‘Engaged University’ initiative aims to respond to SDGs

Universities are ideally positioned to respond to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through research, teaching and learning as well as community engagement.

This has informed a three-year project of the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA). The ‘Engaged University’ initiative calls for the use of participatory approaches towards SDG implementation at higher education institutions within the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The project will be deployed across participating institutions in Europe and across the SADC.

As part of the programme initiation, SARUA conducted two surveys on the use of participatory approaches towards implementing SDGs at higher education institutions, and also hosted a series of workshops involving quality assurance managers, researchers, professors, lecturers and educational administrators as well heads of department and international offices at institutions in the SADC region.

The first survey was conducted between 2022 and early 2023, using structured questionnaires and focus groups which assessed the use of participatory approaches at universities and their contribution towards making research and development more democratic and collaborative. The second survey was conducted after the completion of the three SARUA webinars.

With respondents from universities across 13 SADC countries, the collated data showed that universities had taken up various participatory approaches that promote democracy, such as stakeholder research, community-based research and participatory action research.

However, only 17% of the 98 respondents spread across institutions had adopted “an institution-wide approach”, which has been identified as a critical factor in tackling the SDGs and having a meaningful impact on society.

A changing educational landscape

A series of webinars held in August formed part of activities, aligned with the surveys, on the use of participatory approaches towards SDG implementation at SADC educational institutions.

During his opening remarks, Professor Martin Oosthuizen, the executive director of SARUA, underscored the importance of participatory approaches towards knowledge co-production.

“We believe at SARUA that we stand on the threshold of an exciting new era in higher education where our collective efforts can shape a more sustainable future for the SADC region. In preparation for this transformative journey, we have crafted a draft strategic plan and, central to this plan, is the concept of the engaged university – a vital concept that holds an important key to driving regional development in our network. There is an urgent call for reflection and rethinking about the higher education system and landscape,” he said.

“Our goal as higher education institutions is to explore innovative ways of approaching knowledge production, fostering true partnerships and ways of working together with our communities as well as other partners in society to transcend the confines of traditional knowledge creation, and to embrace an inclusive and collaborative approach that draws wisdom from a wide array of perspectives,” he stated.

The ‘whole’ institution approach

During her presentation, Professor René Pellissier, a researcher at SARUA, broadly discussed the concept of an engaged university, and the importance of participatory approaches in contributing to the broader well-being of society through various forms of community engagement and service.

Participatory approaches, which are key in addressing SDGs, are institution-wide practices that contribute towards inclusive research and development, as well as enhancing democracy and collaboration throughout its process.

“An engaged university addresses the needs and challenges of its surrounding communities and wider society and makes a positive impact on society by collaborating with communities, promoting civic engagement, conducting relevant research, transferring knowledge and technology and practising ethical and sustainable approaches.

“The engaged university concept also encompasses the ‘whole institution’ approach to societal engagement which means the SDGs must be integrated across the curricula, the disciplines, research and innovation that directly contribute and relate to the SDGs,” she stated.

SARUA laid out some recommendations on how institutions could achieve participatory approaches towards SDG implementation, which include institutional support in terms of policies, structures and resources, the creation of collaborative partnerships with shared decision-making, ensuring an equal voice and recognising the value of capacity-building.

“It is also crucial to integrate participatory approaches into curricula, including internships, community-based learning, science, and to ensure science communication and research uptake, and establishing and adhering to ethical principles towards an inclusive and equitable environment,” Pellissier outlined.

Call for a local approach

Professor Marirajan Thiruppathi, the deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation at UNICAF University in Zambia reflected on the ways higher education institutions could strengthen existing partnerships to enhance the implementation of SDGs based on UNICAF experiences.

He stressed that SDGs must be implemented through local approaches within the global context as they were critical to addressing environmental threats such as climate change and planetary health.

He also shared more information on the progress made by Zambia and the contributions of UNICAF University in the implementation of SDGs.

“UNICAF University of Zambia has been committed to the development of a research, innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem driven by the desire to contribute to the development agenda of the nation as outlined in the Vision 2030 document and relevant SDGs.

