SDGs – Universities are moving from what to do to how

It is now two years since world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs at a United Nations summit in New York in the United States –17 goals, including one on education, which aim to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030.

The International Conference on Sustainable Development Goals: Actors and Implementation, organised by the Global University Network for Innovation in Barcelona, Spain on 18-19 September 2017, provided an opportunity for academics and others to discuss how universities can contribute to the SDGs and how far they have got with implementing them.

Many would agree that, as generators of new knowledge and educators of young people, universities can help achieve many of the SDGs, not only SDG4 on quality education.

But for Peter Wells, chief of higher education at UNESCO, the SDGs are not only a challenge for universities but can also benefit them a great deal. Aligning research with the objectives of the SDGs can allow universities to show how relevant their work is he said.

It can also benefit teaching by providing a curricular roadmap of the problems facing the world. “Professors no longer need to scrabble around creating artificial problems for their curricula as the SDGs pose real-life problems for students to address,” he said, “so we have very real and urgent problem-solving curricula.”

Delegates at Barcelona discussed how academics can contribute to the SDGs in more ways than through their teaching and research. This includes their role as experts participating in the public debate and providing evidence and informed comment to policy-makers.

International organisations have become more open to this kind of input since climate science started coming to the fore at events such as the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, according to Jan-Gustav Strandenaes, a consultant on governance and sustainable development. But scientists may be reluctant to engage due to a lack of familiarity with the long, drawn-out nature of decision-making in such organisations or for fear of losing their impartiality, he said.

“They may think – 'Will I be compromised if I go into the political debate and lobby for these issues?'” he told University World News.

The fact that understanding and interpreting data are not easy can be another obstacle, according to Rolf Tarrach, president of the European University Association. “Data can be presented in zillions of different ways; often politicians have a particular political agenda so they will take the interpretation that suits this agenda,” he said.

However, scientists should not let such concerns hold them back, according to Teresa Ribera, director of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (Sciences Po) in Paris, France. “Providing a sound basis for good decisions is important and then someone else can take the final decisions,” she said. “Scientists will not be the ones to provide the solution but, in a complex situation, we need rationality.”

The question of how far universities have got with implementing the SDGs was a matter for debate.

For Daniella Tilbury, inaugural vice-chancellor of the University of Gibraltar, this is still at an early stage. “We keep talking about what we are going to do but the conversation about how … is not happening in higher education,” she told University World News.

Professor Tilbury believes the lack of progress is due to several reasons – including the fact that educators are not natural agents of change – but that the main problem is to do with the nature of university leadership. “The system does not promote people into decision-making positions who have a different world view, so what you are seeing is changes happening on the margins,” she said.

Presenting the findings of the International Association of Universities or IAU's first global survey of how 120 higher education institutions around the world are implementing the SDGs, IAU Secretary-General Hilligje van’t Land begged to differ.

In 2016, 92% of universities surveyed were aware of the SDGs. Thirty-four per cent had adopted an institutional plan for sustainable development, while 38% were busy developing one, he said.

Sustainable development within HE

“This shows higher education institutions are increasingly aware of the SDGs and the role they play, and sustainable development is being integrated within higher education institutions, including at strategic level,” she said.

The survey provides examples of what institutions are doing linked to specific SDGs. These include Hokkaido University in Japan’s new Graduate School of Infectious Diseases (SDG3 on good health and well-being), the All Nations University College in Ghana’s work on empowering women through education and training (SDG5 on gender equality) and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden’s climate fund for reducing the organisation’s greenhouse emissions as a way of offsetting those caused by work-related travel (SDG13 on climate action).

Kenya is overhauling its entire education system, starting with primary and secondary education, and has a dedicated panel working on alignment with SDG4. “This has meant revamping the whole education curriculum and reconfiguring the traditional classroom,” said Professor Laban Ayiro, acting vice-chancellor of Moi University in Eldoret.

Kenyan universities, which will begin receiving students educated under the new approach within seven to eight years, are already preparing. “The cost element is beginning to scare me – all faculties will need computers and bandwidth, schools of medicine and engineering will need different equipment and lecturers will need to reorient their teaching approach,” he told University World News, estimating that reforming the whole system will require 2% more spending on education.

If nothing is done, Ayiro is concerned that implementing all 17 SDGs could have the unintended effect of actually widening the gap between North and South.