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Universities are showing great leadership on Covid-19. They should now seize opportunities to tackle climate change and other sustainable development goals.

  • 22 April 2020
  • By Lucian J Hudson

This blog was kindly contributed by Lucian J. Hudson, Chair, Earthwatch Europe and past Director of Communications, University of Oxford and The Open University. Lucian has previously blogged for HEPI on leadership for the higher education sector, reflecting on issues from widening participation to the priorities for driving into the future.

The Covid-19 crisis has unleashed a hunger for verifiable evidence, rigour in evaluation and independent critical thinking of a high order – in sum, what typically a broad university curriculum delivers. Universities are in an exceptional position of leadership, more so than governments and business who are finding it difficult to mount a global response to the current crisis. Universities across the planet have no other agenda than to apply the intelligence, teaching and research firepower, individual and collective, of their academics.

The Policy Exchange report I was lead author for, Universities at the Crossroads only two months ago, identified the need for the UK university sector to act more boldly and collaboratively to tackle its underfunding and win greater support from government and the communities that higher education institutions serve. This crisis is providing an opportunity to address some of the challenges that the report explored, particularly in demonstrating the value that higher education delivers for the whole nation.

Universities are sources of authority and credible hope in the face of grave uncertainty.

It is inspiring to see the speed, scale and flexibility with which UK higher education has harnessed science and research, mobilised nursing students and supported the NHS and others in their communities. We are still in the early phases of this epidemic, much as we are already tiring of it. Its full impact on public health, the economy and society is too early to assess. What we do know is that experts are again valued. Expectations of success and boundaries with political leaders need to be managed. The university sector is emerging as a critical contributor to finding solutions, as well potentially vulnerable if it is underfunded.

Drawing on the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Times Higher Education Global Impact Rankings gives us a measure of the extent to which universities across the board are having a positive social and economic impact on the planet. Whether it is in research or contribution to the local community, the rankings demonstrate impact ranging from action on climate change to gender equality, good health and wellbeing. It is the first university ranking to use this criterion, rather than the usual metrics such as reputation and research prestige.

The rankings feature seven UK universities in the top thirty: The University of Manchester, Kings College London, The University of Edinburgh, The University of Leicester, Newcastle University and Northumbria University. The rankings show the collective international achievement of higher education institutions from the developed world to the lowest-income countries and regions. From 89 countries and regions across six continents 859 universities have been ranked for at least one SDG, and 766 are included in the overall ranking. Many of top 100 spots are held by universities from countries and regions that have not appeared before in the upper end of the usual THE world rankings – for instance Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia and Mexico.

As I argued in my Universities at the Crossroads report, universities can use their research to inform and influence partners in their communities and wider networks, closing knowledge gaps as well as skills gaps. For example, my science-based environment and education NGO, Earthwatch Europe, has worked with HSBC for almost two decades, helping HSBC employees to become sustainability leaders and adapt business culture to support the transition to a low-carbon economy. Earthwatch has engaged more than 8,000 HSBC employees as citizen science leaders with FreshWater Watch across 36 cities worldwide. Employees have collected water quality data points, providing important evidence to inform freshwater management and policy.

Universities are in exceptional position not only to create knowledge but to inspire action. This requires will and wherewithal, but Covid-19 has shown that universities have the ability, power and fleetness-of-foot to do that. The sector might even have surprised itself, and given itself renewed confidence that it can manage significant business transformation. One change born of necessity is embracing more fully online teaching. Notwithstanding all the concerns that many academics and students have about a more permanent switch from traditional lectures, UK higher education institutions have shown in this crisis just how adaptable and resourceful it can be.

The sector can build on existing initiatives, but give these more of a boost. The EAUC, The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education are working with GuildHE, the Association of Colleges and UUK to galvanise sector-wide leadership around climate change and sustainability via the Climate Commission set up to provide direction, leadership and consensus on confronting climate change.

What should focus attention and mobilise university leaders once we see off Covid-19 is a wider gamut of systemic risks to our populations and planet. Whatever the cause of this epidemic, living within our means and in balance with the natural world will be reinforced as strategic priorities – global, national and local. However much we will yearn for a return to some semblance of normality, we will be more attuned to the need to rethink many of our assumptions about what it takes to have informed decisions about our future. Strategy is about to become exciting again.

Because of Covid-19, the concept of a systemic existential threat is front of mind for all people. The epidemic threatens lives now, and will shape a new normal. We cannot re-evaluate life after one systemic threat without also understanding and acting on other such threats. Most significantly, this crisis has put on hold ideological differences on the scope and limits of public investment, and highlighted all too visibly when business is not acting responsibly and giving high enough priority to the social good.

For many of us leading environmental NGOs, the epidemic has added a whole new level of complexity, uncertainty and danger for us, short term and long. We already had our work cut out before Covid-19 struck. The sense of urgency last year to act more radically on sustainable development was not great enough. This was despite unprecedented fires, extreme weather and melting of ice caps. This was also despite new authoritative scientific research, the leadership of Greta Thunberg, Sir David Attenborough, the Pope, the UN Secretary General and Extinction Rebellion.

One of the many lessons that we will draw from this crisis is that a threat does not to have to be visible to the naked eye to be real and significantly change behaviours of organisations and communities. Critical is winning enough support from government, business and universities to demonstrate progress on sustainable development goals. If the pervasive spread of a life-threatening epidemic keeps the spotlight on what it takes to reshape our approach to the planet, Covid-19 will have achieved strangely what last year’s growing awareness of climate change and erosion of biodiversity did not.

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