In March, Earth Fellows Joanna Keel and Rania Djojosugito were a part of a delegation of students at the U7+ Student Forum organised by the U7+ Universities Alliance and hosted by Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. Joanna and Rania describe their experiences below.

U7+ Universities Alliance

The event was held by the U7+ Universities Alliance to solicit student voices and opinions to share at the U7+ Presidential Summit, which was also hosted at Bocconi between 11 and 12 April. The U7+ presidents will then escalate this feedback, along with other key points from the Presidential Summit, to the leaders of the G7 during the 50th Annual Summit in June.  

The U7+ Alliance is a consortium of over 75 university leaders across 16 countries that discuss and develop concrete commitments for universities to address global challenges. Initially launched by Emmanuel Macron with the first Presidential Summit at Sciences Po in Paris, France, 2019, the U7+ Alliance has since convened annually in the US (2020), the UK (2021), France (2022), Japan (2023), and now Italy.  

Its central purpose is to advance the role of universities as a critical catalyst for international change and to advocate for the central role of universities to G7 leaders. This year’s theme is Inclusive Education for Inclusive Societies, focusing specifically on the area of higher education. Challenges regarding access to education are region-dependent but increasingly have a global dimension. In a rapidly changing and increasingly unstable geopolitical context, relations among universities, and between universities and other sector actors, are also essential to support access to education. 

The annual U7+ Student Forum, the 2024 edition marking the fourth of its kind, sought to garner student opinions for consideration by the U7+ member university presidents. The student attendees developed videos on two topics deemed to have the highest urgency for discussion at the Presidential Summit in April: access to higher education and climate change. These videos informed the official statement made by the U7+ alliance to the G7, which was delivered to the Italian Minister of University and Research, Anna Maria Bernini, during the Presidential Summit. 

This year’s 2024 G7 Summit will be taking place in Puglia, Italy in June. It will bring together the leaders of the G7 Member States (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the UK) as well as Representatives of the European Union, including the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. 

Promoting access to higher education at the 2024 G7 Summit

The contents of the statement urge the G7 leaders to consider widening its focus on access to primary and secondary education to include higher education. It argues the importance of higher education to empower societies and foster critical thinking to solve global challenges – an endeavour which requires the cooperation of universities and governments globally. The statement outlines the commitments of the U7+ Alliance as well as a call to the G7 leaders to mobilize in four key areas: facilitating quality primary to higher education, supporting low- and middle-income countries in higher education investment, providing scholarships and other mechanisms to alleviate funding burdens especially on marginalised groups, and addressing immigration barriers particularly for students and scholars at risk. 

Derek MacLeod, Head of Global Partnerships and Community at the University of Edinburgh, and who attended the U7+ Presidential Summit in April said: “The Presidential Summit is a unique opportunity to bring university leaders from across the Alliance together – sharing best practice, listening to the voices of our students, and advocating to the G7 on the importance of the role of universities as actors in society.” 

An action-packed two days

The first U7+ session opened with a talk from Dean of International Affairs, Catherine De Vries, Bocconi University, and Director of Global Engagement Carolyn Newton, University of Cape Town, on barriers to higher education. Students were invited to express and discuss their experiences in a range of topics such as diversity and inclusivity, immigration, financial barriers, and mental health and wellbeing. This was followed by a presentation from Fabio Favorido of Boston Consulting Group on corporate sustainability. Finally, the group heard from the University of Edinburgh’s own Derek MacLeod, Head of Global Partnerships and Community, who discussed the opportunities for U7+ engagement with sustainability and climate solutions. 

The second day saw the student delegation divided into groups to work on their videos. The teams debated issues of highest concern, drafted screenplays, wrote scripts, filmed, edited, and presented and discussed the videos to the rest of the cohort by the end of the day.  

The videos covered a wide range of ideas and suggestions that universities could implement on their campuses to make change in the aforementioned two areas.  

On the topic of access to higher education, suggestions included programmes dedicated to research on migration and refugees, creating a technology scholarship in preparation for digital education, and reforming policies to acknowledge intersectionality, which were reflected in the video 

On climate change and sustainability, students suggested subsidies for public transportation to reduce car dependency, offering tailored orientation training courses on climate considerations, and establishing a Climate Action Fund as shown in the video 

“Creating the videos was a valuable experience. The discussions we had were eye-opening not only to the diverse experiences lived by other students from across the globe, but also from the institutional differences in access to higher education, examinations, student support, and more.” said Rania. “I hope our voices will reach and leave a lasting impact on the Leaders of the G7 Summit for global change.” 

Having worked at the Edinburgh Earth Initiative as part of the 2024 cohort of Earth Fellows, Rania and Joanna drew on their learnings from the University’s various energy research initiatives and events to provide input into their group’s videos.  

The Next Forum

An additional benefit of the trip was the opportunity to attend the Next Milan Forum – an international event which facilitates an exchange of debate and policy proposals between young talents, global policymakers, business leaders, and more. Hosted in collaboration with Bocconi University, ISPI90, OECD and Deloitte, participants engaged in workshops and interactive plenary sessions focused on addressing global challenges such as artificial intelligence, peace and security, energy transitions, human rights, sustainability and climate change, and more.    

“The Next Forum talks were inspiring,” said Joanna. “We got to hear from international leaders in fields of international relations, women’s leadership, security and justice, sustainability and so much more. The highlight for me was a panel on improving Global North and Global South cooperation on international issues, discussed from the perspective of Moroccan, Indian and South African changemakers.”