Preparing global citizens means engaging with the SDGs

“Universities have abandoned their previous commitment to educating future citizens. In this world where globalisation of indifference is growing, universities must prepare their students as citizens who practise and value freedom, equality and solidarity,” said Dr Federico Mayor, former director-general of UNESCO, in Barcelona, Spain, on 19 September.

He was speaking at the closing session of the two-day International Conference on Sustainable Development Goals: Actors and implementation, organised by the Global University Network for Innovation, or GUNi, in Barcelona. The conference brought together nearly 200 delegates from 21 countries to deliberate upon the roles that higher education can play in realising the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs in different countries.

Historically, universities in many countries have remained largely indifferent to international and national development efforts. In promoting engagement with society, universities have expanded their service mission in which students are encouraged to contribute to development of communities. But the core functions of teaching and research have remained cut off from such engagement.

Engaged teaching and research can make universities contribute more directly to locally relevant and contextually appropriate SDGs.

At the conference, Norbert Steinhaus of Living Knowledge Network in Europe described how in many European countries science shops – facilities that provide independent participatory research support in response to concerns experienced by civil society – are promoting partnerships between the knowledge-producing functions of universities and society.

New research questions can emerge from such engagement. Bringing stakeholders together can generate sustainable solutions to local problems.

Expanding on this issue, Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University in South Africa described the partnerships focused on water issues in the region with which her university was involved. They have brought together practitioners, government officials, community leaders and academics to jointly study the growing problem of water shortage in their regions.

The work of the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education (UNESCO Chair in CBRSR) is focused on promoting such engagements as part of the core functions of teaching and research in universities. Highlighting this theme, I, as co-chair, presented a paper entitled “Making the Commitment: Contributions of higher education to SDGs”.

This demonstrated how different SDGs can be studied and acted upon by different faculties and departments at a university. The most important first step is widespread sharing of information about the 17 SDGs among students and faculty alike. There is at present a major gap in understanding what these SDGs are, how they came about and what challenges their achievement is likely to face.

Additionally, different courses in various faculties can include SDGs in existing curricula and new courses can also be designed to enable students to learn about and go deeper into the analysis of the SDGs. In this way, students will be ready to contribute to achieving the SDGs when they start their careers as professionals.

Since 2030 is the agreed time frame for achieving the SDGs, the present generation of young people in higher education institutions will be the social, economic and political leaders of the future who can commit to achieving them. In this sense, students can begin to think more as global citizens if they engage with the SDGs during their studies.

New solutions

The achievement of the SDGs will also require finding new solutions to these socio-economic challenges. New knowledge will be essential towards this end. Universities can undertake partnerships with local communities and stakeholders to co-create knowledge which is appropriate to local contexts and decision-makers. Co-creation of such knowledge is a pre-requisite to finding sustainable solutions.

The European Union’s ‘Science with and for Society’ programme under Horizon 2020 has been promoting ‘responsible research and innovation’ in European universities. Public engagement with societal actors is a defining feature of this ‘responsible research and innovation’ approach.

The UNESCO Chair in CBRSR has launched the Knowledge for Change global consortium to build the capacity of the next generation of students to undertake community-based participatory research on issues of the SDGs, in a locally appropriate way.

It is designed to build capacity in universities to partner with local communities and governments to produce actionable knowledge and solutions to the SDGs in Uganda, South Africa, Brazil, Sardinia, India, Indonesia and Canada.

Deliberations at the GUNi conference last month also highlighted the critical constraints that universities and higher education systems face worldwide.

First, global pressure for international rankings is pushing universities in many ‘Southern’ contexts to undertake research which is published in peer-reviewed journals of global ranking, as opposed to contributing new knowledge that is actionable in local contexts.

This dilemma and its dynamics has been adequately analysed in the Sixth GUNi Higher Education in the World report, Towards a Socially Responsible University: Balancing the global with the local.

The second major constraint is the rigidity of disciplinary silos. All 17 SDGs require multi-disciplinary perspectives to analyse local realities in order to produce sustainable solutions.

Despite slogans of inter-disciplinarity, multi-disciplinarity, trans-disciplinarity, etc for the past several decades, much of the teaching and research in higher education remains discipline-bound and bringing fresh ways of organising curriculum and learning pedagogies comes up against long administrative processes before meaningful changes can be implemented.

By then, humanity may have run out of time to achieve these 17 universal SDGs for all societies and peoples of the world.

Universities can make a significant contribution to the achievement of the SDGs in all countries of the world, provided they focus on “transformation of society through learning, knowledge, collaboration and innovation”, as Dr Arcadi Navarro, secretary for universities and research in the Catalan Government, remarked in his opening speech.

Dr Rajesh Tandon is an internationally acclaimed leader and practitioner of participatory research and development. He founded the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, a voluntary organisation providing support to grassroots initiatives in South Asia, and has been its chief functionary since 1982. A copy of Tandon’s presentation at the Barcelona conference can be accessed here: