Students have a key role in all universities’ SDG efforts

India’s National Education Policy 2020 states that the global education development agenda reflected in Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by India in 2015, seeks to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030.

Such a lofty goal will require the entire education system to be reconfigured to support and foster learning so that all of the critical targets and goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development can be achieved.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) could play a key role for the following reasons:

• HEIs are the reservoir of knowledge and skill which could directly contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.

• HEIs have the responsibility to foster social responsibility among students and involve them in community engagement.

• The students of HEIs will be tomorrow’s beneficiaries of the achievement of the SDGs. By understanding local issues through the well-articulated SDGs, students could develop a sense of social responsibility towards the development of their neighbourhood community.

• Students have a role in utilising their creativity, technologies and inter-connectedness to bring innovative ideas to the fore to achieve the SDGs at a micro level.

• Above all, more than one-third of the SDG targets refer to young people explicitly or implicitly, focusing on empowerment, participation and well-being.

India has given its strong commitment to the achievement of the SDGs. Hence, all its HEIs have a role to play in their achievement.

Community engagement

HEIs have a multiplicity of functions, the most important of which are teaching, research and outreach involving direct contact with the community. These three dimensions are interrelated and interdependent. However, generally, HEIs have assigned much importance to academic and research programmes.

The third dimension of community outreach has generally been assigned the least importance due to various supply and demand side factors. But now HEIs have realised that community engagement reflects their social responsibility towards the society within which they are functioning.

To fulfil the objectives of the National Education Policy 2020, HEIs need to foster social responsibility and community engagement in their vision and mission statements. Through community engagement programmes, HEIs enable teachers and students to apply the theoretical knowledge gained on courses to field-based realities and thereby improve the quality of academic programmes and research activities.

Moreover, involving students in community engagement will advance students’ learning about the SDGs and instil a sense of social responsibility in their minds.

Unnat Bharat Abhiyan

To connect HEIs with local communities to address the development challenges of rural India through appropriate technological interventions, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (now the Ministry of Education) launched the Unnat Bharat Abhiyan 1.0 (UBA Phase-1) initiative on 11 November 2014.

In this phase, HEIs were invited to be a part of UBA as participating institutions. UBA 2.0 was launched on 25 April 2018, which involved all participating HEIs partnering with a minimum of five neighbourhood villages in terms of community engagement.

UBA aims to create a virtuous circle between society and an inclusive academic system by providing knowledge and practices for emerging professions and upgrading the capabilities of both the public and the private sectors when it comes to responding to the development needs of rural India.

The Indian Institute of Technology Delhi is the national coordinating institute for UBA. So far, more than 3,000 HEIs have joined as participating institutions under UBA. The Gandhigram Rural Institute is one of the regional coordinating institutes for UBA and serves as the nodal centre for promoting and facilitating the UBA network in the southern region of Tamil Nadu.

In this region, UBA has emerged as a platform for connecting HEIs with their neighbourhood community. Through this platform HEIs can play a significant role in achieving the SDGs through their students.

During our field visits, we have found that the participating institution’s community engagement programmes have directly contributed to greater awareness of the SDGs in general and particularly SDGs 1-7 and 10.

However, we feel that there is a need for more education for faculty coordinators and students about the various aspects of the SDGs. Bearing this in mind, the Gandhigram Rural Institute continuously makes an effort to sensitise HEIs on the need for involving students in the achievement of the SDGs.

In this context, we have organised two important programmes. These are the Virtual Internship Programme on SDGs and Community Engagement and the University Grants Commission Master Trainers’ Training Programme on capacity building of faculty as master trainers for community-based participatory research.

Virtual Internship Programme

Student involvement in community engagement can help them learn about rural challenges and understand rural wisdom and lifestyle. Students can also be encouraged to initiate learning projects with a social impact. The incubation of such social innovation projects can also meaningfully link the existing curriculum to rural realities.

Keeping in mind the UBA’s role in educating the younger generation about the SDGs through community engagement, the regional coordinating institute of the Gandhigram Rural Institute organised a 21-day Virtual Internship Programme on SDGs and Community Engagement in 2021.

The programme was a 100-hour programme spread over 21 days. It consisted of 18 lectures by eminent scholars and a mini-project carried out by participants. All these lectures are available on YouTube.

Also, at the end of every day’s online lecture session, a set of questions based on the lectures delivered was circulated and participants’ feedback was obtained. For those participants who submitted the feedback forms and project reports, the regional coordinating institute issued a certificate of participation.

In addition to bridging the gap between theory and practice in the context of the SDGs, the Virtual Internship Programme aimed to:

• Develop an appreciation of rural culture, lifestyle and wisdom;

• Teach students about the status of various agricultural and rural development programmes;

• Help them study the institutional arrangements and rural infrastructure facilities for service delivery and the application of cost-effective, appropriate technological interventions for rural development;

• Apply classroom knowledge of courses to field realities and thereby improve the quality of learning;

• Give them experience in writing technical reports or projects, and to introduce or enhance professional practice in rural development among the students, leading to tangible outcomes that could contribute to the SDGs.

The two major outcomes of the programme were the establishment of continuous dialogues on the SDGs over the course of the programme and the fact that participating institutions and students showed a keen interest in community engagement programmes which could potentially contribute to addressing the SDGs in the longer term.

Master Trainers’ Training Programme

As a part of its long-standing commitment to strengthening the social responsibility and community engagement of HEIs, the University Grants Commission (UGC) proposed a two-credit course on Fostering Social Responsibility and Community Engagement.

To launch this course, with a quality-assured teaching system, UGC identified seven universities covering different states or union territories as regional centres for capacity building for faculty so they can become master trainers for community-based participatory research (CBPR) under UBA.

UGC organised a virtual launch of the CBPR programme with the UGC subject expert group on fostering social responsibility and community engagement on 14 January 2022. As a follow-up action UGC also organised an online Master Trainers’ Training Programme (first batch) in CBPR on 27 January 2022 and 15 February 2022.

UGC has identified the Gandhigram Rural Institute as one of the regional centres for CBPR under UBA covering eight states or union territories: Andhra Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Karnataka, Kerala, Lakshadweep, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and Telangana.

A three-day face-to-face residential training programme was held at Gandhigram Rural Institute to train the master trainers in the CBPR methodology in April. Thirty-eight master trainers participated in this programme and explored how best their institutions could contribute to community development and a more sustainable world through their way of responding to the development issues in their neighbourhood community.

The outcome of these two programmes is wider awareness of the importance of the achievement of the SDGs at the micro level and support for the coordinators of participating institutions to conceive, devise, formulate and implement community engagement programmes in UBA villages based on the SDGs.

However, there is still a need for a policy push from the government so that HEIs are able to implement new strategies to achieve the SDGs in UBA villages. Moreover, arrangements must also be made to make the course curricula more explicit about the crucial involvement of students in the achievement of the SDGs.

Professor K Ravichandran is regional coordinator of Unnat Bharat Abhiyan Regional Coordinating Institute, the Gandhigram Rural Institute, Gandhigram, Tamil Nadu, India.