Cooperation needed to push sustainable development agenda

‘Sustainability’ is on the agenda of many universities and other higher education institutions, not only because students and other initiatives are pushing for their institutions and society to become ‘greener’. This topic has been on the table as far back as 1993 when the Brundtland report came out. However, reducing one’s carbon footprint is only scratching the surface of a much more complex topic.

What we need to comprehend is how higher education institutions are engaging with it and what role they play in the overall picture. Recently published data by the International Association of Universities shows that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are increasingly important at higher education institutions, though they are approached differently depending on the institutional context.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Adopted in 2015, the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development identifies 17 SDGs, which are subdivided into 169 targets and 232 indicators to clarify what needs to be done to achieve these goals.

The year 2019 marked the end of the first four-year cycle of the SDGs. 2020 marks the beginning of the “Decade of action and delivery for sustainable development” (as phrased in the political declaration issued at the first UN SDG Summit). The SDGs ambitiously range from ending poverty to ensuring that the planet safeguards the world’s biodiversity. Consequently, many of the goals are interconnected and can only be achieved jointly.

While in the wording of Agenda 2030 higher education is scarcely mentioned (for example, in SDG Target 4.3), higher education plays a key role at multiple levels and in many processes linked to reaching the goals.

If we really understand sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (the 1987 definition of the Brundtland Commission), we must include all stakeholders in the process, way beyond policy-makers.

Higher education undertakes fundamental research and shares research outcomes of relevance for sustainable development; it educates citizens and experts who engage with policy and in societal debates.

Fostering a holistic approach to sustainability

The recent report by the International Association of Universities (IAU), based on the results of the IAU Second Global Survey on Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development, reflects an increased commitment towards the SDGs and the increased importance of sustainability in higher education.

In the survey, which IAU conducted online between May and July 2019, respondents were asked to auto-evaluate what role sustainability plays at the levels of leadership, teaching and administration in their higher education institutions. The survey received 536 valid responses from 428 higher education institutions in 101 countries globally.

The participation of individuals taking part in the survey had increased significantly since the first IAU Global Survey on higher education and sustainable development in 2016. It is also interesting that 45% of respondents form part of their institution’s leadership, which denotes a strong leadership commitment to this topic. Another 45% are academic or administrative staff members. The remaining 10% of answers come from students.

While all world regions are represented in the survey, participation differs considerably: 37% of the total number of respondents come from Europe, hence this is the biggest regional group. It is followed by 23% from Latin America and the Caribbean, 18% from Africa, 15% from Asia and the Pacific, 4% from North America and 3% from the Middle East.

The questionnaire focused on four key areas: higher education and the SDGs, a whole institution approach, networking for sustainable development and obstacles faced by higher education institutions.

Not all SDGs are equal

When it comes to higher education and the SDGs, the survey confirms that the SDGs and Agenda 2030 have become a relevant topic for higher education institutions, though addressed differently and to varying degrees. While interest and attention on sustainable development have increased worldwide, not all SDGs are equally addressed.

According to the survey findings, higher education institutions’ engagement with SDG 4 (quality education), 5 (gender equality) and 13 (climate action) is high, while SDG 14 (life below water), 2 (zero hunger) and SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) receive much less attention. Yet SDG 12 has the potential for significant future uptake.

Furthermore, knowledge of the 2030 Agenda varies per region and understanding of the goals seems to be subjective. The survey findings suggest that the SDGs are embedded more strongly at the teaching level, closely followed by the research level. Campus initiatives and community engagement are not as developed yet.

Embedding sustainable development

According to the concept of the Whole Institution Approach to Education for Sustainable Development, as recommended by UNESCO and IAU, the survey findings show that 33% of higher education institutions globally have already incorporated sustainability into their strategy and 40% indicate that their institution is in the process of including sustainable development in their strategic plans.

Still, 21% of respondents indicate that their institution does not have a strategic plan that includes any mention of sustainability (6% did not provide an answer to this question). The responses also show that there are many different ways of financing and embedding sustainable development in higher education institutions, with over 50% having a budget allocated to sustainable development initiatives, although most of it is only available ad-hoc and linked to specific projects.

When it comes to networking for sustainable development, universities and higher education institutions around the world follow patterns similar to partnership strategies in internationalisation. On continents where international networks are common, such as in Europe, sustainable development networks are more developed than in other regions.

At the same time, regional networks are increasingly used by higher education institutions, which shows that local communities of practice are used to foster sustainable development. Overall, cooperation is high, with only 13% indicating that there is no engagement with other higher education institutions for sustainable development. Compared to 2016, cooperation is growing.

Furthermore, the main obstacles hindering the work on SDGs at higher education institutions are a lack of funding, training opportunities and research cooperation. While regional differences in the findings exist, working in silos and a lack of funds seem to be global issues when working where institutions’ approach to the SDGs is concerned – concerns that are not just confined to this area, unfortunately.

Transforming higher education

Generally, higher education institutions seem to have a positive attitude towards Agenda 2030, with one respondent stating that “the SDGs are an excellent roadmap for universities to focus and analyse their education-teaching processes, community engagement, initiatives carried out on campus and research carried out to contribute to sustainable and inclusive development in the country”.

However, some more critical voices raised concerns about “greenwashing” and about universities using the SDGs to obtain funding without a deeper engagement with sustainable development. Several responses to the survey are similar to general concerns voiced by critics of the 2030 Agenda, ie, its Western approach to sustainability and development, the resources needed and funding issues related to work on the SDGs.

At the same time, the SDGs are serving a purpose and are, despite valid criticism, often seen as a useful tool, with higher education having the potential to fulfil a key role in accelerating action on Agenda 2030 in all its dimensions.

The IAU has advocated for higher education institutions to play a role in supporting sustainable development since the early 1990s and has made it one of its strategic priorities ever since.

With sustainable development moving to the top of the strategic agenda, and the survey results backing this up, cross-sectoral collaboration is an important approach to be taken. Cooperation between higher education institutions and within higher education institutions is essential, particularly between disciplines and levels.

Although the results of the survey are encouraging, more should be done to keep up with the ambitious global goals, and higher education institutions are encouraged to take a greater part in the process.

Higher education is transforming to include sustainable development principles and visions; the question is whether or not the 2030 Agenda mechanisms are ready to welcome higher education as a confirmed stakeholder in the process.

Isabel Toman is programme officer for higher education and sustainable development at the International Association of Universities (IAU). E-mail: Stefanie Mallow is IAU consultant for sustainable development. E-mail: Hilligje van’t Land is secretary general of the IAU and executive director of the International Universities Bureau in Paris, France.