SDGs – A unique opportunity for universities

In September 2015, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which have now become the post-2015 global development framework up to 2030, replacing the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, that covered the period 2000-15. The SDGs comprise an ambitious set of 17 goals and 169 targets, compared to only eight goals and 21 targets in the MDGs. Also, while the MDGs targeted mainly low-income countries, the SDGs are directed to all countries of the world.

The process of arriving at the SDGs also differed from that of the MDGs. The latter were drafted by a relatively small group, with limited consultations with the relevant stakeholders, whereas the SDGs were crafted by a group of no less than 70 countries, including developing ones, which took into consideration the recommendations of not just governments but also eminent persons in academia, the private sector and civil society.

Higher education and MDGs

The end result is that the SDGs are now better known to the higher education sector than were the MDGs in 2000.

Indeed, during the first five years following the launch of the MDGs, most higher education institutions did not know much about them; those that did felt that eradicating extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality etc, were really the responsibility of governments and most academics had difficulty in relating higher education to achieving such goals.

Also, the beginning of the 21st century witnessed a massive increase in enrolment in higher education in developing countries, especially Africa, which also had to address the revitalisation of the sector from the point of view of access, funding, quality and relevance, leaving the institutions little time to deal with the issues of the MDGs.

While higher education institutions have, without doubt, contributed to the MDGs, such contributions, where measurable, have been mostly unplanned and tangential, rather than planned and targeted. Few institutions actually developed a deliberate strategy for contributing to the MDGs.

Higher education and SDGs

Are higher education institutions then better poised now to contribute to the SDGs? The answer is definitely yes, for several reasons.

First, there is wide acceptance, more than ever before, that higher education institutions have a crucial role to play in national development, especially in developing countries. Second, the concept of sustainable development is now better understood.

Third, higher education institutions, again mostly in developing countries, are receiving support at national, regional and international levels to better equip them to respond to development challenges.

Fourth, a quick look at the SDGs shows that they cover a very wide range of specific areas such as agriculture, health, gender equality, water and sanitation, energy, industry and innovation, infrastructure, etc, and under almost all of them, higher education institutions can make a positive contribution, whether in teaching, research, community engagement or advisory services.

In fact, many of them are already actively contributing to these areas. The pertinent question, therefore, is what strategy should higher education institutions adopt for their contribution to the SDGs to be targeted, effective and meaningful?

The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development

The answer lies perhaps in the way higher education responded to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, or DESD (2005-14), implemented by UNESCO. The objective of DESD was ‘to mobilise the educational resources of the world to help create a more sustainable future’.

There were no specific goals or targets spelt out but, in a 2005 explanatory booklet, UNESCO gave examples of fostering peace, combating global warming, narrowing North-South inequalities, reducing poverty and fighting against marginalisation of women and girls, all of which appear in the SDGs.

UNESCO also suggested how to implement the DESD: promoting and improving quality education, re-orienting educational programmes, building public understanding and awareness and providing practical training. The DESD was also meant to create synergies with the MDGs.

In 2014, as the DESD was coming to an end, UNESCO produced a report providing an assessment of the progress achieved during the Decade. With regard to higher education, the report mentioned significant efforts made by higher education institutions to address sustainability issues, but at the same time identified several challenges, such as:
  • • Lack of a coordinated institutional approach to deal with the challenges of sustainable development;
  • • Staff not having been trained to transform curricula and pedagogy towards a sustainable development perspective; and
  • • Difficulty in removing academic disciplinary boundaries, which prevent complex sustainable development issues being addressed.
As the DESD and the SDGs deal with many common concerns, these challenges can help to develop a comprehensive strategy for higher education to contribute to the SDGs.


Implementation of the SDGs first needs to be supported at national level. Ministries responsible for higher education should recognise the role that higher education institutions can play in promoting the SDGs and should accordingly introduce the SDGs in their higher education policy and make provision for appropriate funding to the institutions.

At institutional level, the SDGs should be included in the institution’s strategic plan so as to convey the clear message of their importance and to enable resources to be assigned to them.

Each institution then needs to have a unit or an office to sensitise the institution about the importance of the SDGs, to serve as a clearing house for information about the SDGs, to coordinate all activities related to the SDGs, to ensure that the SDGs are mainstreamed in all the activities of the institution and to mobilise resources, whether nationally or internationally.

To make it effective, such a unit should be under the office of the institution’s chief executive officer. Two activities that should receive the special attention of the unit are: ensuring that the institution has sufficiently trained staff to undertake work on the SDGs, and encouraging a multi-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary approach in all the projects related to the SDGs.

University associations can also play a meaningful role in promoting the SDGs in their member institutions. The International Association of Universities, for example, has been promoting sustainable development in higher education for several decades and it could easily shift its emphasis to the SDGs.

Regional associations, such as the Association of African Universities or the Association of Universities of Latin America and the Caribbean, could also promote SDGs in institutions in their region.

During the DESD, several networks of institutions in different regions of the world were created to build capacity, share resources and expand the influence of education for sustainable development.

These include Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in Africa or MESA, the Promotion of Sustainability in Postgraduate Education and Research or ProsPER.Net in Asia-Pacific, COPERNICUS Alliance in Europe, and ARIUSA in Latin America and the Caribbean.

At the global level, the United Nations Environment Programme created the Global Universities Partnership on Environment for Sustainability or GUPES, which now has a membership of nearly 600 universities worldwide and whose overall goal is mainstreaming environment and sustainability concerns into university systems across the world and facilitating inter-university networking and partnerships.

These networks have an enormous potential to play a very meaningful role in promoting the implementation of the SDGs in higher education institutions.

The SDGs provide a unique opportunity to higher education institutions to demonstrate their willingness and capability of playing an active and meaningful role in the development of their respective countries and in contributing towards global sustainable development. They also provide an opportunity for collaboration and partnerships – South-South and North-South. Such opportunities should not be missed.

Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai is honorary president of the International Association of Universities, the former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, the former president of the International Association of Universities and the former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius.