On 21 January 2021, the University of Colombo celebrated hundred years since the establishment of its Faculties of Arts and Science. The origins of these faculties can be traced to Ceylon University College (CUC). During the celebration of this rich history of Sri Lanka’s higher education system, Ms. Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Sri Lanka delivered the following remarks:
It gives me great pleasure to join you for the Centenary Celebrations of the Faculties of Science, Arts and the Library of the University of Colombo and I am sorry I cannot be there with you in person. As the daughter of an academic and with experience as a lecturer myself, I understand the sacrifice, discipline, and dedication that academics have towards their fields and the pure passion that upholds great traditions of universities such as the University of Colombo. As a young student I was inspired by the quote at the entrance to my University by Alfred Tennyson “Let knowledge grow from more to more and more of reverence in us dwell”. My reverence for academia and the transformation it can create in society remains with me to this day.
One of the thrills of higher education around the world is the amount of invention that is underway. While universities are certainly filled with tradition, they are also institutions that change from generation to generation with new fields of knowledge and continuously adapting to the changing demands of society. In our time, one of the greatest challenges is sustainable development: how to combine economic development with social justice and environmental sustainability. In this effort universities play an integral role in ensuring that the scholars of tomorrow and the world at large facilitates a society that is set to meet its present needs – without compromising the needs of future generations or the health of the planet.
Sustainable development is a holistic concept, involving economics, social justice, and environmental management. It therefore must be taught, researched, and promoted in a holistic manner – cutting across intellectual disciplines, faculties and departments, and even methods.
In order to meaningfully contribute to sustainable development we need:
basic scientific knowledge,
applied technical knowledge, like engineering, agronomy, and public health
policy sciences like economics and politics
and the human sciences like psychology, ethics, and the humanities.
Therefore, universities can and should play a role in high-level policy advising and analysis. If we look at any of the pressing challenges we face today – like fighting COVID-19, ending extreme poverty, decarbonizing the energy system, protecting endangered species – policy makers need the expertise of the sciences, engineering, sociology or behavioral economics. We need to see universities mobilizing their highly specialized talent and motivated students ready to help design solutions for today and for tomorrow. All of you will agree with me that for academics, practical policy work is not only hugely rewarding and has a high social benefit, but also creates deeper and more dynamic research activities as well. For instance in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines developed through research by Universities like Oxford and Vanderbilt.
In 2015 the world collectively agreed on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs – our shared vision for the future. A cornerstone of the 2030 Agenda is the role of partnerships. We face severe and urgent global challenges, many of which require global cooperation to address, whether it is the control of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the transformation of the world’s energy systems, or the redesign of agriculture and mining supply chains to encourage their environmental and social sustainability. Collaboratively working towards the Sustainable Development Goals is also an opportunity for universities to seek out international university partnerships.
Partnership is the very purpose of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative. These networks seek to build partnerships of universities in order to strengthen global problem solving – I encourage Universities across Sri Lanka to join up with them. Sri Lankans are bright, enthusiastic and innovative and you need to take your magnificent knowledge and expertise to the world, because we can all benefit from collective problem solving.
I was very glad to initiate talks with Senior Professor Chandrika Wijeyaratna to set up an SDG platform under the International Unit of the University and other activities to mainstream the SDGs into higher education. University of Colombo has been diligently gathering data to submit towards the Times Higher Education Rankings system, which requires universities to highlight their contribution to the SDGs. Therefore, you already have an excellent basis on which to assess your contribution to our global goals.
You have an immense role and all of you may have your own opinions on this, but let me provide you with five specific roles that Universities can play in furthering the Sustainable Development Goals:
A collaborative role: The major strength of universities is the capacity for cross-disciplinary research and teaching. The challenge is to strengthen the links between research and education and between disciplines.
An evidence-based knowledge role: Governments all around the world want to make sound decisions and are hungry for scientific evidence to support their decisions. Universities have a key role in conveying knowledge and insights to their external partners.
A measuring and evaluating role: Universities can measure the effects of different actions related to the SDGs, compiling and analyzing valuable data needed by experts around the world.
A teaching role: Teachers need knowledge so that they can teach students about the SDGs. Education is important in order to build human societies and adjust to current and future challenges.
An advocating role: Universities and academics are respected for their research and contributions to societies. Higher education institutions need to be an ongoing voice, advocating the importance of implementing the global goals. You are really the voices of reason in society and we need you to speak up to build a better future for all.
The role of Universities is especially important as the world recovers from COVID-19. Evidence suggests that even using pre-COVID projections Sri Lanka was unlikely to reach SDG targets by 2030, although bridging the gap may have been manageable with a concerted effort. However, like in other parts of the world COVID has widened the gap towards the targets outlined in the SDGs. Evidence is still being collected on Sri Lanka, however the global numbers are very worrying – the effects of the pandemic and the measures taken to mitigate its impact,
have overwhelmed health systems globally;
kept up to 90 per cent of students out of school;
caused businesses and factories to shut down;
disrupted global value chains and the supply of products;
is expected to push 71 million people back into extreme poverty
and COVID-19 may have caused the equivalent of 400 million job losses globally in the second quarter of 2020.
In such an environment, we need academics and higher education institutions because investing in data is critical to build back better. The pandemic has shown us that getting the data right can guide the policy responses to the crisis at every step from response to recovery, with life and death implications. Good data on cases and deaths have been a critical tool for governments to contain and manage the pandemic. Data have also helped understand the underlying drivers of the disease, who is most at risk and how we can prevent or be better prepared for the next crisis or disaster. And data on the social and economic impact have been essential to develop support programmes to reach those in need and start planning for a recovery.
Universities are the incubators for new and bold ideas – the envisioning of a better tomorrow starts today in the halls of academia. As the world recovers from COVID-19 we need a truly transformative path. A path that reduces the risk of future crises, with a focus not only on growth but on inclusion, equity and sustainability – the world looks to you, to help us build this better future.
Once again congratulations to the Faculties of Science, Arts and the Library on this important milestone of 100 years, I wish you many more years of inspiring the next generation and finding innovative solutions to the challenges of the present and the future.