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Higher education, sustainability and the SDGs: An interactive virtual discussion with Jeffrey Sachs!

Higher Education and SDGs event

The role Greek Higher Education Institutions play in promoting the SDGs as well as the transformative capacity education has in transforming our society into a more sustainable one was the focal point of the online event organized by UN SDSN Greece, in collaboration with The American College of Greece (ACG), the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and the Athens University of Economics and Business, on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

The event welcomed Deputy Minister of Education (responsible for higher education) Angelos Syrigos, Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Dr. Stella Apostolaki, Associate Faculty – Lecturer I, Environmental Studies Program Coordinator – Department of Science and Mathematics, Chair of Academic Advisory Board of the Center of Excellence for Sustainability, The American College of Greece, Rania Assariotaki, Senior Manager for Sustainability, The American College of Greece, Prof. Phoebe Koundouri, School of Economics and Director of ReSEES Laboratory, ATHENS UNIVERSITY OF ECONOMICS AND BUSINESS; Fellow of World Academy of Art and Science; Director of Sustainable Development Unit, ATHENA RC; Co-chair SDSN Europe, and Prof. Andreas A. Papandreou, Professor of Environmental Economics, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens; Co-chair of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Greece (SDSN Greece).

Adding to the insightful presentations were the key questions posed to Jeffrey Sachs by the three student SDG Youth Coordinators, Hayley Turner (ACG), Marilida Tsiplakou (NKUA) and Eva Papanikolaki (AUEB).

In his opening remarks, Minister Syrigos described the Ministry’s initiative to include sustainability in higher education, acknowledging the crucial role universities and knowledge institutions must play in the achievement of the SDGs and the Ministry’s main goal to create a sustainable development network for Greek Universities based on the UN SDGs. “Education, research, innovation and leadership will be essential in helping society to transform into pathways of sustainable development. Higher Education Institutions need to be at the frontline in terms of contributing to the generation of sustainable practices, improving the way sustainability is perceived, taught, modeled, and implemented.”, he pointed out.

Following the Minister’s thought-provoking speech, Prof. Papandreou presented snapshots of sustainability best practices and implementation of the 17 Goals in education, research, engagement and operations at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens – the second largest university in Greece.

Prof. Koundouri provided an overview of the Sustainability Policy Framework from 2015, focusing also on a global overview of SDG 4 on Quality Education. In addition, she presented the Athens University of Economics and Business (AUEB) approach on sustainability, providing the audience with examples on how AUEB is implementing the SDGs on campus and information on the AUEB’s Research laboratory on Socio-Economic and Environmental Sustainability (ReSEES), which conducts policy-relevant interdisciplinary research on environmental, natural resources and energy issues.

Rania Assariotaki shared ACG’s approach to sustainability with a comprehensive overview of the actions and best practices across academics, operations, planning and administration, student and community engagement, and innovation and leadership, guided by the AASHE STARS assessment tool where ACG submits its bi-annual sustainability report and for which it has received the Gold STARS Rating. At the core of ACG’s sustainability approach is cultivating partnerships with both internal and external organizations and partners to collaboratively achieve the SDGs, in the spirit of SDG 17.

The event’s keynote speaker, Jeffrey Sachs, spoke about the ancient Greek origins of Panepistimio (University), stressing the ethical use of knowledge and science, for the betterment of humanity, pointing out that “only through education we can even understand common good, and we can reach through rational thinking a better understanding of what will make a good life.” Placing an emphasis on the fact that sustainable development is perhaps the central challenge for collective life presently, he reiterated that the purposes of the 17 SDGs on climate, biodiversity, pollution control, have been set so we, as a humanity, can achieve this holistic sense of wellbeing and build societies that are just and sustainable. Professor Sachs spoke of the role of universities in helping us find a way out of the current chaos and remaking our economic and political life into one that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable.

The three student SDG Youth Coordinators from NKUA, AUEB, and ACG, engaged in a thought-provoking conversation with Mr. Sachs, asking questions about joint academic or lifelong learning programs or programs to boost employability of future graduates, if the covid-19 pandemic creates any barriers for the promotion of education for sustainable development or could be considered as an opportunity to implement new types of transformative learning activities, how the connection between universities and policy formation can be strengthened, and practical advice towards encouraging multiple university collaboration in tackling the SDGs.

Prof. Papandreou and Dr. Apostolaki concluded the event, offering to-the-point closing remarks and summing up the key take-away points made by all speakers. Special emphasis was placed on the need for Greek universities and higher education institutions to formulate sustainability mission statements at the highest level, recognizing their role in advancing the SDGs in education, conduct a self-evaluation of their current strengths and weaknesses as well as the need for cultivating partnerships and collaborations towards achieving all the SDGs.

You may watch the event here.