5th International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education
Higher Education's Commitment to Sustainability: from Understanding to Action
Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC)
23 - 25 November 2010


GUNI joins the work on the contribution of higher education to sustainability currently being carried out by international agencies, special programmes of the United Nations, networks and institutions of education in the world with the conviction that the greatest challenge of higher education consists in putting the knowledge at the service of social transformation, a process which at present means moving toward sustainability.    

The 5th International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education will analyze how higher education in the world is transforming itself to contribute to the articulation of the paradigm of sustainability and how to identify aspects of this transformation in order to discuss and agree upon the ways of action on which one has to advance.

The notion of sustainability, presented in 1987 in the Brundtland Report, has made a long evolution until now. It emerged associated with the desire to promote a change in the economic development model and has accompanied social, political and cultural reflections concerned with an environmentally and socially more just future.

Within a few years, a social consensus has matured in which one can perceive the need to create the foundations of a culture capable of generating responsible behaviour of the people with themselves and with nature, ready to respond to the challenges of a planetary and plural civilization, with adequate ethic and cognitive tools to engender new economic development models, with a broad view of the needs we share as humans and of the abilities that each person and culture can contribute to a common and cohesive future.

This change in perception has not been clearly accompanied by a shift in educational, economic nor social policies. We live in a tension between the need for change, the lack of a worldview capable of steering it and the absence of adequate tools to implement it.

The educational context has been witness of this change in social consciousness. As it corresponds to its role of accompanying inner and cognitive growth of individuals and of capacitating them for social interaction, education should be the field most directly involved in this transition, but which, in turn, has been most neglected to anticipate, propose and respond to the challenges of cultural change that we are experiencing.

However, an important consensus has been reached as a result of the international meetings held to discuss the world's situation on a global scale. It means that today we are able to document the interrelation between the various environmental, social, economic and human problems, as well as the linkage between the poverty of some and the infeasibility of an expansive economic model, unaware of the limits of others. We have a global map of the world's problems and this view allows us to affirm that when we advocate the introduction of sustainability into our way of inhabiting the Earth, we are talking about creating a new culture. So when we talk about sustainability we actually mean a new paradigm from which to think and articulate new forms of life, relationships and understanding of our place in the world.

The main objectives of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014), in which the integration of the principles, values and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning was proposed, were a key factor in creating this new framework. After five years, principles such as interdisciplinarity, networking or the local focus of knowledge, form the basis of the language on which new references are being built for education.

An example of this language is the text of the Bonn Declaration, result of the World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development (UNESCO, 2009), in which principles of sustainability are understood as a starting point. These principles include the interdependence of the economic, social and cultural dimensions in a broad time perspective, as well as the contextualization of knowledge or the ability to deal with the uncertainties to solve complex problems. It also proposes to incorporate aspects of sustainability through a systemic and integrated approach.

Finally, the Declaration invites the various actors from industry, civil society, local communities and the scientific community to engage in networking with the education institutions and the networks of education for sustainable development.

In the same line is the Communiqué issued by the World Conference on Higher Education (UNESCO, 2009) that, emphasizing the social responsibility of higher education that derives from its value as a public good, is highlighting the need to advance our multidimensional understanding, from social, economic, scientific and cultural dimensions of the global challenges and our ability to respond to them. It should lead society in generating global knowledge to address global challenges, such as food security, climate change, water management, intercultural dialogue, renewable energy and public health. The global education agenda should contribute, as the text states, to the eradication of poverty and sustainable development and to progress towards the internationally agreed upon development goals, which includes Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Education for All (EFA).

GUNI's founding members: Sponsored by:
Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya Unesco United Nations University
Supported by:
Ministerio de Educación Generalitat de Catalunya Ajuntament de Barcelona