a key lesson from the pandemic was to ensure highly flexible learning pathways.

Presentations highlighted higher education initiatives and action groups driving implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Debra Rowe (Co-Chair, HESI Education for Green Jobs Action Group) spoke about increasing the rate and quality of workforce preparation for inclusive transition to green and sustainable societies. Ola Göransson (Sustainable Development Officer, Outreach and Partnerships Branch, DSDG, UN DESA) highlighted the disparity of knowledge on the integration of the SDGs in higher education, resulting in the establishment of the HESI Partner Programme, which facilitates the exchange of expertise among universities and fosters partnerships. Duncan Ross (Co-Chair, HESI Ratings, Rankings and Assessments Action Group) discussed plans to work with bibliometric organisations to improve measurement of SDG progress, and to collaborate with accreditation bodies to promote sustainability.

A youth-led panel spotlighted the creativity, passion, and innovation of students and young people in advancing the SDGs. Eliane El Haber (Ambassador, Higher Education For Good Foundation) discussed the need for higher education institutions to incorporate technology into their teaching methods. Benedicta Neysa Nathania (LearningPlanet Youth Fellow, LearningPlanet Alliance) noted that interdisciplinary projects, joint research initiatives, and cross-faculty collaborations can be catalysts for enhanced creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Iman Cumberbatch (PRELS Scholar XR Lead, Computational Sensory Laboratory; Project Manager, PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies) highlighted her research on extended reality (XR) as an interactive learning tool bringing sustainability issues to the fore and driving critical change. To better prepare students for roles in sustainable development, Anoushka Sinha (Girls Belong Here Ambassador, Plan International Canada) stressed the need to create inclusive experiential learning opportunities within existing curriculums.

UNU-IAS postgraduate students participated online through a student viewing party in Tokyo. Bright Osei Yeboah (MSc Student, UNU-IAS) emphasised the importance of skills development in research and technology. He noted that the UNU-IAS postgraduate degree programme encouraged students to conduct transdisciplinary research — an important skill in sustainability research that should be taught by universities across the world. Strengthening partnerships between academic institutions, industry, and other stakeholders is also key to ensure the development of professional skills.

Closing the event, Sam Barratt (Chief, Environmental Education and Youth Unit, UNEP; Co-Chair of HESI) called for focusing on students and their needs, underlining the critical role of higher education as an agent of change.


The Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) is a partnership between several United Nations entities and the higher education community, currently chaired by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) and the Sulitest Association — a non-profit organisation and online platform aimed at improving sustainability literacy for all. Other UN partners include UNESCO, UN Environment Programme, UN Global Compact’s Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative, UNU, UN-HABITAT, UNCTAD, UNITAR, the UN Office for Partnerships, and UN Academic Impact.

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