Survey shows universities accelerating action for SDGs

Higher education is accelerating action for achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with universities showing “more substantial institutional commitment”, more actors involved, and increasingly holistic approaches, according to the third International Association of Universities or IAU Global Survey Report on Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development.

This trend is also reflected at the global level, with more than half of the respondents indicating that the university or other higher education institution they are based at engages with the SDGs in at least two out of the following core activities: teaching and learning, research, community engagement, and campus initiatives.

But among the challenges for doing more work on SDGs is the need for more funding and training for academic staff.

The conclusions of the latest iteration of the survey are based on 464 valid responses spanning 120 countries, from 20,000+ universities contacted. Previous surveys were carried out in 2019 and 2016.

These four dimensions are crucial to incorporating a whole-institution approach, and higher education institutions have started to move towards the transformation in all four dimensions, IAU reports.

Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of the Paris-based IAU, said the findings reaffirm that higher education and partnerships are essential to address the global challenges identified in the SDGs and UN Agenda 2030 – the targets for achieving the SDGS, agreed by international leaders.

“Higher education institutions are in a key position to foster engagement with sustainable development by adopting a whole-institution approach to teaching and learning, research, and community engagement, thus triggering a fundamental transformation of a sector that impacts society as a whole,” she said.

In an interview with University World News, she said that the SDGs are “gaining traction almost everywhere in higher education and there is better traction with university leaderships”, and the SDGs and Agenda 2030 – together very often now form the background to many of universities’ activities.

“We have seen exponential growth in strategic plans as well – and the report provides many links to examples, allowing people to dig deeper and see what it means when translating engagement into real action at campus level.”

She said university leaderships are on board much more strongly, seeing Agenda 2030 as a “useful framework to frame many of the dynamics that translate into more transdisciplinary research and collaboration between stakeholders in the university”.

“Students are also better heard than before and students are involved more and staff – including administrative staff – are more involved in processes at institutional level,” she said.

The survey found that teaching and learning is the area with the highest engagement with sustainable development (86.2%), followed by research (79.4%) and campus operations (67.8%). Respondents considered campus operations, community engagement, and vision/mission essential areas of engagement by respondents, though they needed to be developed.

The SDGs most addressed at higher education institutions are SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 17 (partnerships), the survey found.

Isabel Toman, programme officer at IAU, told University World News that understanding about sustainability is also more complete than in previous comparable surveys undertaken in 2019 and 2016.

A majority of the respondents (73.1%) have a holistic understanding of sustainable development, which encompasses economic, sociocultural, and environmental dimensions. This represents an increase of 20% compared to the 2019 survey results.

“We are seeing understanding that it is not just about the greening of the campus, but also a development of the social role in sustainable development and the economic one, creating jobs for a sustainable future and sustainable economy, as well,” Toman said.

Extra push needed in universities

Equally, adds Van’t Land, universities have moved on from simply awareness-raising to actually taking action and engagement at different levels.

“What is needed is an extra push for more transformative approaches in universities, because the response to sustainability – or the SDGs – cannot be siloed or addressed in only one discipline, or via a separate entity, such as a separate office or unit within the institution not linking up the different missions and activities of the university,” she said.

“It’s a transversal notion that needs to involve everybody. It is complex in a world where universities have their operations designed according to [disciplinary] silos still. But there are more and more dynamics heading in the right direction and more synergy creation within institutions.”

Colin Scott, vice president for equality, diversity, and inclusion at University College Dublin, Ireland, speaking at an international webinar discussing the report on 31 January, called upon university leaders to be more radical.

“Universities survive by being traditional, not radical. But being radical is what is needed for transformations towards a more sustainable future,” he said.

At the same event Miquel Nicolau i Vila, rector of the University of Andorra and current IAU board member, confirmed that “universities need to do more” and can accelerate action by engaging more radically with sustainable development in all its missions and activities.

Key challenges are funding and training

However, one of the challenges, which is a key finding of the survey, is that more funding and training is needed. This is because to engage in more activities and especially more transdisciplinary activities, more coordination is needed and for that more people are needed, Van’t Land says. “So what would be very welcome is to have adequate staff to steer that work and organise and maintain and sustain it.”

The training need includes training higher education teachers as well as school teachers in the knowledge required and resources available to educate all students on education for sustainable development concepts.

In research, training means building up research capacity and having the possibility to exchange, via conferences and platforms, with researchers in other countries, for instance neighbouring countries, so they can learn what people two hours’ flight away are doing, Van’t Land said.

“Training is also needed in how to work on sustainable development with communities.”

Partnerships between higher education institutions, organisations, and other stakeholders, especially on the local and community level, are essential to ensure activities are relevant to the local context and sustainable, she added.

The survey, which was conducted in 2022, looked closer at partnerships, leadership, and strategy for sustainable development and climate change education.

It showed that both university leadership and strategy were catalysts for sustainable development at higher education institutions, with 38% of respondents indicating that there is already a strategic plan or a plan being drafted at their institution.

One limitation of the survey is that the geographical spread of the survey respondents was uneven, with 3% of responses from the Middle East, 3.9% from North America, 15.7% from Latin America and the Caribbean, 17.9% from Africa, 29.7% from Asia and the Pacific, and 29.7% from Europe.

The survey was conducted in collaboration with the following main partners: ASEF (Asia-Europe Foundation), CRUE (Conferencia de Rectores de Universidades Españolas) and MECCE (the Monitoring and Evaluating Climate Communication and Education Project).

A recording of the virtual launch event for the survey can be watched here.