How universities can integrate SDGs into higher education

How the United Nations’ Global Goals for Sustainable Development are to be integrated into higher education and the importance of engaging students in these efforts were the topics of lively debate at the recent conference ‘Rethinking Higher Education: Inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals’.

The conference, which was held in Stockholm, Sweden, on 30 March, attracted more than 500 participants. It was organised by the Karolinska Institute, with Gothenburg University, Chalmers University of Technology and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as partners.

Keynote speakers were Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and former head of the United Nations Development Programme; Michael Marmot, professor and director of the Institute of Health Equity in London; and Ole Petter Ottersen, president of the Karolinska Institute.

On the agenda were group activities and panel debates. The participants were students, teachers, researchers, administrative personnel, decision-makers and representatives from the business and government sectors.

Professor Ottersen opened the conference by saying that the global goals are concrete and concern everyone. The work that we must start is characterised by four Cs: Concrete, Creative, Collaborative and Curriculum; that is, how we integrate the SDGs into higher education.

The presentation ended with a greeting from Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. He highlighted health as crucial in achieving the 17 global goals and the importance of students as change agents for a sustainable world.

The role of universities

Clark emphasised the important role of universities in educating and navigating students correctly in order to create a sustainable society. Universities have:

  • A teaching role: Teachers need knowledge so that they can teach students about the SDGs. Education is important in order to build human societies and adjust to the current and future technical transformation.

  • A collaborative role: The major strength of universities is the capacity for cross-disciplinary research and teaching. The challenge is to strengthen the links between research and education and between disciplines.

  • An evidence-based knowledge role: Governments all around the world want to make sound decisions and are hungry for scientific evidence to support their decisions. Universities have a key role in conveying knowledge and insights to the ‘outside’ world.

  • A measuring and evaluating role: The objective is to make countries commit to what they signed for in Agenda 2030. Universities can measure the effects of different actions related to the SDGs.

  • An advocating role: Universities have high status and are generally respected for their research and contributions to societies. Higher education institutions need to be an ongoing voice, advocating the importance of implementing the global goals.

'Mortgaging the future'

Clark believes that environmental pollution is a threat to global health.

“We have been mortgaging the future and we can’t go on like this. To grow now and clean up later is not a sustainable approach. This will undermine the health gains that we have made in the last century,” she said.

She was hopeful that we could reverse the negative trend but said that requires us to act now. “Without international solidarity, we will not succeed.”

Marmot highlighted examples of how life expectancy has fallen in traditionally rich countries such as Britain and the United States, especially among women.

“Getting rich is not the way to a better society. Health is the measure of a good society,” he said.

“It is not possible to blame low-income people for their poor health, that they should eat healthy to stay healthy. A family with children in Britain would in that case have to spend two-thirds of their income on healthy food. In other words, it is impossible for low-income people to follow dietary advice.”

He said one way to greater equity in health is to reduce poverty and degradation. “Evidence-based policy and a spirit of social justice will take us far.”

The conference workshops covered: quality of governance, inequality in health, non-communicable diseases, antibiotic resistance, pollution, climate and health, fostering action for societal change, ageing populations, mental health for all, and decent work and economic development.

The conclusions were presented on the stage by each workshop leader. We need, among other things, to involve students in the outline of the education and to collaborate more between disciplines in order to meet the global challenges ahead of us, they argued.

The workshops were followed by two panel discussions on how the global goals should be integrated into higher education and the role of universities in meeting global challenges.

A learning goal should be related to a sustainability goal, sustainability issues should be addressed in the recruitment of teachers, and students must challenge universities to act sustainably, were some of the conclusions of the first panel debate.

The second panel focused on the importance of teachers listening and learning from students to gain insight into current trends, covering the SDGs in the curriculum, and the importance of universities’ role in collaborating with society.

It is important to have forums to disseminate the good scientific results of our successful sustainability work in Sweden to other countries, Ottersen argued in his concluding remarks, saying that Sweden and universities have a crucial role in the journey of change towards a better world.

The conference “Rethinking Higher Education: Inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals” will be followed up by a conference in Gothenburg on 28 March 2020.

Emilie Eliasson Hovmöller is a communications consultant in higher education in Stockholm, Sweden.