SDGs: A framework for socially responsible universities

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework provides an opportunity for universities to “collaborate across differences” and represents a new “common language” for social responsibility, according to speakers at the University Social Responsibility (USR) Summit, held in a hybrid format from 16 to 18 November under the theme, “Education and Action for a Sustainable Future”.

In a speech titled “How universities can – and must – change to meet the demands of a world in flux”, Joy Johnson, president and vice-chancellor of Simon Fraser University in Canada, argued that universities have to open up to different ideas and ways of learning, and students need to be exposed to a multiplicity of perspectives.

Lamenting that universities compete against each other on rankings and for prestige, Johnson said: “Our industry needs to collaborate; we can learn from each other.” She argued that the SDGs framework provides an opportunity to “collaborate across differences”.

Replying to a question on globalisation, Johnson said that “globalisation is trying to wipe out differences (with Starbucks and McDonald’s in every corner)” and is creating a society in which “people are not listening [to each other]” and are “stuck [in] their echo chambers”.

The three-day USR virtual conference hosted by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University drew more than 120 speakers and over 640 online participants from 76 countries. University World News is the media partner.

Addressing challenges facing the world

The USR Network consists of 20 member institutions from across many regions committed to the notion that universities have an obligation to work together to find solutions to address the economic, social and environmental challenges facing the world today.

Dr Andrea Bandelli, head of international relations at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, who chaired a number of panels, said the USR Network was an ideal platform on which to share experiences and develop new approaches.

“Universities are pillars of our societies. What they do, the way they educate new generations, the research that is done and their impact on society has profound consequences,” he told University World News in an interview. “Acknowledging and understanding the consequences of these actions is the social responsibility of universities.”

When asked about the differences between corporate social responsibility and university social responsibility, Bandelli argued that universities are highly networked institutions, experiencing “deep” interactions with the public and private sectors, as well as with civil society.

And they are at the service of society. “They respond to societal developments and therefore their social responsibility can be understood as something that is constantly negotiated with society,” he said, “unlike corporate social responsibility which is very often an initiative or a set of initiatives directed by and driven by the corporation.”

Much of the discussion of the three-day summit was centred on how university social responsibility could relate to the achievement of the SDGs. There was a diversity of ideas and examples presented during the sessions.

SDGs are new ‘common language’

Dr Fernando Palacio, who chaired a couple of the sessions, argued that the SDGs have come to represent a new “common language” that allows many different stakeholders to work towards shared and measurable goals.

“Within this context, universities have a central role as social nodes that can bring a very diverse pool of resources together to address the different SDGs,” he told University World News, adding: “Universities have a unique kind of ‘soft power’ that can result in important synergies at the time of finding and developing new solutions to the challenges presented by each of the goals in the agenda.”

Palacio argued that universities need to change their model of education, and he believed many are doing so in the way they address the SDGs. “Not only [changes] to their curricula and what they teach in their classrooms, but also in the research they carry out and, more importantly, to their own procedures and ways of engaging with society,” he said.

One example of such change was provided by Thandiwe Matyobeni from Rhodes University in South Africa, where academics have introduced “digital innovatives” to develop cohesive communities. This involves the university teaching digital skills to community members who in turn use their knowledge for digital story telling.

“We provide access to platforms and motivate them to get involved,” she explained. “Approaches coming from the grassroots could be novel [and] this knowledge from local communities goes to the global platforms on SDGs and vice versa.”

People-centred programmes

Details about another local initiative were presented by Michelle Angeli Lapiz from the Philippine Center for Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development. She explained how a “Blue Carbon Initiative” was introduced to empower coastal communities to counter climate change through people-centred programmes and policies.

Marine research had been conducted in collaboration with Ateneo de Manila University on the impact on local communities of the loss of mangroves and new policies were proposed aimed at empowering local communities, she said.

When University World News asked how this research had contributed to policy changes at a local level, Lapiz replied: “Local development policies are very political. We can’t be sure what we recommend will be implemented, [but] we need to bring them into action.”

As producers of knowledge, universities have an inherent responsibility to give back to society through their research, argued Palacio.

That process needed to hinge on “engaging communities in the research design, not only as the ‘object’ of the research, but also as part of the design around how data is collected, used and shared. It involved engaging with communities through partnerships that gave the communities a voice in deciding what is to be researched and what is to be done with that research output.”

Reflecting on the transformational changes needed at universities to address sustainable development issues, Ivar Maas from Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam argued in his presentation that radical changes may be needed to the fundamental structure of institutions.

This needs to take into account how “our efforts affect policy decisions [of governing authorities]”, he said, adding that “impact on society is more than just education [teaching] and research”.

“This change has to come from the whole institution,” Maas argued in an email interview with University World News.

SDGs as a framework

“This can be done in several ways. At VU [Amsterdam] we use the SDGs as an important framework but there are different ways [of doing this] – for example, looking at research output and the impact it has.”

But he warns, “the difficulty with transformative change is that it is hard to quantify – especially the individual behavioural change”.

Educating for global citizenship was an issue that came up during a number of presentations.

Percy Hotim Hung of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University presented the findings of a pilot study focused on engaging the SDGs in global citizenship education and said it was important for institutions to enable their students to see the world through the eyes of others.

“Graduates should have the capacity to understand different cultures and social development needs in the local, national and global contexts,” argued Hung. “Global citizenry entails [understanding] social responsibility, [gaining] global competence, and [familiarity with] the SDGs,” Hung said.

“A global network like the USR Network is proof that we work in deep collaboration with institutions from all continents, and there is no single model that claims to be dominant,” argued Bandelli.

“Global citizenship shouldn’t be understood as a model of citizenship, but rather as a diverse, respectful and collaborative approach to being part of society, wherever that may be, and connected with the broader world.”

Education for global food justice

Justin Joseph Badion, from Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, drew a practical pathway towards global citizenship education when he spoke about global food justice and education for creating regenerative food systems.

“Food is a justice issue,” he argued. “People in the Global South remain hungry because of [injustices] in supply chains and a lack of access to food is an issue of justice.”

Badion said the food crisis needed a radical systemic solution, and “not just solutions but regenerative systems”. Using theological arguments, he argued the need to be “part of nature, not sustaining it, but regenerating it”.

He presented a model curriculum focused on the global food crisis, drawing from various people’s perspectives.

The curriculum includes an introduction to all ingredients involved in the food system, followed by units on the story of food; the local and global food crisis; animal welfare; climate and gender issues; and ending with ‘Alimentary Theology’ which promotes the idea of regenerating food production to respond to the needs of the marginalised and disadvantaged.

At the end students are required to produce plans for food justice which include policies and production models.

Asked by University World News how universities can pursue a social responsibility agenda in the context of commercialised internationalisation, Bandelli acknowledged that there “have been trends and movements in the commercial direction”.

However, new ranking formats that focus on impact, diversity and community outreach, to name a few, were beginning to show a different picture of the academic system, which complements the traditional one.

“I think the current challenge is to create large ecosystems for education, research and impact based on deep collaboration, instead of chasing students at a global level.”