Engaging partners is a key role for HE in sustainability

The Group of Experts on SDGs and Higher Education was created by the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi) at the beginning of 2018 to provide continuity and progression from the first International Conference on Sustainable Development Goals: Actors and Implementation held in Barcelona on September 18-19, 2017.

The group is composed of representatives from different networks related to sustainable development and higher education and recently met for the first time face to face in Barcelona.

On the first day, a closed-door meeting was held to introduce the work of the group and bring ideas to the table on next steps, objectives and strategy. This closed-door meeting was rich in discussions and also involved representatives from Catalan public universities who explained the approaches of their universities to implementing the 2030 Agenda.

On the second day, an open event was held in collaboration with the Catalan Agency for Development Cooperation (ACCD). The event, besides marking the official launch of the group’s first publication, Approaches to SDG17: Partnerships for the SDGs, included substantial and interesting presentations and discussions on the main conclusions of the report.

These included:
  • • The importance of autonomy for higher education institutions (raised by Thomas Jørgensen of the European University Association),

  • • The need to improve engagement practices (raised by Rajesh Tandon, PRIA and UNESCO co-chair on community-based research),

  • • The question of policy coherence (raised by Arnau Queralt from the European network of Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils),

  • • The newly launched project for an SDGs-based ranking by Times Higher Education and its implications (presented by Laura Tucker from Vertigo Ventures),

  • • The question of global action coordination (raised by Orlando Sáenz from the Alianza de Redes Iberoamericanas de Universidades por la Sustentabilidad y el Ambiente),

  • • The importance of raising awareness (covered by Ghada Ahmadein from the Arab Network for Environment and Development), and

  • • The need for community commitment (addressed by Charles Richardson from Misericordia University).
Vital role of partnerships

All participants agreed that partnerships are a key way to address current global, but also and very importantly, local challenges. Higher education institutions should be ready to speak to other actors without waiting to be approached for advice. They should play an active and engaged role with other social actors.

Rajesh Tandon highlighted the importance of not limiting the discussions to academia, but going beyond the ivory tower and taking into account other actors with important knowledge to share. “Universities have to be ready to partner in order to produce knowledge with other actors,” he said.

He also highlighted the project ‘Knowledge 4 Change’ which helps bridge partnerships between different actors around the globe.

In relation to this point, Ghada Ahmadein explained that in Egypt she perceives universities to be isolated from the community, emphasising the importance of raising awareness in civil society and of universities taking into account their local contexts.

Engagement with and the broadening of partnerships emerged as key issues and highlighted another important set of issues: lack of institutional autonomy, rigid reward and promotion systems and siloed curricula. Social engagement is still not well rewarded in accreditation and promotion systems in higher education communities, and higher education institutions sometimes become an obstacle to progress as a result.

Broadening the goals

The group agreed that higher education institutions should see the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs as an opportunity to reflect and reorient their whole institutional approach as well as to transform the core functions of teaching, research and social responsibility. The SDGs should also be seen as a means to an end.

Many members of the group highlighted the question of not narrowing efforts to SDG4 on education, because education, and education for sustainable development, runs through all of the 17 SDGs.

Some of the main conclusions of these two intense days of sharing opinions and discussions among representatives from varied geographical areas and cultures can be summarised as the need to:
  • • Extend and improve the way higher education institutions work and partner with other organisations through developing more and better engagement strategies,

  • • Take into account all stakeholders in a democratic way,

  • • Reorient the current roles and visions of universities so that Agenda 2030 can be implemented throughout institutions, and

  • • Confront the institutional and systemic barriers to that implementation.
The group also highlighted the importance of sharing examples and experiences of innovation and good practice to help other higher education institutions.

The group is currently developing its working plan for the next months, but its main points could include a second publication and the organisation and celebration of the second International Conference on Sustainable Development Goals to be celebrated by the end of 2019 (the exact date will be published very soon through GUNi channels).

The group affords a chance to bring together different networks, cultures, approaches, ideas and ways of working in one space and to promote dialogue between different stakeholders around the globe. The group intends to remain open to input from others and is aware that there are plenty of initiatives going on and that we should not duplicate efforts.

One of the group’s missions will be to help institutions make the transition from ‘ivory towers’ to engaged actors and to establish new and meaningful partnerships both locally and globally. There is no other way to address the 2030 Agenda and the challenges facing our societies than through meaningful collaboration and partnership.

Josep M Vilalta is director, Alicia Betts is head of projects, Victoria Gómez is project officer and Marta Cayetano is communications officer at the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi)). Approaches to SDG17: Partnerships for the SDGs is available on the GUNi website through open access.