Educating university students for sustainable development

António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, has emphasised that the “17 Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) demand nothing short of a transformation of the financial, economic and political systems that govern our societies”. And, further, he says that “global efforts to date have been insufficient to deliver the change we need, jeopardising the Agenda’s promise to current and future generations”.

The world is not on the right track

In its recent Sustainable Development Goals report, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in collaboration with more than 200 experts from more than 40 international agencies, similarly concludes that “the world is not on track to achieve the global Goals by 2030”.

The report further points out that “the world is now facing its worst recession in generations” and that “there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to its very core”.

However, we can, and, indeed, we must cope with the situation and trends described above by promoting ‘sustainable development’.

Universities and other higher education institutions have a critical role to play in helping society to achieve this. Sustainable development has been defined as “a development that satisfies today’s needs – without jeopardising the ability of future generations to satisfy their needs”, according to the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development.

In 2015, 214 million students were enrolled in university education worldwide – a significant number and an opportunity for universities to influence a whole generation of future professionals and leaders. Accordingly, the Agenda’s Target 4.7 calls for us to “ensure that [by 2030] all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development”.

To counteract the highly impressive cluster of global risks described by the World Economic Forum – as well as the present mounting disaffection and disruption across the world, partly due to short-term and silo thinking by many elites – all 193 member states of the United Nations have agreed on an Agenda 2030, comprising 17 very ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, which aim to end poverty and hunger, protect the planet from degradation and address climate change, ensuring that all people can enjoy prosperous, healthy and fulfilling lives and fostering peaceful, just and inclusive societies free from fear and violence.

Professor Pam Fredman, president of the International Association of Universities (IAU), inspired political scientist professor Bo Rothstein and me in our attempts to promote integrating the latter approach with the work we initiated regarding critical-ethical and systems thinking in all higher education for the 2014 Poznan Declaration.

True, all this may be more easily said than done, in view of the present attraction to linear, reductionist and often silo-based thinking.

The challenges are characterised by complexity, uncertainty and conflict of values as the SDGs are interconnected so that each of the goals can be influenced by the other goals – both positively (through synergy) and negatively (through trade-offs). Therefore, contrary to what is true for much of today’s political practice, the 17 SDGs cannot be ticked off one by one or dealt with effectively with any quick fixes.

Education for and about sustainable development

The IAU, with its more than 640 member universities worldwide, has engaged itself with Agenda 2030 and its implementation in collaboration with the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie.

These three global university networks – with their more than 2,000 institutions – have called on the higher education sector to adopt policies which maximise their contribution to the Agenda 2030 across teaching, research and community engagement and to incorporate education about and for sustainable development into undergraduate curricula.

The IAU has also designated 16 universities, each taking on one of the first 16 SDGs, and each in collaboration with a dozen or so allies for its specific purpose, but with an awareness of the dynamic interaction between all the ingredients in the system, in line with a recent textbook, Sustainable Development – Nuances and Perspectives, by Fredrik Hedenus et al.

Work on goal 17 (partnerships for sustainable development), which will consist of multiple organisations working together, is led by the IAU. Gradually, additional institutions will be invited on board. The cluster will be supported, monitored and steered by an IAU working group.

Decent work and economic development

SDG 8 aims at “promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”. This contrasts sharply with our current world’s labour market reality. Un- and underemployment remains high. Working conditions are often precarious and pathogenic and in some countries child labour and slavery are not yet under control. As summarised by the International Labour Organization (ILO), “unemployment and decent work deficits remain high”.

The resulting cluster of challenges to higher education inspired a major conference on “Rethinking higher education, inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals” in 2019, organised by the Karolinska Institute in collaboration with the University of Gothenburg, Chalmers University of Technology and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

One of its nine workshops, “Decent work and economic development”, subsequently developed into a task group: “SDG 8 – Promoting decent work and productive employment through higher education”, recently endorsed by the ILO-led “Global Occupational Safety and Health Coalition”.

This task group comprises a dozen international experts and is managed by Professor Johannes Siegrist (University of Duesseldorf) and the ENETOSH (the European Network Education and Training in Occupational Safety and Health) Group “Mainstreaming Occupational Safety and Health into Education”, coordinated by Dr Ulrike Bollmann (Dresden).

As a first step, the task group aims to collect and analyse examples of the implementation of SDG 8 in higher education, establishing links to SDG 3 (good health and well-being) and focusing on the quality of education – SDG 4 – it is hoped in collaboration with the University of Gothenburg and others.

Low costs, high gain

Considering the relatively low costs of implementation and the possibly very considerable societal gains if Agenda 2030 is implemented broadly, this initiative has the potential to be extremely cost efficient in the long term. More important, however, is that, ethically, it is the right thing to do.

Lennart Levi is emeritus professor of psychosocial medicine at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden. This article is based on contributions by Professors Levi and Bo Rothstein to the World Academy of Art and Science and Roma Tre University’s International Conference in Rome on ‘Future Education’ in November 2017 and to the European Commission’s Working Group Meeting in Brussels in December 2017 and also to a range of publications including an article for University World News in November 2018, Stressors at Work and Elsewhere – A global survival approach by Lennart Levi and a forthcoming article in the European Journal of Workplace Innovation by Lennart Levi.