HE institutions need to step up the implementation of SDGs

Higher education institutions can actively contribute to the achievement of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through teaching, research, community engagement, non-academic services and management practices.

For this to happen, higher education institutions need to align their activities, not only with national policies and priorities, but also with the SDGs. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case with Zimbabwean universities.

The UN’s SDGs are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The SDGs address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, and the attainment of peace and justice.

But no Zimbabwean university featured in the recently released QS World University Rankings: Sustainability 2023, in which 16 African universities were featured among the 700 universities which were ranked by QS Rankings.

The ranking focuses on aspects relating to the SDGs which include the impact of universities (alumni outcomes, research impact) on the environment and society, rather than operational measures and internal processes at universities.

It was a similar story in the Times Higher Education World University Impact Rankings 2022, released earlier this year, which ranks universities according to their implementation of the SDGs.

There was no Zimbabwean university featured in the rankings of more than 1,200 universities across the world.

The funding dilemma

Funding appears to be the major problem that is negatively affecting the successful embedding of SDGs into higher education in Zimbabwe.

This is according to a 2022 study, ‘Barriers to the implementation of Agenda 2030 United Nations Global Goals in the Zimbabwean Higher Education Context’, authored by Elphina Mhlanga, Faith Tlou, George Shava, Nduduzo Phuthi, Kudakwashe Manokore, Zibulo Sibanda and Doris Chasokela, all from the National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe.

The researchers stated: “... to eradicate barriers to sustainable development in higher education institutions, there is a need to include SDGs in universities’ curricula and link them with different stakeholder groups.

“Higher education institutions’ implementation of their knowledge and ideas is key to achieving national, regional and global (SDG) targets; the Zimbabwean government must [therefore] improve universities’ images, reputation and quality by ranking them according to their sustainable development,” recommended Mhlanga and her co-authors.

“There is a need to include SDGs in the universities’ curriculum in education as a global responsibility in order to have a vision towards the development of their students and establish a culture of sustainability,” added Mhlanga et al.

These views were echoed at the recent UN climate conference, or COP27, in Egypt, were higher education representatives, activists and climate experts called for SDG-focused higher education curricula.

SDGs are not prioritised

So, whereas Zimbabwean universities do not have the capacity to drive the achievement of the SDGs, the fact that programmes have not been aligned with SDGs suggests they are simply not a priority.

This is particularly visible if one compares the performance of the country’s universities in innovation and industrialisation, two areas the government has prioritised over the past few years since Zimbabwe established innovation hubs and technology parks at various institutions to find solutions to the country’s pressing problems, as well as attain the country’s economic blueprint, the National Development Strategy 1.

In September 2022, a plastic container manufacturing plant and a honey and fruit processing factory were established at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) as the institution angles to play a critical role in Zimbabwe’s reindustrialisation agenda.

NUST is also leading the establishment of the Bulawayo Technology Centre which is a tripartite arrangement that involves the university, the Zimbabwean government and another institution of higher learning, the Bulawayo Polytechnic College.

The university will be able to produce various plastic containers of up to 15 litres. Honey processing is currently done on a trial basis pending certification by the Standards Association of Zimbabwe.

In July 2021, the University of Zimbabwe’s innovation hub came up with two inventions targeting social protection after producing a smart blind stick and a pharmacy locator application.

The smart blind stick is based on obstacle detection and object avoidance technologies, thus providing efficient navigation for the visually impaired. The pharmacy locator application is integrated with GIS and Google maps to locate medication at the nearest pharmacy.

Similar progress has been made elsewhere. At Chinhoyi University of Technology, a circular agricultural system was recently created, involving using the institution’s kitchen and agricultural waste in the production of a protein ingredient in their stock feed.

Gwanda State University is aiding in minerals’ beneficiation through an engineering laboratory that is enhancing mining research.

Innovators at the Bindura University of Science Education developed software to de-congest toll gates in the country. Recently, research at the institution also concluded that masawu (Ziziphus Mauritiana), an indigenous fruit, has a higher vitamin C content than oranges. As a result, the university is now producing masawu juice.

Achieving the SDGs should enjoy similar effort

At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, NUST started making PCR test kits while the Harare Institute of Technology (HIT) reported that it had started commercial production of four ventilator types and a suction machine it had designed and used as prototypes. On 8 October 2022, HIT reported that it was developing a digital currency aimed at reducing printing and transactional costs as well as eliminating currency manipulation, cash hoarding and black market trading.

In 2021, as Zimbabwe battled to deal with a vehicle number plate backlog that had hit 1.5 million, the government turned to its universities as a way of utilising institutions of higher learning to fill some of its industrial needs.

There are plenty more examples of several Zimbabwean universities’ initiatives that came about in a bid to alleviate one or more pressing issues in the country. It is likely that, if a similar focus is put into achieving the SDGs, progress can be made in this area as well.

Farai Mhlanga, a programme officer at the Youth Empowerment and Transformation Trust to implement the SDGs in Zimbabwe and train young people to become SDG ambassadors, told University World News that universities are the primary institutions for the dissemination of knowledge through teaching, and for the generation of new knowledge through research and, thus, are essential players in achieving the SDGs.

“None of the United Nations’ SDGs can be achieved without the input of higher education through research, teaching, and community engagement,” Mhlanga said.

Although more action is needed within the higher education sector, some institutions have started to integrate the SDGs into their core activities.

A senior lecturer from the Great Zimbabwe University, Professor Shumirai Nyota, told University World News that the institution has been collaborating with regional bodies and, earlier this year, received a delegation of academics from South Africa who were visiting Zimbabwean universities as part of a regional research project aimed at assessing the extent to which Zimbabwean universities have managed to localise SDGs into their operations.

Students should have a scientific culture

“I think it starts with the ministry of higher education, science, and technology. The ministry should adopt policies and implement strategic actions to address the SDGs. In addition to quality education and research, these policies should target gender equality, and appropriate environmental management on campus and surrounding areas so that the country moves towards carbon-neutral universities. There is also a need to cooperate with local communities to promote sustainable development goals and build a culture for responsible consumption and production,” Nyota said.

She said universities need to incorporate all aspects of the SDGs in the university curricula to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and scientific culture necessary to address the complex challenges of sustainable development throughout their careers.

Benon Ncube, president of the Zimbabwe National Students Union, or ZINASU, told University World News that the first step the Zimbabwean government should take towards achieving the SDGs is to ensure that all institutions of higher learning in the country are providing quality education.

“By definition, higher education institutions should match the targets and priorities set in SDG 4, which is quality education that is inclusive and equitable. But this has not been the case in Zimbabwe where perennial fee hikes have all but excluded the poor from higher education,” Ncube said.

“I do not even have to get started on the issue of academic freedom and human rights abuses on our campuses. It’s a delicate situation which makes the achievement of SDG 4 in Zimbabwe very difficult.”