A practical approach for universities to contribute to SDGs

The United Nations’ 2020 report on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) asserts that “progress remained uneven and we were not on track to meet the goals by 2030”.

Worst of all, it appears that, with the pandemic, decades of progress have been reversed.

Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations (UN), notes in his message in the report that, while some progress has been achieved, “At the same time, the number of people suffering from food insecurity was on the rise, the natural environment continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate, and dramatic levels of inequality persisted in all regions. Change was still not happening at the speed or scale required.”

This is alarming, to say the least.

Getting back on track

The Stockholm Environment Institute proposes three ways to get the SDGs back on track. They are:

• Set priorities by setting realistic targets;

• Focus on harnessing the environmental dimension of the SDGs, as failure to achieve biodiversity will impact on the wider sustainability agenda related to ocean health, well-being, economic equity, clean water and the responsible use of resources; and

• Understand how the SDGs work as an indivisible system, and look for synergies avoiding over-prioritisation.

On the other hand, universities appear to be contributing their part to Agenda 2030, which is the target date for achieving the SDGs.

Recently, Times Higher Education published its third edition of the Impact Rankings, which assessed the SDG performance of universities from 94 countries using a set of indicators across four broad areas: research, stewardship, outreach and teaching.

One can, however, question whether these indicators provide a real and effective assessment of the contribution of universities to the SDGs.

Another important element is how to get universities in the developing world to embrace the SDGs.

Strategise sustainability

The answer to the latter question is for universities to strategise sustainability as a key objective and use the SDGs as a platform for impactful action.

At the same time, universities have to realise that the SDGs are well defined and it is through partnerships with the public and private sector and civil society that the goals can be achieved at local, regional and international levels.

A mapping of the 17 SDGs, which have been divided into 169 targets or indicators, shows that government alone is responsible for 47% of the SDG targets (80 targets), while universities alone can contribute to just 4% of the targets (seven targets).

On the other hand, universities can address 43% of the targets working bilaterally with government or industry and in a tripartite manner with the two sectors (see Figure 1). This is significant, as the overall contribution of universities can add up to a total of 47% of targets.

Based on the data, a mapping of how universities address SDG targets and indicators could shed more light on their effective contributions to the SDGs.

University of Mauritius

The University of Mauritius (UoM) is effectively bringing its share to a number of targets. A few examples are cited to illustrate the targeted approach (targets or indicators are listed and the university’s contribution is explained thereafter).

Target 2.4: By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters, and that progressively improve land and soil quality.

An Agri-Tech Park has been set up on the university campus. The university works closely with the government and industry to support and enhance productivity, efficiency and sustainability in agriculture and food, through research, entrepreneurship and innovation. The three main areas of focus are smart and digital agriculture, food security and agri-processing.

Target 3.6: By 2030, halve global deaths from road traffic accidents.

Through its Road Safety Observatory, the UoM is working with the ministry of land transport and light rail to reduce road injuries and deaths. The primary focus of the observatory is to collect road safety data and organise knowledge to support all aspects of road safety policy development at national level.

The observatory has the responsibility to lead research on road safety issues, develop effective, regionally appropriate responses, deliver comprehensive and effective training, coordinate data monitoring and reporting as well as serve as a centre of excellence and as a hub for practical and effective advice.

Target 7.3: Double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030.

The university has a partnership with the ministry of energy and public utilities. University academics with expertise in energy matters bring their contribution to the national level by conducting energy audits and advise on energy management and efficiency.

Target 8.2: To achieve higher levels of productivity of economies through diversification, technological upgrading and innovation, including through a focus on high value-added and labour-intensive sectors; and

Target 9.5: Enhance scientific research, upgrade the technological capabilities of industrial sectors in all countries, in particular developing countries, including, by 2030, encouraging innovation and substantially increasing the number of research and development workers per one million people and public and private research and development spending.

This happens through the design and fabrication of the NanoTech Mask, a joint venture between the Centre for Biomedical and Biomaterials Research (at the University and RT Knits Ltd, a Mauritian-based textile company).

Target 14.1: By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, particularly from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.

This target is being pursued through publication of the African Marine Litter Monitoring Manual in partnership with the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association and the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Target 14.3: Minimise and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels.

This project involves the setting up of an Oceanic Carbonate Chemistry Observatory in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Mauritius.

Target 14.5: By 2020, conserve at least 10% of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law and based on best available scientific information; and

Target 14a: Increase scientific knowledge, develop research capacity and transfer marine technology, taking into account the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission Criteria and Guidelines on the Transfer of Marine Technology, in order to improve ocean health and to enhance the contribution of marine biodiversity to the development of developing countries, in particular small island developing states and least-developed countries.

The increase in scientific knowledge, research and technology of ocean health is advanced through the coral rehabilitation of the Mauritian lagoons.

An SDG mapping framework

By focusing on targets and working in close partnerships with the government and industry, universities, particularly in the developing world, can make more of an impact and better assist in achieving the SDGs, despite limited financial means and constraints.

A coordinated strategy is essential for enhanced effectiveness including both a ‘bottom-up’ approach in order to create a mapping framework at institutional, national and regional or continental level and ‘top-down’ steering mechanisms to coordinate collaborative work on SDG achievement institutionally, nationally and continentally, as summarised in Figure 2.

An appropriate mapping framework, primarily for developmental and not ranking purposes, based on SDG targets and indicators, should help institutions to map their achievements and through partnerships learn and collaborate to further enhance their contributions.

The sharing of experiences and best practices at the continental level through university SDG clusters and university cluster leaders could lead to a more impactful contribution of universities on the African continent and also enable the voices of the continent to be heard at international level.

This commentary is an edited version of a presentation at a colloquium organised by the Southern African Regional Universities Association on 19 May 2021.

Professor Dhanjay Jhurry was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius (UoM) in March 2017. His vision is to foster innovation at the university, and establish it as research-engaged and entrepreneurial. From 2012-17 he was the national research chair in biomaterials and drug delivery at the Mauritius Research Council, while heading the Centre for Biomedical and Biomaterials Research, which he founded at the UoM. Jhurry studied at Bordeaux University in France and received a PhD degree in polymer chemistry in 1992. After spending three years as a research chemist at the Flamel Technologies Company in Lyon, France, he joined the department of chemistry at the University of Mauritius as a lecturer and was promoted to professor in 2005. His mainstream research in polymer science, biomaterials and tissue engineering, nanotechnology/nanomedicine and drug delivery has led to more than 75 papers in scholarly journals, with an h-index of 21. He has received various national and international awards, the recognition including the first Best Mauritian Scientist Award in 2011, the Grand Officer of the Star and Key of the Indian Ocean and the Commander of the Star and Key of the Indian Ocean insignia from the Republic of Mauritius in 2019 and 2012, respectively, as well as the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques insignia from the Republic of France in 2007. Jhurry has been an elected member of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) since July 2017, and a member of the Scientific Council of the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie since September 2019. He was appointed chair of the ACU SDG Network in January 2020. He is also a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences.