Conference theme

Sustainable and responsive higher education

The societal environment of higher education has become more uncertain as the climate change and the changing global political atmosphere are influencing to societies and people’s everyday life. Societies are increasingly confronted with different kind of risks related to environmental catastrophes like droughts and extreme heat waves, as well as political and military conflicts, which have challenged the sense of security and caused the dramatic increase in the number of refugees, including in regions that had experienced many decades of stability and peace like Europe.

The value of knowledge is even more central in the world, which is recovering from the global pandemic and simultaneously is struggling for peace and sustainability. The higher education institutions, disciplinary communities and individual researchers are expected to provide more solutions to the complex problems of our times, which are as much social as technical in nature. Thus higher education is called to play a major role in analysing and addressing these problems. Complex problems require innovative and transdisciplinary approaches, and therefore, institutions and individuals are encouraged to find collaboration with other disciplines and sectors across institutional borders. However, this should not be understood as promoting only applied research and discarding the importance of traditional modes of learning and research, since they also contribute in a very relevant way to the advancement of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Moreover, the promotion of critical reflection is crucial to move towards an ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable world.

Furthermore, higher education must compete for scarce financial resources with many other important sectors in society. The pandemic disrupted higher education in many ways, creating or exacerbating the feeling of stress and anxiety for many students and academics; and even causing learning gaps in some parts of the world. It may have been that the pandemic has worsened issues pertaining to access to higher education, inclusiveness, and integration of students from different social, economic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, or that the learning quality towards these and other students may have been negatively affected. The advancing technological development and the ageing population in many developed countries also require higher education institutions to offer flexible lifelong learning paths to new audiences.

In an increasingly complex, rapidly changing and even fragmented societal climate, higher education institutions are expected to be more responsive; to capable of change in a changing environment and highlight their impact in the societies. In addition, they are challenged to reassert the importance of knowledge as a major societal goal and as a fundamental factor to create better and different opportunities and to foster social cohesion. This also requires strong and autonomous institutions and individuals that are able to reflect freely about new and different possibilities to organize our societies according to many of their dimensions, including those more strongly related to environmental and economic ones.

Researchers’ expertise is much needed in the times of uncertainties; however, they are often involved, voluntary or involuntary, in the ideological political battles between opposite parties. The autonomy of the academic profession, the power of the disciplinary communities and collegiality and solidarity between academics are values that needs our everyday support and acknowledgment.

The 34th CHER conference asks for example the following pertinent questions about sustainability and responsiveness of higher education:

  • What is responsive higher education — How institutions, disciplinary communities and individual researchers can be more responsive? What kind of implications it might have?
  • How are different higher education systems and institutions addressing the challenges posed by sustainability and how is this shaping the design and implementation of higher education policies? What role is being played by SDGs in this respect?
  • What opportunities and tensions does the concern with different dimensions of sustainability and responsiveness create with more traditional goals and missions of higher education?
  • How to organise, plan, and implement academic and managerial decisions and processes that foster sustainability and responsiveness in higher education? Are these changes leading to organizational changes regarding disciplinary and professional collaboration in education, research, and the interactions with society?
  • How are higher education institutions integrating sustainability and responsiveness in their core missions? Is this having a transformative impact or is it being a superficial rhetorical response to public discussions?
  • How are current incentives in higher education, including those related to careers of academics but also those that motivate students to engage with higher education, influencing the thinking and behaviours of said academics and students towards issues of sustainability?
  • How the requirement of the responsiveness and societal impact change the academic profession?