21.06.2012 - Education Sector

Lift-off for higher education sustainability initiative at RIO

The launch of a new Higher Education Initiative for Sustainable Development got a positive reception at a special Rio+20 advance side event on 19 June.

University leaders worldwide signed up to the Declaration of the initiative, an agreement to teach sustainable development concepts, encourage research on sustainable development issues, create green campuses everywhere, support sustainability on the local level and share results with the global community.

Organized by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs in cooperation with UNESCO, the UN Environment Programme, the UN Global Compact, Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), and the UN University, the side event brought together leaders of the international academic community to make this public commitment to sustainability. 

Elisabeth Thompson, RIO+20 Executive Coordinator, opened the event. She explained that she was launching the initiative because she firmly believed in the centrality of education to the Rio agenda. Ms Thompson also stressed the necessity to include sustainability in future rankings of universities. 

“Higher education is essential to empowering all women and men for innovation and change,” said Gretchen Kalonji, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences in her introductory remarks on behalf of Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General. Her argument: universities must do a better job in serving societies. They must develop innovations for sustainable development solutions. “I see this as the ethical mission of higher education in the 21st century – to understand better the world in order to care better for it, to shape new leaders for the green societies we need, to build the foundations for a new citizenship of sustainability.” Ms Kalonji warned that development would be sustainable only if the current and future generations were empowered to lead and build it, and called for greater access for young people to higher education.

An interactive panel discussion featured five distinguished representatives of universities that are signatories to the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, Prof. Dr. Eden MAMUT, Director Black Sea University Network UNAI Hub on Sustainability (Romania); Prof. Pei Gang, President of Tongji University, China; Prof. Antonio Freitas, Provost at Fundação Getulio Vargas (Brazil) and Jean-Christophe Carteron, Euromed Management (France).  

University leaders shared impressive examples of their work. Tongji University recognized that ESD is crucial. Its President, Prof. Pei Gang asserted that if you want to become a top university, you must combine a liberal arts approach with cross-disciplinary teaching of sustainable development.

Prof. Antonio Freitas shared the news that the initiative had persuaded the Brazilian Minister of Education into signing guidelines integrating ESD into all schools in Brazil. 

Moderated by Elizabeth Thompson, the panel included a representative of an international student organization that has endorsed the Initiative. Students were frequently at the centre of the discussion. It was stressed that students themselves were key agents for change and not mere recipients of education. 

Following the discussion, representatives of UNEP, UNESCO, UN Global Compact, PRME<a name="_GoBack"></a> and UNU described how their activities would support the newly launched initiative. Chief of Section of Education for Sustainable Development, Alexander Leicht, assured participants that as lead agency of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO would contribute to the initiative through support and follow-up, including continued advocacy for ESD, teacher education work and support to its worldwide network of UNESCO Chairs.

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