Student affairs and services – Advancing SDGs in universities

The Canadian Association of College and University Student Services hosted 140 student affairs and services experts from around the world at the University of Toronto to discuss how to improve awareness of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) among students and universities.

The thought leaders were from 24 professional associations and organisations across 28 countries and six regions. They drafted a position paper that will be renewed in November at a global meeting of 24 student affairs associations and submitted to the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference next year.

Participants in the summit agree that SDG 4 on education, while ambitious, is not bold enough. Our goals around higher education are to ensure inclusive and equitable access and quality education, but above all, the sector needs significant expansion to advance sustainable social justice across the globe.

This virtual platform for global engagement was the Fifth Global Summit of the International Association of Student Affairs and Services (IASAS), and ran from 24 to 27 May.

The purpose of the summit was to hold a dialogue on key issues for advancing social justice via student development and support in higher education.

The focus flowed from the recommendations of the Fourth Global Summit held in Santiago in 2018. The previous IASAS global summits were held in Washington DC in 2012, Rome in 2014 and Cape Town in 2016.

That summit highlighted four SDGs as the primary focus of work with students: education, gender equality, reduced inequalities and climate action. The conversations confirmed that the UN’s framework for global sustainable social justice is a lingua franca for advancing a better life for all.

The Toronto summit opened with a compelling address framing higher education as a critical avenue that advances the SDGs across regions by Professor Margaret Biggs, who served as president of the Canadian International Development Agency and is now the Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University, chair of the board of governors at the International Development Research Centre, and chair of World University Service of Canada.

The SDGs, according to Biggs are “premised on indigenous voices, given momentum by the UN, which generated this global framework for peace and prosperity for all”. The SDGs offer a lingua franca, that transcends political cycles and socio-cultural borders, and promotes regional collaboration to tackle the kinds of conditions that impair peace and prosperity.

The summit kicked off with regional hubs, facilitated virtually at different times, to extract what regions do, how they can be more impactful and what support they need to advance the SDGs in their regions.

Regions, countries and universities are differently ‘tuned in’ to the SDGs, some relying on rankings as the driver, some on social justice goals, and yet others are lagging behind.

Student affairs and services support for the SDGs

There were clear examples through conference sessions in which student affairs and services had supported institutions in making the SDGs a priority.

The conference papers illustrated that student learning about the SDGs took place through structuring student organisations and activities linked to the SDGs, leadership education, community service and outreach with internal and external partners.

Hong Kong University Science and Technology (HKUST) maps learning opportunities against the SDGs and organises advocacy campaigns to raise awareness of the SDGs, connecting students to the ‘real world’.

HKUST and Centro Escolar University in the Philippines strengthen awareness of the SDGs by taking a deep dive each academic year, honing in on specific SDGs. This year for student affairs and services at Centro Escolar University, the focus has been on mental health, planning for sustainable cities, and quality education.

Similarly, participants noted that environmental, climate change and sustainability goals are being implemented campus-wide in many institutions, but not always in ways that are connected to SDGs.

It emerged that universities and student affairs and services can be bolder to help connect students to the SDGs and assist students in developing the kind of competency and agency needed to realise the SDGs within their current lives as well as their lives when they leave university.

For some participants the summit was a wake-up call, acknowledging that the SDGs were the global framework to tackle many of the local issues impacting on their students and communities.

A student voice

A cross-cutting theme was student preoccupation with global challenges facing humanity, and their deep concern about finding solutions.

Four students, as part of a panel, shared the difference they were making in creating organisations and companies to meet the needs of their local communities.

Students highlighted that on the one hand they seek to make a difference to their peers while on campus and while at university, but they also emphasised that students need to become agents for change beyond their university careers.

Participants in the summit developed a position paper that identified enablers to achieving goals set out in the UN’s Agenda 2030:

• Aligning institutional and student affairs and services strategies and goals explicitly with the SDGs.

• Aligning student affairs and services work around the SDGs with institutional strategies and goals.

• Aligning student affairs and services work explicitly with academic, faculty and research agendas.

• Emphasising the dual lens: thinking globally and acting locally, recognising our global and local impact and responsibility.

• Building partnerships and collaborations with communities, networks, organisations and partnerships – like local sustainable development and solution networks – to synergise around SDGs.

• Linkages with other universities and campuses play an important part in regional and local advancement.

• Interdisciplinarity and innovation in terms of design and implementation of programmes plays a critical role.

• Documenting and sharing successes creates new synergies with universities locally, nationally and internationally.

These commitments by student affairs and services associations from across the globe will be reviewed and renewed at the global association meeting to be held in November this year, at which 24 associations will come together to provide updates from their regions on how they have implemented some of the commitments.

The summit concluded with the acknowledgment that broader awareness was necessary to achieve Agenda 2030. For many, the summit was a first time to take a bird’s-eye world view on advancing social justice, as a globally shared agenda. More examples and intentionality on the SDGs are necessary to move student support and development towards Agenda 2030.

Plans are for the sixth summit to be held in Ireland in 2022, in partnership with University College Cork and Student Affairs Ireland. It will focus on the SDGs and graduate attributes.

The discussion around the importance of the SDGs highlighted the need to expand the higher education sector and student affairs and services, not only making higher education more equitably accessible but also expanding the reach and depth of the sector’s impact.

Through discussion it became clear that more universities need to take on the SDGs as a key part of their deliverables, and student affairs and services is ideally placed – within and beyond higher education institutions – to facilitate the development of students as agents for change so that the SDGs can be realised as outlined by Agenda 2030.