UNESCO Chairs Seminars series
on the Futures of Higher Education

Following the international conference “Transforming Knowledge for Just and Sustainable Futures” (Paris, 3-4 November 2022), held with the support of the French National Commission for UNESCO to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme, UNESCO is organising three online UNESCO Chairs Seminars on the Futures of Higher Education throughout January, February and March.

Organised at the suggestion of the UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, the seminars aim to deepen engagement by HEIs with UNESCO’s recent work concerning the Futures of Higher Education.

Futures of Higher Education


Seminar image 1



Seminar 1 programme

Click here to read the concept note for the seminar.


During the first webinar of the series, speakers and participants spoke about key challenges and possible approaches to co-construct the future of Higher Education (HE). These discussions were based on the roadmap entitled “Beyond Limits New Ways to Reinvent Higher Education” that was presented in the 3rd World Higher Education Conference, the WHEC2022, held in Barcelona last May.

The Roadmap was prepared primarily in line with the frameworks of the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, “the Education 2030 Agenda” and the new social contract proposed by the Futures of Education report towards 2050. The approach for designing the Roadmap was participatory, based on wide consultation and extensive research. The EGU report on transforming HE for sustainability was particularly important. A group of 11 technical experts supported UNESCO in compiling information and preparing the Roadmap.

The HE Roadmap was presented by UNESCO at the last World Higher Education Conference, WHEC2022, “as a living document to encourage further thinking, stimulate a global conversation, and activate major transformations to reinventing higher education”. The WHEC stimulated abundant conversation with over 10,000 participants in person and online. About 115 sessions took place and more than 250 knowledge products from multiple stakeholders were and are being shared on the WHEC website.

With all these new perspectives and materials from the WHEC2022, it makes sense to further enhance the Roadmap. We are currently in the process of enriching it by analyzing the WHEC2022 sessions and materials.

Discussions during this first webinar centred on approaches to tackle the inequalities in higher education systems; to facilitate the integration of programmes, flexible learning pathways and lifelong learning; to leverage the power of data; to further engage higher education institutions in the climate crisis; to transform education systems and pedagogies for promoting learners to becoming active and responsible agents of change; to foster the recognition and value of indigenous knowledge; and to advance in gender equality.


UNESCO Chairs Seminar 2



Click here to read the concept note for the seminar.

This Seminar focussed on the roles of higher education institutions for sustainable development by discussing the report Knowledge-driven actions: Transforming higher education for global sustainability. This report was authored by the Global Independent Expert Group on the Universities and the 2030 Agenda (EGU2030), as part of an initiative by UNESCO and the University of Bergen. The report was officially launched at the third World Higher Education Conference in Barcelona (WHEC2022) in May 2022.

Three members of the expert group spoke on transformations for higher education institutions to contribute to sustainable development: (1) Agnes Binagwaho on Moving beyond disciplinary boundaries for the SDGs; (2) Melody Brown Burkins on Diversifying ways of knowing; (3) Dav Olav Hessen on Strengthening higher education partnerships.

They highlighted the importance of overcoming funding barriers for inter and transdisciplinary research; bringing stakeholders together for higher education partnerships; involving actors from diverse backgrounds; appreciating diverse knowledge systems; and moving towards a ‘pluriverse’ in higher education. Incentives were highlighted as key and should focus on encouraging and facilitating more inter and transdisciplinary approaches to research and diverse ways of knowing. To do so, leadership that changes traditional incentive structures is needed.

Key challenges were identified by speakers and participants, including moving away from siloed working,  how to make necessary structural changes, and the lack of awareness oof the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by funders, among others. Seminar participants commented on important aspects of these themes, including the call for ‘decolonization’ in higher education structures, and the importance of inter and transdisciplinary approaches for the future.

There are many ways that UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN Networks could engage with and build on the practical ideas emphasized in this report, and other global reports. Suggestions for moving forward with this work among UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN Networks were made, for example, they could be more visible in higher education spaces so they can actively participate in education-building processes in line with the SDGs. Progress towards the SDGs will rely on cross-disciplinary approaches, openness to other types of knowledge, and collaborative partnerships in higher education. One of the speakers noted that for societal transformation, it is necessary to start with education and research.

