The SDGs are challenging the way we teach our students

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are challenging the way in which universities educate their students.

The challenge, however, does not lie merely in the content of the SDGs’ goals, targets and indicators. In some sense, most universities are already equipping students to implement priorities found in the SDGs. This ranges from teaching students how to improve nutrition and halt HIV/AIDS infections to teaching students how to build resilient infrastructure and accountable institutions.

The same argument goes for research foci at universities. The South African SDG Hub at the University of Pretoria recently scoured institutional repositories at four of South Africa’s research-intensive universities for SDG-relevant research. We operationalised the SDGs into close to 400 key words and found more than 600 peer-reviewed articles published between 2014 and 2016 that respond directly to one or more of the SDGs.

The challenge lies on a different level than merely content. In my view the challenge has at least four dimensions to it.

Four dimensions

The SDGs, firstly, challenge countries and their governments to move beyond mere compliance to international obligations. It is possible to argue that the SDGs, and the 2030 Agenda in which they are embedded, represent a moral agenda. It is different from previous agendas, notably the Millennium Development Goals, in the sense that all countries – both ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ – are compelled to implement the same set of goals.

Why? The 2030 Agenda is ultimately aimed at ensuring that no person, community, country or continent is “left behind”. This is essentially a rallying cry for distributive justice. It acknowledges that focussing on “people”, “planet”, “prosperity”, “peace” and “partnership” is a prerequisite for a world in which “all can thrive”.

The underlying assumption – and challenge to research and teaching at universities – is that the implementation of the SDGs requires awakening the moral conscience of students and researchers alike. It is not merely a technical policy document, but a vision for a more equitable world.

The SDGs, secondly, make sustainable and inclusive development the responsibility of all societal actors. In the 2030 Agenda, sustainable and inclusive development is not understood as the responsibility of governments alone. It encourages, for example, businesses to “apply their creativity and innovation to solving sustainable development challenges”. But all other societal actors are explicitly mentioned as co-responsible for implementing the SDGs.

The ability to work across sectors is in this way recognised not as optional but as mandatory in the post-2015 development era. Moreover, graduates who work in governments, business and civil society are required to be able to look beyond narrow organisational interests and even include those of future generations in their decision-making processes.

In a related fashion, thirdly, the SDGs recognise the complexity and interrelatedness of the challenges to which they respond. Throughout the 2030 Agenda the SDGs are referred to as “integrated” and “indivisible”. In some respects this is problematic, as it makes the national domestication and priority-setting complicated.

But one shouldn’t overlook the SDGs’ approach to the challenge of sustainable and inclusive development. It challenges simplistic thinking and prioritises nuanced solutions to complex problems.

The implementation of the SDGs requires graduates with the ability to be conversant in more than one discipline. It’s one thing to be able to work in multidisciplinary teams. The SDGs take things a step further: they require graduates who are able to understand elements of the solutions they seek to provide that go beyond their respective academic disciplines.

The SDGs, fourthly, place a great deal of emphasis on science, technology and innovation. Implementing the SDGs will require graduates with the ability to innovate and to move beyond conventional solutions. This is, to a large extent, part of the core business of universities. Yet, for some reason, connecting policy-makers with the research and innovation needed for the effective implementation of the SDGs remains tricky.

In this way the SDGs challenge universities to invest not only in producing technology and innovation, but also in transferring these capabilities. Many universities are already doing so, but more can be done. According to the literature on the topic, this could include investing time in establishing high-trust relationships, making results available sooner, addressing concerns that some research is not relevant and supporting capacity building aimed at improving governments’ analytical capabilities.

Interdisciplinary approach

Postgraduate programmes that prioritise building expertise and specialisation in one field will remain important. Yet, the SDGs create the need for programmes that prioritise interdisciplinary programmes that foster competence in more than one academic discipline, whilst also developing critical skills needed to implement responses to complex developmental challenges.

At the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership at the University of Pretoria we are attempting to face these challenges head-on in designing our Masters in Development Practice. The degree focuses on responding to each of the four challenges discussed above.

In contrast to conventional masters programmes, the degree is aimed at building both the leadership and interdisciplinary competences needed to respond to the integrated nature of the SDGs. This is why students are exposed to theory from health sciences, natural sciences and social sciences – at least as it relates to the complexity of the challenges to which the SDGs respond. Experts – both from academia and practice – engage students on these topics and enable students to design solutions in multidisciplinary teams.

The moral dimension of implementing the SDGs is covered by a focus on developing the requisite leadership competence. Leadership theory transmission, service learning and mentorship are aimed at cultivating a conception of leadership that goes beyond conventional trait-based or charismatic leadership theories.

In fact, in our understanding overly individualistic (and actually somewhat outdated) understandings of leadership are inadequate for implementing the SDGs. Rather, a relational understanding of leadership that emphasises collective responsibility and collective action is emphasised.

Global light, local heavy approach

The degree also seeks to address the charge that the SDGs are in some respects at odds with local development challenges. This is why participants are encouraged to follow a “global light, local heavy” approach to national implementation of the SDGs. This resonates with the domestication agenda inherent in the SDGs themselves.

According to the 2030 Agenda, the SDGs are to be implemented by all, but by “taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities”.

Lastly, we are using the flipped-classroom approach to enable participants from across Africa, and often in full-time employment, to participate in the programme. Contact sessions are devoted to engagement and integration, whereas innovative online platforms are used for theory transmission and peer-learning.

No academic programme can address both the need for specialist knowledge and competence in more than one discipline. With this new degree, however, we hope to contribute to the growing number of programmes that focus on building core competence in more than one discipline, in order to address the interrelatedness of the development challenges to which the SDGs respond.

Willem Fourie is an associate professor at the University of Pretoria's Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership, South Africa, and co-ordinator of the South African SDG Hub. Since 2012 he has contributed to development effectiveness initiatives co-ordinated by the African Union's NEPAD Agency, often within the ambit of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation.