Paving a new sustainable pathway for India’s universities

The buzzword for the higher education world was internationalisation until recently. Now we have the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The internationalisation of higher education has taken the world of education by storm for the last decade or more.

Today, however, the Sustainable Development Goals – a blueprint set by the United Nations to achieve its 2030 Agenda, which aims at attaining “a better and more sustainable future for everyone” – are gaining importance. Indian higher education institutions are also striving towards achieving these 17 goals.

While there are numerous ways of achieving these goals, the internationalisation of higher education remains more feasible. The goal has been to ensure that internationalisation benefits society, both at home and abroad, through activities that encompass education, research and service via international and intercultural routes.

This is a definition that closely echoes the objectives of the 2030 Agenda. Globally, higher education institutions are important stakeholders in implementing the SDGs as they function as hubs of critical thinking and innovation. An increased focus on competition has led to institutions quantifying internationalisation of higher education through the parameters of rankings and international collaboration, an approach that is also being applied towards the SDGs.

The National Education Policy

In terms of execution, India may have an uphill battle as countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia may already have got ahead of the game when it comes to the SDGs.

But India has also paved the way for the implementation of the SDGs through its National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020), which embodies the principles of global citizenship education, a target of SDG 4.7 that aims for quality education.

While the key emphasis of the National Education Policy aims to establish India as a ‘Vishwaguru’ – a global study destination – a lot of emphasis is also placed on developing policies towards ‘internationalisation at home’, which could create a pathway towards fulfilling the principles of the Sustainable Development Goals.

A glance at the top 100 Indian higher education institutions, as per the Times Higher Education, displays some interesting insights. A glance at their missions and vision statements highlights that internationalisation principles are given more prominence than the objectives of the SDGs. However, there are implicit mentions with words like ‘inclusive’, ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘transforming life’ being frequently mentioned.

While it is heartening to see that Indian education has started a dialogue around the SDGs, the larger questions still loom, such as how primed are Indian institutions to implement the SDGs? Additionally, can implementing the SDGs be beneficial for institutions or is it merely another expensive undertaking for India’s already underfunded higher education sector?

Indian institutions’ performance in achieving SDGs

The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which were launched in 2019, highlight universities’ work towards attaining the SDGs. While initially only 95 institutions took part, it now boasts the participation of more than 1,500 from over 95 countries and regions. This highlights the importance for universities of aligning the SDGs to their mission statements, since that can ultimately prove beneficial in boosting their individual rankings.

Hence, it was extremely concerning that none of India’s elite higher education institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management, the National Institutes of Technology or even central universities were mentioned in this prestigious ranking. Only 11 names were featured, which included a handful of private universities, with only two managing to be featured in the top-100 list.

Another component of the ranking aligns to SDG 11, wherein universities are ranked based on “research on sustainability, their role as custodians of arts and heritage and their internal approaches to sustainability”.

It is astonishing to note that none of the Indian universities has been scored in this category. This is doubly important as, not only are most Indian higher education institutions failing to abide by internal sustainability measures, but also a key aspect of the National Education Policy aims at promoting Indian languages, education and art.

If this is not being met, it highlights that Indian institutions have a long way to go towards achieving the UN-led 2030 Agenda. While most of our elite Indian institutions have grand partnerships and accreditations from international agencies and institutions, perhaps we need to reimagine these partnerships not just for academic purposes, but for the SDGs as well.

Interlinked goals

One of the ways to implement the SDGs is through fulfilling the goals of internationalisation of higher education, as the objectives of internationalisation and the SDGs are often interlinked.

This is surely beneficial to Indian universities as substantial emphasis is placed on internationalisation in the National Education Policy and, by extension, in the SDGs. It cannot be denied that the Indian education sector would benefit from this, but the larger question of its cost-effectiveness remains to be answered.

To implement these goals, India will have to invest heavily in areas of infrastructure, industry improvements and institutional services, and additional investment will be needed in resources such as training. Special academic training will still play an important role.

Additionally, India will also have to rethink its strategies in areas of sustainability, access, accountable consumption and even climate action, thus making it an expensive endeavour.

In 2021, the NITI Aayog think-tank, in collaboration with the United Nations, released the Baseline Report of the SDG India Index. The report ranks and underlines the progress of Indian states and union territories towards implementing the goals.

The report showed some interesting insights: most of the universities included were private universities, highlighting that some impactful work is being done in the field. However, it was surprising to note that public universities are severely lagging.

That prompts questions about whether the country’s leading institutes are falling behind due to insufficient or lacklustre commitment when it comes to propagating equality and sustainability in delivering impactful education.

Therefore, Indian higher education institutions must review their performance honestly and build an internal ecosystem capable of triggering the systemic and procedural transformations needed to attain the UN targets.

In this endeavour, policy-makers must also recognise the multifaceted role of higher education institutions (HEIs) in supporting the government’s goals and processes. As in other parts of the world, institutions are incubators of sustainable ideas and places where we educate the next generation to take on the responsibility to achieve India’s SDG targets by 2030.

Sushmita Roy is a PhD student from Manipal Centre for European Studies at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education and Aatmika Shetty is assistant professor from the department of commerce at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India.


Raj Nair on the University World News Facebook page: It is important for top Indian HEIs to collaborate with top foreign HEIs (notably UK, USA, Australia, France, Germany and Russia) and make sure that quality world education is made available in India through these collaborations. In India, research (both academic and applied) should be the driving force as every rupee invested in research would return tenfold in due course of time. Investments in research should be increased substantially. Ancient India was the world leader in STEM disciplines. The contributions of Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics, established by Madhava of Sangamagrama in the 13th century (modern Irinjalakuda in present day Kerala state in India) stand testimony to this. It is a shining example of India’s soft power which is relevant even in modern day knowledge systems. This is a road less travelled. NEP 2020 is a good start in this direction.