The Seminar was an excellent opportunity for collaborative thinking about the transformations needed for higher education to support efforts towards sustainable development. Several UNESCO Chairholders shared their own experiences in addressing the challenges and provided examples of implementing strategies and policies in higher education institutions and systems in favour of sustainable development.

UNESCO Chairs Seminar 3




Click here to see the concept note for the seminar.

Click here to download the slides presented by Jocelyne Gacel-Ávila.


UNESCO Chairs Seminar 3: Reimagining our Futures Together: A new social contract for education 15 March 2023 Over 420 experts attended this Seminar on the implications for higher education of the Report from the International Commission on the Futures of Education, Reimagining our Futures Together: A new social contract for education. Two interrelated themes ran through the discussion. First, the harmful ‘fetish of competition’ in higher education and how it might be addressed. Second, the value of cooperation in higher education, including through the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme, to advance the proposals and visions for sustainable futures contained in the Report.

Professor António Nóvoa, chair of the drafting committee, recalled that the Report is ‘an invitation to think and act together in building the futures of education together’. It calls for a new social contract for education strongly based on an enlargement of human rights, and the realization of education – including higher education – as a public endeavour and a common good. In his view, ‘higher education institutions are different from all other social and economic institutions – their strengthen lies in their difference – therefore it is a mistake to bring business or commercial logic into higher education’.

Responding, Professor Rajani Naidoo described the ‘fetish of competition’, as one of the gates preventing the co-construction of sustainable futures. Whether expressed as market competition, government excellence contests, or rankings, the belief in competition is a problem for achieving common good goals. Professor Naidoo called for alternative economic perspectives that recognize people can organize beyond the market to share and sustain the planet. Publicly funded research and its applications need protecting. Space for critical analysis and dialogue should be safeguarded. People in higher education should recollectivize – with each other and with society – to work together to propel the visions contained in the Report.

Also stressing collaboration, Professor Jocelyne Gacel-Ávila noted that, ‘Higher Education Institutions should be responsible for facilitating collaboration through the integration of internationalization and internal cooperation as a transversal dimensional in all programmes and organizational units…’. In relation to environmental sustainability, Dr Dorcas Otieno highlighted the central role of university education, stating that, ‘A green economy requires the reorienting of public policies supported by improved information systems for tracking and communicating higher education progress for sustainable futures’.

Challenges identified include the structures of research and teaching that often rely on competition, linked to funding. This also creates competition between the humanities and natural sciences. Higher education systems may even maintain global inequalities, if the purpose of higher education is reduced to tradable knowledge and skills. It was observed that humanist values are being relegated at a moment that requires global solutions and cooperation. Concerns were also expressed about the uses of technology and the embedded biases of artificial intelligence.

The UNESCO Chairholders who spoke were keen to propose and find solutions, recognizing that today’s global challenges require scholars to work together across disciplines and internationally, such as through South-South cooperation. Universities need to transform themselves to be able to fulfill their transformative power in education and society, including in local communities. Inspired by the call for a new social contract for education, there was interest by UNESCO Chairs to act collectively to counter prevailing neoliberal policy and funding regimes in higher education.

Despite so many challenges the conversation was open and constructive. The UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs network reflects the idea of our common humanity. Where people are collaborating for the global good this needs to be celebrated. In a surprise contribution, Mr Federico Mayor, former Director-General of UNESCO (1987 to 1999), said, ‘We must make a personal resolution to be actors and not to be a spectator of what happens in the world’. Mr Mayor affirmed that as a network, UNESCO Chairs can have a very important role to redress the present trends.

We invite ideas for future Seminars from across the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme. If you wish propose an event or to be considered as a expert speaker for a UNESCO Chairs Seminar or Public Lecture, please send a one page concept note to: unitwin@unesco.org.

Media related to the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs 30th Anniversary Conference:


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