The future of higher education and health: 10 important lessons

10 lessons about the future of higher education and health

Higher education and sustainable development: the IAU's SDG 3 cluster led by the UOC

Juan F. Samaniego

When, back in 2018, the International Association of Universities (IAU) invited the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) to take on the role as lead institution for SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being in the IAU Global Cluster on Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development (HESD), a network of universities for the 2030 Agenda's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),the world was a very different place to what it is today. Little more than four years have passed, but the pandemic, the impact of climate change, the refugee crisis, armed and economic conflicts, inequalities and the rise of authoritarianism have created a situation full of challenges for health and well-being, not to mention for higher education.

The 16th General Conference of the International Association of Universities, which representatives from UOC attended last October, played host to a series of discussions and ideas around the short- and medium-term future of higher education in general and health sciences faculties, schools, departments and institutes in particular. These lessons will very much be felt at the first face-to-face meeting of the SDG3 cluster for Health and Wellbeing, to be held in March under the UOC's leadership.


The IAU Conference's 10 lessons

"The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the power of cooperation and information exchange when it came to responding to the resulting health crisis and developing a vaccine in record time. But it's also highlighted how inequalities and protectionism can negatively impact collaboration and access to health," said Liv Raphael, SDG3 Cluster Lead and member of the UOC's eHealth Center, who participated, alongside Marc Graells, head of the cluster's secretariat, in the latest IAU General Conference. These are the 10 takeaways from the event:

1. The pandemic showed higher education's ability to adapt to a difficult context, but also its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. COVID-19 helped speed up previously existing trends, such as the gap in accessing university education and technology for e-learning and the need to increase interdisciplinarity.

2. The health situation helped bolster the idea of the need to invest in our healthcare systems, in research into infectious and zoonotic diseases and in global strategies to respond to pandemics.

3. It also underlined the importance of guaranteeing equity in scientific processes to prevent an increase in inequalities and the value of open science in the building of synergies and global knowledge.

4. Additionally, the pandemic made clear the importance of developing resilience capabilities in students and professionals in the field of health, as well as of guaranteeing that all of them receive the support necessary to look after their mental health.

5. On the other hand, COVID-19 has also given rise to new opportunities. Remote learning in higher education, which makes international experiences more accessible and environmentally friendly, and blended, flexible learning approaches are becoming increasingly common.

6. Looking to the future, and bearing in mind the ever-changing situation, higher education needs to rethink what it does and also how it does it. Higher education institutions must become more flexible to adapt to an increasingly complex environment. They need to offer clear and distinctive standout value.

7. This transformation needs to stem from student-centred learning, a closer focus on skills development, multiple delivery and personalization options, strengthened equity, accessibility and sustainable development and the development of more flexible formats to help support students who combine their studies with work.

8. Higher education has a dual responsibility: to prepare students for work and, at the same time, to shape critical thinkers and responsible citizens.

9. Global problems call for global solutions and global citizens, so taking an international approach is truly essential. Nevertheless, this should not come at the expense of local relevance and strong community engagement.

10. The transformation will require management of the tensions within the system and a guarantee that this future vision is aligned with the way in which higher education institutions measure success.


Higher education and sustainable development: the IAU's SDG 3 cluster

In 2018, the International Association of Universities appointed 16 universities from around the world to each lead a group of universities working towards the 2030 Agenda's Sustainable Development Goals. Thanks to initiatives from the UOC's Globalization and Cooperation team and to the international standing of our eHealth Center, the IAU chose the UOC to head a team of universities cooperating on fostering the understanding and use of SDG 3, in higher education, with an international and multidisciplinary focus.

Over the course of the last four years, the IAU's SDG 3 cluster has worked to promote higher education as tool for helping ensure a comprehensive focus on health that fosters equity and well-being around the world, and has done so based on five priority areas:

- Bridging the science, knowledge and policy gap.

- Encouraging the inclusion of the concepts of equity and integrated, public-centred approaches.

- Promoting the consideration of local needs and voices.

Fostering cross-sector collaboration and a systematic approach.

- Harnessing the power of online working and e-health methodologies and tools.

Under the leadership of the UOC's eHealth Center, the SDG3 cluster comprises six higher education institutions: Karolinska Institutet (Sweden), Makerere University (Uganda), the University of Caldas (Colombia), Gadjah Mada University (Indonesia), University College Dublin (Ireland) and Western Sydney University (Australia). It thus boasts a total of seven members from five continents, locally integrated and nationally, regionally and globally connected. All of these institutions give shape to this interdisciplinary cluster by contributing with their expertise in health and higher education.

The SDG 3 cluster started work at the beginning of 2019. After more than a year of activity, unavoidably impacted by the pandemic, in autumn 2020 the group agreed upon a common strategy to guide its future actions, a strategy designed in accordance with the principles of engaged, inclusive and open partnership and a global focus, i.e. one that seeks solutions suited to the local context but that shares knowledge on a global level. 

Additionally, in October 2020, the SDG 3 cluster held, together with the IAU, a webinar entitled Higher education under examination: are we ready to train the future healthcare workforce?, followed by the publication of the paper Rethinking healthcare workforce education. Summer 2022 IAU and UOC organised another webinar, Exploring the nexus between health, equity and gender.

Now, after months of online meetings and encounters, the SDG 3 cluster will be holding its first face-to-face meeting in March 2023, at which its members will share knowledge and lessons learnt on how SDG 3 and other associated SDGs are being integrated in their institutions, teaching and research to foster equity, health and well-being. 

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