Auckland wins top spot for Sustainable Development Goals

New Zealand’s University of Auckland has been ranked a world leader for its efforts to promote the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But this is only the latest in a remarkable series of achievements by the island nation’s leading tertiary institution, says Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon.

“We have found the UN goals provide a useful framework for thinking about our wide range of activities – teaching, research and organisational – that are relevant to concepts of sustainable development,” McCutcheon says.

“We mapped our current activities to the 17 SDGs and then used that map to identify where we believe we have particular strengths and where there are opportunities for enhancement.”

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The university is New Zealand’s largest research organisation, with more than 13,000 staff and postgraduate students involved in fundamental and applied research. It generates around NZ$250 million (US$167 million) in annual research revenue.

As well as operating across six campuses, Auckland has the country’s largest university library complex and is the only one with both engineering and medical and health science faculties.

McCutcheon says this has led to pioneering collaborations between medical and engineering researchers, resulting in the creation of its flagship bioengineering institute, internationally recognised for sophisticated computer modelling of living organisms.

“Our research programmes range across all disciplines – from the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, a world leader in cancer drug development, to education where researchers are working on increasing learning success in clusters of low-achieving primary and secondary schools,” he says.

Along with almost 50 research units, centres and institutes at departmental, faculty and university level, Auckland also hosts or co-hosts five national centres of research excellence, known as CoREs.
These were established by the government to drive innovative, international research. In the same vein, Auckland has established formal agreements with 116 universities in 24 countries.

Top of the SDG rankings

And it now heads a world ranking of institutions based on their efforts to promote the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.

The 17 goals include aiming for a world based on peace and justice, solving inequality, eliminating poverty and meeting the challenges of climate change. There are also SDGs to provide inclusive and equitable quality education, achieve gender equality and foster innovation.

The SDGs were approved by the UN in 2018 because, it was argued, they provided the basis for developing a sustainable world. They have now been adopted by universities across the globe.

As reported recently in University World News, the University of Auckland was rated the top university globally in the inaugural Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings 2019 for its efforts to achieve those goals. The new global ranking measures how well an institution is delivering on 11 of the 17 SDGs compared with the achievements of other universities.

“I’m proud that policies that are entrenched within the way this university operates have been recognised globally, particularly across areas of equity, of staff and student wellness, and in our academic programmes, including in health-related fields,” McCutcheon says.

The goals provided staff with a useful framework for thinking about the university’s wide range of activities, he adds. These included the teaching, research and organisational roles that were relevant to concepts of sustainable development.

A team of staff members set about creating a map relating the university’s current activities to those of the SDGs. They then used the map to identify where there were particular strengths and where there were opportunities for enhancement.

A long history of activity

McCutcheon was appointed Auckland’s fifth vice-chancellor in 2005 but says the university has a long history of achieving what it saw as its sustainable goals. This was well before the UN had launched its own sustainable development goals programme.

“So our task has mainly been about understanding the university’s many activities, some developed `bottom up’ and others `top down’, and fitting them into a coherent framework.”

Given its lengthy involvement with health issues, it was probably no coincidence that Auckland’s highest ratings were for the SDGs related to good health and well-being. These were ranked at number one.

But there was also gender equality, ranked equal sixth, peace and justice at number seven, and working together, McCutcheon says.

The UN SDGs were agreed to by 194 nation states, providing an internationally recognised framework for achieving sustainable development. McCutcheon believes the world’s universities have an important role to play in generating the knowledge and capacity necessary to achieve the objectives.

“Correspondingly, the goals are valuable to universities because they enable us to frame our research, teaching, operations, capacity building, networks and partnerships in a way that enables the contributions we make to be universally recognised and understood.”

Lessons learned

What then were the lessons that Auckland staff learned from their efforts to gauge the strength of the university’s Sustainable Development Goals programme? And were there ones that could possibly help other universities trying to do the same?

“One lesson perhaps is that despite having a large number of activities and interventions, reflecting our staff’s widespread desire to do ‘the right thing’, this does not necessarily lead to a coherent programme,” the vice-chancellor says.

“Not all activities or interventions can be 'the best’. One challenge has been evaluating the effectiveness of our social and educational interventions so we are now putting more effort into that area.”

McCutcheon says the introduction of the University Impact Rankings also helps demonstrate how relevant universities are.

Another agent in triggering the university’s current responses is its Public Policy Institute, which provides up-to-date, well-researched information.

The institute brings together researchers, practitioners and postgraduate students from across the university, along with academic researchers in foreign universities, as well as members of the wider community to consider policies affecting everything from climate change to mental health.

Presentations at a recent three-day conference covered topics such as how governments forget important policy lessons because of the fast turnover of ministers and public servants – at both the central and local government level – the fundamental role of values in public policy and the power of interest groups. The role of research in the policy process was an overarching theme.

Commercialising research

Auckland UniServices Limited is the university’s commercial research and knowledge transfer company.

The largest of its kind in Australasia, the company brings income and new employment opportunities to the university and New Zealand from 300 licences for intellectual property, and from contract research and contract education.

UniServices has launched more than 30 New Zealand businesses from university research and currently has more than 2,000 projects in 45 countries around the globe.

These range from geothermal prospecting in Iceland and demonstrating advanced educational tools in New York schools, to designing cleaner manufacturing systems in Japan.

An ethical focus?

From an ethical point of view, though, is it important for universities to focus on tackling such global challenges as climate change?

“As public institutions that are strongly connected to our own community and internationally, we see this kind of focus as a key part of our role and strategy,” McCutcheon says.

“It would seem difficult to argue otherwise! Such a focus also aligns with the interests and commitment of our staff and students.”

The university is also fortunate in that it operates in a legislative environment established by the acts of successive New Zealand governments that support these workplace practices, he says.

But some practices were also initiated in areas such as the university’s equity office as well as across the pro vice-chancellor’s portfolios. There was also shared implementation with all the faculties and divisions. “Our policies are adhered to across the university – we walk the talk,” McCutcheon says.