SDGs at centre of new Commonwealth universities' strategy

The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) has put the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the heart of their new strategic plan which aims to promote the value of universities to society as well as their critical role in sustainable development.

The new ACU plan – titled The Road to 2030, which is a reference to the target date for the SDGs – was launched in March. It outlines a revitalised mission, vision and strategic priorities for the ACU.

“Our belief is that higher education is essential to achieving all 17 of the SDGs,” Dr Joanna Newman, ACU chief executive officer, told University World News.

'Living laboratory’

“The Commonwealth is a living laboratory for change, and the ACU wants to support and showcase the work of our member universities across the Commonwealth to build a better world,” she added.

“It is a framework for our organisational vision and ambition – and also a manifesto for how the ACU will continue to work with its member universities to shape policy, strengthen capacity, convene the sector, and seed change,” Newman said.

Among the other priorities of the plan are: access and inclusion; employability and the fourth industrial revolution; growing research capacity through partnerships; international mobility and recognition of qualifications; and laboratories for global solutions.

In the document’s foreword, she said that with more than two-thirds of the Commonwealth under the age of 30, universities constitute a “bedrock – a foundation stone – of a safer, fairer and healthier future”. However, there were “profound obstacles” to be overcome at the same time, she said.

Population growth

“A soaring youth population has placed unprecedented strains on universities. Stubborn inequities in access mean that many are still left behind. Meanwhile, entire generations find their young lives blighted by conflict, environmental disaster and civil unrest.

“These formidable issues demand collective action. And that’s where the Association of Commonwealth Universities comes in. Our far-reaching network offers a powerful mechanism for joint action in the common interest,” she said.

The ACU is the world’s first international university network, formed in 1913. It has more than 500 member universities in 53 countries, and it distributes £650,000 (US$828,000) in scholarships and grants annually.

While the previous strategy championed higher education to tackle global challenges and deliver positive social change by showing the value of education, there is added impetus in the new plan to meet needs created by the rapid increase in the number of people studying at university.

According to the new strategy document, from 1995 to 2015 the world gross tertiary enrolment ratio (GTER) rose from 16% to 36%. But the growth is uneven. In 60 countries, over half of those of school-leaving age are in tertiary education, and the Oceania region has the highest GTER at 79%. At the other end of the scale, the GTER in Sub-Saharan Africa is 9%.

Education quality

If participation in higher education continues to grow at the current rate, in another generation, half of all young people will attain degrees, but the quality of the education is not guaranteed, the ACU noted.

In terms of the plan, the ACU will use its status and partnerships to influence policy agendas at international, regional and national levels, including Commonwealth ministerial meetings (such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings) and at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum.

The association, which manages a number of prestigious scholarship schemes, said it plans to grow the Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarships scheme to increase the number of scholarships available to study in developing countries, which directly addresses SDG target 4b.