Universities must lead on Sustainable Development Goals

The World Economic Forum issues impressive annual reports on the major ‘Global Risks’ facing mankind. To counteract these risks – as well as the present mounting disaffection and disruption across the world, partly due to short-term and silo thinking by elites – the 193 member states of the United Nations have agreed on 17 very ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets.

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The SDGs include: ending poverty; ending hunger; encouraging good health and well-being; providing quality education; promoting gender equality; providing clean water and sanitation; promoting affordable and clean energy; providing decent work and economic growth; addressing industry, innovation and infrastructure; reducing inequalities; developing sustainable cities and communities; encouraging responsible consumption and production; taking action on climate change; promoting life below water; promoting life on land; working towards peace, justice and strong institutions; and creating partnerships to achieve SDG goals.

However, recent political changes in Europe and elsewhere put this hope at risk. To increase the likelihood of success for these 17 SDGs, higher education institutions worldwide must teach and train today’s students – tomorrow’s decision-makers – to think both critically and ethically, to learn to cope with ethical dilemmas and apply systems-thinking approaches to serious and complex societal problems.

Developing ethical leaders of the future

Students need to be aware of the local, regional and global contexts in which they live and make decisions. Many of today’s students do not grasp their role in and responsibility to the world and large numbers don’t seem to care.

A single course at college can only ever be a beginning. Families, media, religious bodies, primary and secondary schools and workplaces as well as higher education institutions must be educated and recruited to play their part.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to promote the entire cluster of 17 SDGs and 169 targets. The critical-ethical analytical skills and systems-based approach outlined above are indispensable prerequisites to achieving this.

By ‘critical’ we refer to the application of careful, exact evaluation and judgement. By ‘ethical’ we refer to a set of principles about the right way to behave. By ‘systems’ we refer to a group of interacting, interrelated or interdependent elements forming a complex whole. Accordingly, systems-thinking is based on the recognition of interconnectedness and systems processes.

What needs to be done?

Universities need to start to become ethical leaders by looking first at themselves. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation/International Quality Group and UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning have issued an advisory statement on combating ‘corruption’ in higher education internationally.

The statement, however, uses ‘corruption’ as a general term to designate a broad variety of malpractice in institutions of higher education, such as appropriation, bribery, cheating, corruption, deceit, embezzlement, extortion, favouritism, fraud, graft, harassment, nepotism, etc – an ABC of misconduct.

To deliver the badly needed SDGs and targets, we need trustworthy, ethical, honest and impartial government institutions that exercise public power, oversee policies fairly and take into account their range, complexity and occasional incompatibility. These institutions are much more likely to promote trust and social capital which in turn improves health and well-being. Tackling corruption is vital.

We also need higher education institutions that can teach the crucial necessary skills we have highlighted. These should be taught and implemented throughout people’s entire life span. It is crucially important that leading higher education institutions start leading by example to increase future decision-makers’ motivation and ability to act ethically.

Next steps

Recognising the university sector’s potential and responsibility to help shape the moral contours of society for the better and given the societal benefits from increased social capital, we ask universities and institutions of higher education to shoulder their role as key agents of change, as stated in the Compostela Group of Universities’ Poznan Declaration of 2014. They should:

  • • Endorse a cross-faculty approach to broaden the curricula to include components of critical-ethical analysis and systems thinking. To some extent, this is presently being considered by the European Commission in their endeavours to modernise European higher education.

  • • Appreciate the unique opportunity they have to shape professional identities. At universities, the norms and boundaries of acceptable behaviour are to a large extent set for a number of professions. Universities have a possibility as well as a responsibility to help shape the normative contours of society for the better.

  • • Teach the teachers through the provision of pedagogical resources and training to a wide range of faculty.

  • • Develop a web page for information dissemination of pedagogical material, discussion topics, case studies, e-learning tools etc.

  • • Organise conferences to exchange good practice as regards implementation of the 17 SDGs and 169 targets of the UN Agenda 2030. The Karolinska Institute, in collaboration with the University of Gothenburg and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, is planning such a conference, to be held in Stockholm on 30 March 2019.

  • • Develop partnerships with other universities, networks, national authorities for higher education and civil society organisations championing the critical-ethical agenda.

  • • Commit for the long term. Changing norms and behaviour is an inherently slow process. While there may indeed be ripple effects from promoting critical-ethical behaviour and systems-thinking, it is likely that the ‘exposed’ generation will need to reach a critical mass and-or managerial positions before true and measurable change will occur.

  • • Coordinate with national education authorities and social partners with regard to fulfilling the state’s obligation under the UN Agenda 2030 SDGs.

  • • Encourage voluntary associations and participation in these.

  • • Talk the talk and walk the walk. In addition to teaching critical-ethical behaviour and promoting systems thinking, it is crucial that higher education institutions – as agents providing public goods – act accordingly, ensuring impartiality in teaching, student assessment and research and that matters regarding awards of degrees, employment and promotions are based on legitimate, transparent and objective criteria.

Low costs, high gain

Considering the relatively low costs of implementation and the possible societal gains if these proposals are implemented broadly, this initiative has the potential to be extremely cost efficient in the long term. More important, however, is that, ethically, it is the right thing to do.

This is why we propose additional high-level conferences on such issues, with a focus on the implementation of Agenda 2030 (what should be taught and how). Based on the outcomes of these, recommendations should be made regarding the necessary redesign of all higher education and for its subsequent implementation.

Lennart Levi is Emeritus Professor of Psychosocial Medicine at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden. Bo Rothstein is August Röhss Chair in Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Please inform us about any related activities by your higher education institution. Email: and This article is based on our contributions to the World Academy of Art and Science and Roma Tre University’s International Conference in Rome on ‘Future Education’ in November 2017 and the European Commission’s Working Group Meeting in Brussels in December 2017.