“We set up different research clusters and multidisciplinary graduate programmes to anchor PhD education that promotes staff and student research and innovation activities. The four research clusters include education for development, global change and sustainability, financial inclusion and innovation and alternative knowledge systems and health remedies,” he said.

The institution also conducted micro-level research, awareness and capacity-building activities, centred on SDGs with local communities and grass-roots level organisations.

“At national level, we also facilitated dialogues, debates and public lectures around SDGs through our university,” he stated.

For example, the institution facilitated a land and housing development dialogue and a seminar around SDG 11 on ‘sustainable cities and communities’, which involved community groups, private actors and policy-makers.

Participatory approaches as transformation tools

During his presentation, Dr Thabiso Nyabanyaba, the director of development planning at the National University of Lesotho discussed the critical role of participatory approaches as a transformation tool in the increasing contributions of higher education institutions to sustainable development.

“Participatory approaches have the potential to transform higher education institutions into engaged institutions by ensuring that knowledge generation and dissemination is relevant, inclusive and responsive to sustainable development, provided it is mainstreamed into higher education institutions,” he said.

He mentioned that universities have a third mission to engage with communities, and this requires the adoption of interactive participatory approaches to increase flexibility and collaboration within teaching, learning and research.

“Participatory approaches to SDGs include inclusivity of diverse stakeholders – ensuring that no one is left behind. They provide contextual relevance of good practice that can lead to sustainable development, ownership and commitment towards shared responsibility based on owned priorities.

“They also contribute towards building local knowledge and expertise for contextually appropriate solutions to local problems, fostering collaborative problem-solving between government, communities, private sectors and higher education institutions, as well as monitoring and evaluation, with data collection and analysis that empowers and values local stakeholders,” he stated.

Funding required

The second webinar hosted by SARUA focused on capacity requirements towards engagement and impact, as well as a lack of support such as policies, frameworks and knowledge of approaches.

During his presentation, Dr Albert Manyani, from Bindura University of Science Education in Zimbabwe, highlighted the extent to which certain higher education institutions are meeting the requirements towards impactful approaches to sustainable development.

Through the Education 5.0 mantra which roped in the sustainability aspect in teaching, learning, research, innovation, industrialisation and commercialisation activities, educational institutions in Zimbabwe were making strides in addressing SDGs. However, challenges were being experienced with financial provision and technological needs to advance these academic activities.

“Higher education institutions are expected to create conducive environments for community engagements with regard to SDGs and should play a major role in educating society. SDGs must not be approached in silos or in isolation, but require a wholesome and holistic approach,” he said.

Beatrix Bouwman, the director of sustainability and community impact at North-West University (NWU) in South Africa highlighted the importance of universities’ engagement and on-boarding for impact.

She noted that one of the main goals for NWU’s performance plan is to integrate and align community engagement with teaching, learning and research to develop a culture of active citizenship.

“Our key focus has always been on working, as a university, towards contributing to the knowledge economy, in particular the co-creation of knowledge, fulfilling our role in terms of graduate employability, and entrepreneurship development, the decolonisation of the curriculum and the sustained impact on NWU’s research and community engagement programmes. And key to this is also having good public-private partnerships,” she said.

Resetting the scene for Africa

In the third webinar, discussions centred on actions required to move forward in terms of research and innovation, teaching and learning to ensure that universities remain engaged in the adoption of participatory approaches for SDG implementation.

Resetting the scene for Africa was an important theme that emerged during discussions. This could be achieved by a focus on ‘people-centricity’, being context-specific (as all countries are not the same), starting to focus on sustainability early in the education system, building capacity first, redefining science communication as listening to the community, allowing for science- or evidence-based decision-making and decision parameters (quantitative and qualitative) as well as focusing on systems and transdisciplinarity.

Speakers included Dr Sabine E Apitz, the director of SEA (Strategic Environmental Assessment) Environmental Decisions in the United Kingdom, Professor Beatrice Opeolu, a fellow at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) and vice-president at SETAC World Council and Dr Laurel Royer from Purdue University in Atlanta in the United States.