How can universities ensure progress towards the UN SDGs?

For a long time, higher education institutions have been engaged in institutionalising sustainable development, community and engagement studies into their systems or operational practices.

However, it is since the 1990s that the concept of sustainability has gained prominence in understanding and measuring the impact of higher education institutions in the communities and jurisdictions in which they serve and operate.

Furthermore, higher education institutions regularly highlight in statutory or ad hoc reports how they engage with their stakeholders, how they contribute to urban or regional economic development and achieve what they set out to do through their strategic plans.

However, the adoption of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which came into effect in 2016, represents a significant challenge for higher education institutions globally.

This is because the adoption of the SDGs forces them to assess how they engage with these goals and how they address societal challenges head on.

The aim of the SDGs is to mobilise efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind.

The SDGs apply to all countries, but the SDGs are not legally binding. This means that higher education institutions (regardless of geography, institutional typology, affiliation and status), and every other partner or stakeholder, need to work together and coordinate efforts to ensure the achievement of the SDGs.

Higher education leaders are urged to undertake a holistic evaluation of how they propose to address the SDGs and map out a way forward while recognising that there are many limitations and barriers (whether these are political, economic or geographical).

There may also be institutional barriers which need to be addressed to develop an institution-wide approach. They are also urged to reframe their performance measurement regimes and third-mission aims to monitor institutional progress towards achievement of the SDGs.

Over the next few years, higher education institutions are likely to embark on a sustainable development journey like no other in history. This is because globalisation has facilitated a transformation in which spatial boundaries disappear, enabling a borderless engagement, whereby local and global spaces are interconnected.

Progressively, we will see that higher education institutions will include terms associated with the SDGs and the development agenda to 2030 into their strategic plans. The SDGs will feature alongside an array of terms to denote ‘impact’, ‘transformation’ and many other relevant terms.

Few direct mentions

Higher education, as a system and as an institution, has a limited visibility in the goals and measurement, since higher education and universities are called out directly in only two instances out of 169 targets.

The first instance is target 4.3 of SDG 4, which is about ensuring equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university education.

The second instance refers to target 4.b of SDG 4, which deals with the number of scholarships available to developing countries for higher education enrolment in specific fields within developed and other developing countries.

Both targets are problematic in that they continue to reinforce expansion of national systems without consideration of the overall quality of education and institutions.

To be effective, these targets should address the need to support capacity-building in countries where the higher education systems are yet to have robust quality assurance and monitoring processes in place. These are required to assess the overall quality of education of their higher education institutions.

The role of higher education in other SDGs

There are about 60 instances (ie targets) across other SDGs in which higher education institutions play a pivotal role which constitute a synergy between regional development and achievement of those goals.

In 35 out of the 60 instances, capacity-building is the main tenet for higher education in supporting governments and all stakeholders in achieving the SDG targets.

This is particularly relevant for the development of higher education institutions in Africa and Latin America, two regions where inequalities remain high compared to others and where the effects of COVID-19 are likely to be long-lasting.

Another critical dimension for higher education in supporting the SDGs is through knowledge transfer, knowledge transformation and knowledge translation.

These efforts are particularly relevant to SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth) and SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure), given the regional asymmetries and lack of access to resources, including access to the latest technological developments in many world regions.

The ongoing engagement of higher education institutions across world regions with market forces, the state and civil society (for instance, NGOs) will harness efforts to find solutions to many of those long-lasting problems, such as ending epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, hepatitis, malaria and neglected tropical and water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases.

Not all SDGs are seen as equal

The 17 SDGs are not all viewed equally across countries and world regions. This is reflected in the way countries report their progress in achieving the SDGs through the voluntary national reviews, and the focus on the SDGs varies over time.

What is seen across countries and world regions can be seen across higher education institutions.

Higher education supports the fulfilment of the SDGs, particularly in the domain of capacity building, but there are some SDGs that stand out for higher education institutions.

For example, they play a key role in 11 out the 19 targets in SDG 17 (Partnership for the goals). This SDG is all about cross-sector and cross-country collaboration in the pursuit of all goals.

