Project embeds SDGs in curricula, identifies best practices

Several universities in South Africa, together with a Greek institution and one in Cyprus as partners and funded by the European Union (EU) have been working on a project to embed the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into higher education curricula.

Rhodes University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the University of Venda, all in South Africa, as well as the Frederick University in Cyprus and the University of Crete, Greece, have been taking part in the project that will end in January 2023 and, so far, have included hosting workshops and seminars about the SDGs, to establish best practices and embed these into curricula.

The project is led by the Rhodes Centre for Higher Education Research, Training and Learning, or CHERTL, headed by professors Jo-Anne Vorster and Lynn Quinn and the university’s Community Engagement Division led by Diana Hornby.

The project is titled ‘Professionalisation of Undergraduate Academic Teaching’, or PUAT, and works across multiple disciplines to address the SDGs.

Some of the disciplines in which sustainability teaching and learning have been implemented include chemistry, economics, education, environmental science, geography, human kinetics and ergonomics, law, linguistics and psychology. An aim is to get all fields of study involved and includes an explicit focus on the topic of sustainability in teaching and learning.

The project was initiated in 2020 and has aimed to build capacity among academic staff at the undergraduate level to develop their teaching and learning techniques to meet the challenges posed by Sustainable Development Goals.

The project also has sought to embed the SDGs in multiple disciplines nationally, prioritised in South Africa in disciplines such as environment, agriculture, biology and related sciences, engineering and health sciences.

The integration of the SDGs and climate change into university curricula came up in several discussions at the Sharm el-Sheikh Climate Change Conference in Egypt, or COP27, which ended on 20 November.

What is the EU funding for?

The EU funding for this project is aimed at a range of activities, including: “the purchase of equipment such as computers and other equipment to facilitate digital production and distribution of project resources; travel to partner institutions, staff costs and so forth” Vorster told University World News.

“Each partner university offers academic staff development opportunities such as workshops and webinars,” she added.

According to Vorster, with this project, the university and partner institutions want to identify and disseminate good practices related to the infusion of SGDs in curricula. The contexts in which these good practices emerge are analysed in order to identify the extent to which they can ‘translate’ to other contexts.

The university aims to develop a policy brief based on what has been learned from the project to contribute to national debates regarding the need to develop capacity among academic staff as teachers in higher education.

Best practices

Some best practices have emerged so far. These include: explicit outlining of and reflection on sustainability issues relevant to courses; the inclusion of critical reflection exercises in the curriculum to help students reflect on sustainability issues; the development of mutually beneficial relationships with communities in which curricula involves practical and service learning, and the exploration of values related to sustainability.

Another goal of the project is to develop an Online Community of Practice and a network for university teaching staff engaged in innovative teaching and learning practices as well as curriculum design and development for SDGs.

The project is aimed at establishing the necessary infrastructure and resources to monitor, assess and sustain all of these goals long-term.

According to Vorster, all the partners involved in the project have to contribute their knowledge, experience, thinking and best practices at workshops and webinars. This way, knowledge is pooled and distributed among all partners, allowing them to all adopt a wide variety of practices to improve their teaching and learning, Vorster said.

The project has Vorster and Quinn centrally involved in the design of workshops along with Hornby. Other Rhodes academics who have shared their expertise, and have contributed substantially according to Vorster, are advocate Shuaib Rahim (law), Andrew Todd (human kinetics), Dr Jonathan Davy (human kinetics), and professors Heila Lotz-Sisitka (research chair in global change and social learning systems development), Jen Snowball (economics) and Ingrid Schudel (environmental education).

UKZN’s Professor Bala Pillay and Dr Thabisa Matsea from the University of Venda are driving the project on their campuses.