SDGs ‘not attainable without contribution of HE’, UN told

None of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs – the internationally agreed framework for tackling poverty, inequality, disease and climate change – can be achieved without the contribution of higher education through research, teaching and community engagement.

That was the key message of a statement launched by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie and the International Association of Universities at the UN High-level Political Forum on sustainable development held in New York last week.

During a global event at the High-level Political Forum organised by the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, the three university organisations – which represent more than 2,000 different universities globally – used their collective voice to champion the importance of higher education for the SDGs and call for partnerships within and beyond the sector to achieve the goals.

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The statement said: “None of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved without the contribution of higher education and research.

“Through research, universities play a unique role in producing new knowledge and innovation to address global challenges and providing evidence for informed public policy.

“Through teaching, universities develop generations of new leaders and skilled professionals who will drive social and economic development.

“Through community engagement, universities work with a rich variety of stakeholders including governments, the private sector and civil society, to contribute towards local, national and global impact.”

Speaking to University World News this week, Dr Joanna Newman, secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, said the forum represented a major step forward for higher education, which in previous years had been largely absent from discussions for previously the Millennium Development Goals and more recently their successors, the SDGs.

“I think higher education got more attention than ever before,” she said, “with a much more organised role. There were lots of statements about why higher education matters [for the SDGs]. Our alliance was talked about a lot.”

In the longer term the three organisations are seeking to consolidate higher education’s place to the point where it is already seen as part of what people need to talk about, she said.

Outputs of the two-week forum each year feed into the UN General Assembly in September each year and a meeting of heads of government to look at what needs to be done to keep on track for achieving the SDGs by 2030.

Newman highlighted the role that universities can play in SDG4 (education), which “up until now has only been paid lip service and there still isn’t a good way of measuring higher education’s contribution to SDG4 or any of the other goals”.

“So the target for us is calling on the UN and agencies to respond to the need for strong higher education systems globally to achieve SDG4.”

New network launched

The Association of Commonwealth Universities’ own contribution to the agenda is to launch a new network – which it announced in New York – to increase the contribution of universities to the SDGs.

“Our contribution to the statement is saying let us harness the efforts of our universities. There are so many things they do around the SDGs – on the one hand they did them before, but on other the SDGs are a good organising principle for global citizenship.

“It means looking at the curriculum and the campus in terms of what you are doing to meet the SDGs, so it behoves universities to play within the SDG arena, which is the only inter-government agreement we have that has targets and goals for 2030.”

Newman said universities “play an incredibly important role in solving global problems anyway”, but using the SDGs as a framework “encourages interdisciplinary research, encourages students to face challenges as individuals and encourages a world that has not recently seen universities as trusted beacons to see that they have a crucial role to play in development”.

The new network will support university efforts to directly engage in the SDG agenda – for example, through integrating sustainable development into their operations, sharing SDG learning content and materials, or developing SDG-focused research strategies.

The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), with more 530 member universities, has plenty of relevant expertise, having been funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development for years in capacity building programmes in higher education and research.

It is also involved in creating good quality content for undergraduates that can be shared among universities, for instance by working on one project involving 20 universities in East Africa.

Confidential benchmarking

It provides confidential benchmarking to universities so that they can consider ways to improve.

ACU also works extensively with scholars – it administers four scholarship schemes covering 3,500 scholars, many of them from lower-income countries, who all receive a module on sustainable development and the SDGs and are expected to demonstrate the impact of what they are doing not just for themselves but for their community.

“We have been working with institutions in building up research offices, strengthening the non-academic side of universities to build up expertise in staff to support academics returning to their country or academics who are there to create more academic impact,” Newman said.

“We are also training people in how to nurture young PhDs and post-docs who have just returned.”

She wants the network to provide data or examples and case studies of what they are doing. “That could be creating content for primary schools, training teachers, cutting-edge research, cutting carbon emissions on campus, or voluntary work by students.”

She said the initiative will build on ACU’s longstanding role as a champion of the importance of higher education in sustainable development, experience of convening networks that tackle global challenges, and engagement with existing initiatives such as the SDG Accord, SDG Learn and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

‘Living laboratory for change’

“The Commonwealth is a living laboratory for change, and our common language and institutional structures are a solid foundation for partnerships between universities. Our new network will support collaboration between our members and act as a powerful advocacy platform to demonstrate the contribution of the higher education sector to a wider audience.”

But another point is that universities need to transform themselves to invest and value interdisciplinary approaches, she said, which includes valuing them in a way that enables career progression of academics.

“If you are talking about the importance of interdisciplinary research for the SDGs, most universities find it difficult to promote that because at the high end of science people still tend to think in silos,” Newman said.

Equitable partnerships

Professor Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex in the UK, home to one of the world’s leading development studies departments, welcomed the network initiative.

He said: “For universities to realise their potential fully to address global challenges, they need to build equitable partnerships with other institutions and beyond the sector.

“The University of Sussex’s approach is co-creation for impact: working with partners to devise solutions to the problems they define. This new ACU network will provide a platform for universities to build such partnerships, as well as a collective voice to promote their involvement.”

Professor Luke Georghiou, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester in the UK, also backed the initiative. “Universities are increasingly aligning their strategies and operations with the SDGs, becoming beacons of sustainability in their communities and countries. The University of Manchester’s new SDG strategy focuses our work in this area into a plan for impact,” he said.

“Sharing good practice through the new ACU network will strengthen the sector’s contribution to sustainable development, and recognition by policy-makers and the wider public of its role.”