SDG 17 contains a call for developed countries to play a transformative role in supporting capacity-building in developing countries, improving access to science, technology and innovation on mutually agreed terms.

Also, higher education institutions play a key role in four out of the 12 targets in SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions) through capacity-building.

This SDG is all about promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels of society.

By improving educational opportunities and attainment levels as well as higher employment rates, we reduce the possibility of conflict. Lifelong learning can be a vehicle to harness political and social harmony as well as to minimise populism and mistrust in institutions.

There is a need for higher education institutions to incorporate in their annual reports their advocacy role in working with governments, civil society and market forces to eliminate corruption in all its forms and to strengthen the rule of law in the jurisdictions in which they serve and operate.

The capacity-building efforts of higher education institutions are spread across 10 SDGs, of which two have been mentioned above.

The higher education footprint can be seen in every SDG, for example, higher education plays a key part in reducing inequalities (SDG 10), reducing poverty (SDG 1) and achieving gender equality (SDG 5).

For many years, higher education institutions have given priority to reducing their carbon footprint (SDG 13), having policies addressing respect of human and labour rights and discrimination (SDG 8) and working with local governments for sustainable practices in cities (SDG 11), among many actions.

Measurement of research outputs and impacts are perhaps the most developed metrics for all higher education institutions. This is because these outputs can be categorised by using keyword phrases to one of the SDGs.

Metrics relating to operations and institutional stewardship are relatively well developed across many higher education institutions and national systems, while measurement of community engagement or third-mission activities tend to be varied and dispersed.

There is so much yet to be done in terms of mapping, learning and teaching activities and ascertaining what kind of institutional metrics can best address any of the 169 SDG targets or any of the 231 SDG indicators.

Higher education institutions need to detail more about their partnerships (SDG 17) and ethical advocacy for improved governance, transparency and accountability at all levels of society (SDG 16).

Key challenges ahead

Every higher education institution across the globe is likely to be engaged with the SDGs, but their degree of engagement will likely vary considerably.

In part, it will be influenced by institutional leadership, institutional resource allocation, student activism and even social and political imperatives, which are likely to play a part in how institutions embark on their SDG journey.

There are many challenges, but a key one for higher education institutions is knowing the depth and breadth of activity, including institutional expertise, related to every SDG. Let us briefly consider some possibilities and a way forward.

First, higher education institutions are increasingly aligning their strategy to the SDGs, including the use of the SDG taxonomy for measuring social and environmental impact.

In doing so, they need to identify which SDGs are most pertinent to them in terms of targets and indicators, recognising that there are differences across countries and world regions.

Second, higher education institutions are urged to look inwards and outwards so that they can map areas of relative strength and weakness and forge a way forward.

This process may involve assessing the extent to which efforts and activities across all SDGs are identified and can be documented and form part of an assessment, sustainability or SDGs impact report.

Third, higher education institutions have to identify, monitor and evaluate metrics that, in a very concise and clear way, demonstrate their progress or lack of progress in achieving their SDGs and the additional financial resources that need to be allocated to these tasks.

Fourth, critical to the success of implementing the SDGs is working in partnership with stakeholders (both internal and external). It is also useful to consider the extent to which higher education institutions are part of networks, alliances or consortia.

In doing so, we can establish mechanisms by which higher education institutions can harness joint efforts to tackle some of the common challenges.

A key emphasis of successful implementation of the SDGs is working in partnerships and breaking institutional and geographical boundaries.

Fifth, the global SDGs indicators undergo annual refinement and a comprehensive review is due in 2025.

Leaders of higher education institutions and institutional planners are urged to consider the best way they can use the SDG indicators and own identified ones and the tier classification in their performance measurement regime.

This includes selecting benchmark institutions so that they can fully ascertain institutional progress towards achievement of the SDGs and fulfilment of their own strategy.

Higher education institution leaders are also urged to take an active role through their institutional networks in refining the global SDG indicator framework. They should strive to have a seat at the table of the UN statistical commission as part of the expert group in refining and reviewing the global indicator framework.

Angel Calderon is principal adviser, planning and research, at RMIT University in Australia. He is a rankings expert and a Latin American specialist. This article was first published on the Accreditation Council for Entrepreneurial and Engaged Universities website.