Rio+20 Session on the United Nations Higher Education Initiative

By Cynthia Lang

This post is part of the ongoing events news, related to the Bay2Rio+20 delegation team’s coverage from Rio+20.  Click here to follow along.

One highlight of the Rio+20 Side Events was the June 19 session on the United Nations Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, moderated by Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Coordinator, UNCSD. University presidents and deans from Romania, China, and Brazil, along with local authorities from Nairobi and France, and student partner advocates for sustainability shared their views on the importance of this initiative and why they support it.

The premise behind the initiative is that since higher education institutions educate and train decision makers, they are uniquely poised to contribute to building more sustainable communities by disseminating their research and information and enhancing student capacities. Ultimately, it is the goal that all students, even at the elementary school level, be educated and trained in sustainability but Thompson made the decision to start with higher education since these experts will be practitioners and in a position of greater influence.

“The initiative calls upon leaders of the academic community around the globe to commit themselves to fostering research and teaching on sustainable development issues, greening their campuses and engaging with international frameworks such as the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development for which UNESCO is the lead agency.” In addition to providing leadership in the area of sustainable development, educators need to teach the skills in systems thinking needed to understand the complexities in addressing sustainable development from the local to global levels. This initiative is important because no other sector can make a difference toward the transformation of our institutions.

Once these speakers shared their approaches to this declaration, UN Partner organizations such as UNEP, UNESCO, UN Global Impact and UNU discussed how their activities will support the initiative.

Dr. Eden Mamut, Director of Black Sea Network UNAI Hub on Sustainability in Romania emphasized the need for a paradigm shift in implementing these aspects of sustainability. It makes sense that this university would make an appropriate venue for a sustainability program because of the high pollution levels there. The KIYV Declaration of Rectors, Black Sea 2008, made all students literate in sustainable development.  It also compelled university leaders to accept this great responsibility. Mamut and the other leaders on the panel suggested that we are too specialized and too divided in our education and work.

They expressed a need to promote and incorporate this paradigm shift through education. To do so, they suggested we start by building attitudes, then consistency, and finally, accounting for complexity.  They advocated a need to create novel and competitive resources that are in harmony with the environment. This process will first reshape universities, then expand to shape networks of universities where they need to partner and work closer together, and can then integrate cloud technology. For a list of the technologies available to promote these ideas, check out UNAI Hub on Sustainability.

Prof. Pei Gang, President of Tongji University in China understands that in order to be a first class university, they must incorporate sustainability contributions into the curriculum.  “You can’t be the best if you don’t work with sustainability.” Therefore, Tongji University is working to accomplish this by encouraging research on sustainable development issues.

Prof. Antonio Freitas of Fundação Getulio Vargas of Brazil shared that the Brazilian Constitution mentions sustainability. He stated that from now on sustainability will be incorporated throughout the curriculum in all Brazilian schools. Freitas stressed the need to test sustainability literacy in college aptitude examinations, that these tests need to cover  many questions on the topic of sustainability in the equivalent of the US SAT, GMAT and GRE examinations – and that students need to be able to answer questions on sustainability to be eligible to graduate.

To be clear, the objective of this initiative is not only to change some programs or to add greening topics but to reshape teaching techniques. A surge of creativity in teaching is needed.  We have have to get students outside of the classroom walls and make learning fun. According to Freitas, “what we need is more love.”

It is clear that there is a united opinion that through incorporating sustainable development into the educational system, we can help to develop the competencies to create a more sustainable society.  One parting question was how do we link government funding and rankings with sustainability?

Cynthia Lang recently received her MBA from the Presidio Graduate School of Sustainable Management.  You can follow her on Twitter accounts @Bay2Rio20 and @chlang6 .

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