SDGs: Study urges universities to see students as resource

Constraints associated with a lack of financial resources could prevent universities from taking a leadership role in addressing issues associated with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, universities are also in pole position to get youth involved in addressing the SDGs, speakers at the ninth Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) Regional Conference on Higher Education (ARC9) heard this month.

“Even though higher education institutions are not directly addressed by the SDGs – as they are directed towards governments – universities all over the world engage with the SDGs and contribute to their achievement, making them a key partner of governments in this effort.”

This is according to the ARC9 report Higher Education Mapping: Working Towards the SDGs, launched at the ASEF meeting in Singapore on 10 March.

The report is based on survey data gathered in late 2022 and other data from higher education institutions in 51 Asian and European countries of the ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) group.

Reka Tozsa, head of education at ASEF, said the aim was to look at higher education policies across the ASEM countries to assess to what extent national higher education policies were oriented towards the SDGs, and identify key policy priorities and policy tools used to promote sustainable development in higher education in Asia and Europe.

This was combined with mapping higher education institutions’ existing practices contributing to the SDGs, and identifying the most common institutional barriers to action on sustainable development.

The report found that after national governments, higher education institutions are the second most commonly involved organisations in addressing SDG issues, more so than provincial and local stakeholders, non-governmental organisations and industry players, said Dr Icy Fresno Anabo, research associate at the University of Deusto in Spain, who was associated with the study.

She noted that universities were involved slightly less in the later stages, including in monitoring and follow-up.


Universities in both Asia and Europe disclosed perceived financial constraints in contributing to the SDGs, the report noted. These include structural issues commonly represented by lack of funding, human resources and infrastructure, said Anabo.

The report also analysed data from the third global survey by the International Association of Universities (IAU), “Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development”, conducted in 2022 and launched on 31 January 2023.

One of the report’s authors, Anumoni Joshi, researcher at RMIT, Melbourne, said the overarching aim of the mapping section of the ARC9 report was to chart higher education policies and practices advancing sustainable development based on IAU data that obtained 464 responses from 120 countries.

“We anticipate that the findings from this report will help to showcase the development regarding the sustainable development goals in the higher education sector and help universities to implement practices in sustainable sustainability aspects,” she said.

Analysis of the survey data in the ARC9 report found that leadership was key for advancing universities’ involvement in the UN’s 2030 Agenda, and networking and mainstreaming [of SDG] activities needed to be undertaken at academic staff level. The report said integrating sustainable development into institutional strategies is advancing, but there was still ample room for improvement.

At the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference in May 2022 in Barcelona, Spain, the UN agency presented a roadmap to encourage universities to build bridges and partnerships to put sustainable development at the core of their activities. The ARC9 study was designed to look at how universities and their stakeholders could better work together.

The ARC9 project will, this year, continue with dialogues on how higher education policy and practices can be aligned across various regions to help deliver the 2030 SDGs agenda.

According to the ARC9 study, financial incentives are the most common policy tools to facilitate institutions’ work on SDGs, followed by ‘authority tools’ in the form of binding agreements, obligations and accreditation requirements. So-called ‘symbolic tools’, such as national plans and strategies related to SDGs and sustainability-focused national awards that symbolise government’s commitment to the SDGs, are also important.

When asked about perceived barriers to higher education institutions contributing to the SDGs, universities cited structural issues first, and these included lack of time, as well as lack of funding, human resources and infrastructure. This was followed by ‘strategic’ hurdles which, in some cases, included a lack of or a clear strategy on the SDGs.

“These barriers present areas of policy action that can be strengthened in order to better support higher education contributions towards the SDGs,” the study said.

Collaboration with policy-makers

Anabo outlined five areas for improvement beginning with developing closer collaborations between policy-makers and higher education institutions, and effective use of evidence-based research to develop policies for higher education actions and solutions towards sustainable development.

Others listed included: ‘vision’ statements and strategic plans which needed to be monitored so they can generate concrete action steps; a need for multiple stakeholders to participate in devising SDG policies that include higher education institutions; the need to shore up targeted support for university missions beyond education and research when tackling the SDGs; and funding for studies on policies that address the SDGs and the challenges that emerge.

Anabo provided examples from the report on implementation in different countries.

For example, India’s National Education Policy 2020 envisages that the curriculum of all higher education institutions will include credit-based courses and projects in the areas of environmental education that includes climatic change and sustainable development, among others.

Slovenia wants to include accessibility to infrastructure and databases to enhance the country’s social development and higher education system. This includes better connectivity between public research institutes and higher education institutions in order to make better use of research instruments.

In Finland, education policies include sharing research and data on the application of legislation on SDGs.

In terms of incentives, the Philippines has a grants and aid programme to provide targeted funding to support universities in carrying out research in SDG-relevant areas. In Austria, the federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research has incorporated SDGs into its performance agreements with universities in 2015, which has allowed sustainability issues to gain more momentum in university settings.

The report recommends, among other things, that universities should become aware of knowledge gaps as SDGs become a cross-cutting theme across education, research, community engagement and campus operations. The implementation of good practice in documenting and reporting projects and programmes on SDGs at respective institutions were other recommendations.

The importance of young people

Lead researcher, Miguel Antonio Lim, senior lecturer in education and international development at Manchester University, UK, noted that young people were essential for implementing the SDGs, especially when it came to connecting with communities.

While there were many different kinds of regulations and tools to facilitate SDGs work in universities, in terms of tapping the energy of young people and allowing them to be heard at all levels, “education institution can play a great role”, he said, “because that's where the youth are concentrated from all across the globe”.

Joshi said: “We recognise the importance of youth … and their potential in shaping our world for tomorrow. We think empowering youth can take the lead in this context.” She also pointed to examples in the study from Germany, Switzerland, Ireland and Hungary on the importance of SDGs in curriculum and learning materials.

Pornchai Mongkhonvanit, president of Siam University, Bangkok, Thailand, added: “We have to listen more to youth-initiated ideas because sometimes they also have a lot of good ideas.”

He recommended setting up youth camps on sustainability, which is something his university already organises. “If we can expose them to youth from different countries, they can even learn more,” he said.

Anna Schinwald, head of the Unit for Sustainability in Education at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research, agreed that the voice of young people in higher education institutions’ decision-making needed strengthening.

She pointed to the need for spaces for networking at universities, noting that some “green student offices” already exist.