Student affairs and services commit to advancing SDGs

The International Association of Student Affairs and Services (IASAS) is the latest among many international organisations to intensify the call to promote awareness of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and implement the Education for Sustainable Development principles.

IASAS convenes a global summit of student affairs thought leaders every two years. It first adopted the SDGs as a guiding framework at its summit in Cape Town in 2016, and reaffirmed this commitment in Santiago (2018) and Toronto (2021).

At its sixth global summit hosted at University College Cork in Ireland in June, more than 160 student affairs and services (SAS) professionals and thought leaders from 21 countries attended in addition to online participants. A key topic was the SDG framework and how to build on SAS practitioners’ unique position to advance the SDGs across higher education globally.

A global SAS view on the value of SDGs

To illuminate the intersection of student affairs with SDGs, we conducted a global survey with student affairs practitioners in 2021. During late 2021, we collected data from SAS practitioners in higher education institutions around the world using online referral sampling. Our goal was to explore SAS practitioners’ use of the SDGs as framework to guide their student development and support practice.

The survey gathered 318 valid responses from across all world regions. We explored the responses using frequencies and cross-tabulations for the quantitative data and thematic analysis for the qualitative data.

The survey showed that the vast majority (81%) of responding SAS practitioners were familiar with the SDGs. This widespread awareness of the SDGs was perhaps less surprising than the regional variation we found. It turned out that African, European and Asian respondents were the most familiar with the SDGs, while those in North America (31%) were most likely to answer “not at all” and “do not know” when asked about being knowledgeable about the SDGs.

We also found that female SAS practitioners, younger respondents, and those from public higher education institutions tended to be more familiar with the SDGs than their male and older peers.

An overwhelming majority of SAS respondents (92%) in this research also agreed that the SDGs could serve as a framework for their work. They noted this mainly because SAS valued diversity and inclusion for student success which matched the SDGs. Additionally, SAS practitioners see the SDGs as a critical tool that can empower and develop students for the world after graduation.

We found that more than half of the SAS practitioners felt that their institution was supporting the SDGs. For instance, they were using them to inform their strategic planning.

In their own work, however, only a quarter of the respondents clearly affirmed that SDGs were informing their work with students, while in about half of the cases, SDGs only ‘somewhat’ informed their work.

The regional variations were again telling. Respondents from Asia and Africa were far more likely to use SDGs in their work than those from the Global North and Oceania.

In particular, practitioners from Africa and Asia most mentioned that their community engagement efforts and student leadership programming were informed by the SDGs, and that they aligned student activities and organisations or clubs with the SDGs. In this way, some felt that the SDGs helped them shape a broader vision for their practice, for research and policy development and evaluation.

The regional variation also suggests that more international and global exchange on the role and integration of the SDGs in SAS practice will be valuable to further enhance their uptake. Particularly important will be enhancing the diffusion of the SDGs from the Global South to higher education institutions and higher education organisations in North America and Europe.

Putting the SDGs into SAS practice

Against the background of the present scarcity of research on the nexus of SAS and sustainability in higher education, the findings of this study begin to demonstrate that SAS has the potential to play an important role in higher education institutions to advance the principles upon which the Education for Sustainable Development framework is based and to focus on the competencies required for them.

The social justice mandate of SAS includes levelling the playing field so that students with diverse backgrounds, talents and orientations can learn and succeed in their higher education endeavours. IASAS has promoted the SDGs so that SAS practitioners may be in a position to educate students on their role in providing solutions to local and global sustainable development challenges.

The survey respondents mentioned that a more widespread adoption of the SDGs as framework to guide SAS practice might not only shift the values and principles underpinning SAS’s own practice but have direct impact on student attributes.

Showcasing successful SAS practice will create learning opportunities by making the application of the SDGs more visible and create the examples necessary for a transformation towards greater sustainability in higher education in the SAS sector.

Towards SDG 2.0: What role for HE?

The results of our global survey suggest that more effort is required to promote the adoption of the SDGs in higher education. The results also reveal some critiques, paving the way for SAS’s involvement in shaping an SDG 2.0 version.

It was mentioned that the SDGs are not sufficiently ambitious and explicit about specific targets. For example, SDG 4 is too vague about the role of higher education in the advancement of social justice, and neglects to emphasise that expansion of higher education is required to meet the demands for increased participation in higher education.

In this regard, higher education is not sufficiently embedded across all the 17 goals in a way that would advance these goals and ensure that they find expression in the curricula and co-curricular spaces in higher education. A bolder assertion of higher education’s role in advancing the SDGs will enable SAS to play an even more significant role in the realisation of the SDGs across the globe.

Birgit Schreiber is a member of the Africa Centre for Transregional Research at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Germany, and vice president of the International Association of Student Affairs and Services (IASAS) and co-founder and editorial executive for the Journal of Student Affairs in Africa. She is the co-editor of the recently published Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education: Global foundations, issues, and best practices. E-mail: Lisa Bardill Moscaritolo is executive director of student experience at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and the secretary general for IASAS. Brett Perozzi is vice president for student affairs at Weber State University in the USA and serves as scholarship and research chair on the global division for NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. He has published three books, more than three dozen scholarly works and is an author for the global overview of Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education. Thierry M Luescher is research director for post-schooling in the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa, and a co-founder and editorial executive of the Journal of Student Affairs in Africa. He is an international expert on African higher education.