Transforming higher education for global sustainability: 2022 UNESCO report

Sustainability as a framework within any sector, including higher education, can be interpreted in myriad ways.  The sustainability of a higher education institution can include campus operations, initiatives such as reducing the energy consumption of buildings, waste management, transport, policy initiatives, technological innovation, economic models of circularity and programmes for social wellbeing. 

There are examples of Universities across the globe tackling sustainability issues.  Locally, here at AACE, Stephanie Panke explored design thinking examples for sustainability in 2021 in the article Kickstarting Sustainability with Design Thinking: An Interview with John Storm

Why is there a UNESCO report about sustainability at a global level for higher education?

What has been harder to measure and communicate is the overall impact of higher education in hastening the social, environmental and economic global transformations that the UN have identified as critical to the 2030 Agenda. This transformative agenda seeks to deliver specific outcomes on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Ahead of the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022) in May 2022, the UNESCO Global Independent Expert Group on the Universities and the 2030 Agenda have released a comprehensive 101-page open-access report called Knowledge-driven actions: Transforming higher education for global sustainability.

At the very heart of this report is an appeal to all higher education institutions to tackle what is a sizable question: How can universities lead this urgent and radical global transformation?

Who wrote the report?

The UNESCO Global Independent Expert Group on the Universities and the 2030 Agenda are the fourteen international experts who wrote this report. The individual members of the UNESCO Expert Group represent the diverse transdisciplinary experience and achievements that relate to sustainability.

Three key themes

The report opens with a useful and powerful one-page summary to highlight the three key themes of urgency for higher education towards 2030:

  1. the need to move towards inter-and transdisciplinary modes of producing and circulating knowledge;
  2. the imperative of becoming open institutions, fostering epistemic dialogue and integrating diverse ways of knowing; and
  3. the demand for a stronger presence in society through proactive engagement and partnering with other societal actors. (UNESCO, 2022, p.5)

This report is a clarion call to action, asking leaders of global higher education institutions to hasten their contributions to social, economic, and environmental transformation and to  reflect on the contributions of higher education institutions more openly and critically.

In the foreword Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO, prompts institutions to look internally and externally at sustainability.  Giannini implores institutions to position human rights at the core of the learning, teaching and research business of higher education institutions:

“The objective is for sustainability to become a core practice and purpose of higher education institutions, reflected in structures, programmes and activities, putting students in contact with real-world problems and immersive experiences.” (UNESCO, 2022, p.7)

Human rights, beyond the institution

The Executive Summary of the report outlines general recommendations for higher education institutions.  More specific recommendations for education, research, outreach and community engagement are included. The actions cover quality assurance, funding recommendations, benchmarking for sustainability, actions of donor agencies towards the “global South”, and leadership and campus policies that support the broadest framework of sustainability.

Framing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda as the “unifying challenge” for higher education, the report delves into examples of higher education institutions that are tackling systemic barriers of sustainability. The areas for progress span cultural diversity, equity and inclusion, ensuring that no one is left behind and extending the influence of higher education institutions:

“It is also time for HEIs to make sustainability and SDG literacy core requisites for all faculty members and students. Sustainability education should bring students into contact with real-world problems and immersive experiences.”
(UNESCO, 2022, p.13)

The recommendations

The Body of the report is structured into five sections:

Section 1 Introduction

The reflection of the purpose and nature of the report itself provides a context for readers who may be new to the idea of sustainability.

Section 2 Beyond disciplinary boundaries for the SDGs

This describes how to address the traditional disciplinary boundaries that so often create barriers for sustainability in higher education. Examples are paradigms in academic disciplines, the framing of sustainability in higher education and the motivations and incentives for pursuing sustainability. 

Section 3 Ways of Knowing

This section is about the importance of the diversity of knowledge in higher education, widening participation, decolonising curriculum and the ways forward through some of the barriers in research, publishing and broadening community engagement.

 Section 4 Higher education partnerships

This section delves into models of partnerships, including lifelong learning, public and private sector, and student partnerships, suggesting increasing the diversity of partnering for a multilateral world.

Section 5 Recommendations

This is the series of recommendations, in effect,  the ‘To Do’ list. There are up to 10 recommendations within each area: General, Education, Research, Outreach and Community Engagement. There are additionally 16 specific recommendations that lay out the actions that Universities can take to address current barriers.

The urgency and hope of this report

Although the scope of recommendations may seem challenging, what stands out about this report for me is the opportunity for higher education institutions to embrace sustainability holistically. Reading the recommendations yields real actionable steps for higher education institutions.

The power of such a report is that it is sharing knowledge about shared actions that can achieve progress. The recommendations are accessible to anyone who engages in higher education. It feels possible to drive this change from any level. For example, students can take these recommendations and lead with them in their studies and research,  striving for partnerships to enable these transformations.

The hope I  find in reading this report, is that how institutions respond to this urgent call to lead and drive these recommendations,  may create surprisingly refreshing metrics for students of the future to choose where they would like to study..

For students, the question they might ask is- How is this institution contributing to the urgent global 2030 Agenda?

What happens next?

Further exploration of the report will be presented at the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022) in Barcelona, Spain, 18-20 May 2022. 

In the meantime, you can listen to the UNESCO Universities and the Sustainable Development Goals – Higher Education conversation series.


UNESCO, Global Independent Expert Group of the Universities and the 2030 Agenda (2022). Knowledge-driven actions: transforming higher education for global sustainability. Retrieved February 16, 2022 from


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