Sustainability: A vital role for Arab League universities

Arab universities in the 22 member states of the Arab League have been urged to integrate the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including objectives and plans to achieve them, across their educational and research programmes and to produce graduates capable of promoting sustainable economic and social development.

The call emerged from the fifth Arab Conference on Higher Education and Sustainable Development held under the theme “The role of universities in achieving the SDGs” in Cairo, Egypt, from 10 to 11 September. The conference was organised by the Egypt-based Arab Administrative Development Organization (ARADO) in collaboration with the Jordan-based Association of Arab Universities.

Dr Nasser Al-Hattlan Al-Qahtani, director general of ARADO, indicated that the conference aimed to provide an Arab platform from which to highlight the role of universities in achieving the SDGs. Such roles included improving quality of life in societies, eliminating poverty, promoting learning and achieving integration between Arab efforts to meet the challenges of sustainable development.

He said universities in particular play a vital role in transferring knowledge and science and providing initiatives and solutions.

Access to higher education

With reference to SDG 4.3, which calls for “equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university”, all countries of the Arab region have enjoyed increased enrolment in tertiary education during the last five years, according to a November 2021 UNESCO study titled Bridging SDG 4 and Education Monitoring in the Arab region.

However, taken as a whole, the Arab region does not score high in terms of attainment of SDGs, with an average score of 58.2 out of 100, according to the 2022 Arab Region SDG Index and Dashboard Report, which indicates that “poor and conflict-affected Arab countries face the highest risk of falling behind" and that "considerable efforts and collaboration across the region are required to achieve the SDGs within the remaining time frame”.

In a speech at the conference, Egyptian Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Dr Ayman Ashour said sustainable development was “a vital and important topic for the future of the Arab world, and universities are the ideal setting to achieve the integration of the dimensions of sustainable economic, social, and environmental development that meets the objectives set by the United Nations".

Dr Mansoor Al Awar, chancellor of Hamdan bin Mohammed Smart University, noted that quality education is critical to accomplishing the core goal of sustainability, which is to fulfil today's demands without jeopardising future generations' ability to meet their own.

Collective action

Professor Amr Ezzat Salama, secretary general of the Association of Arab Universities, emphasised the significance of collective Arab action to achieve the development goals required by Arab societies.

Measures to promote the role of Arab universities in achieving the SDGs were outlined in presentations by academic experts and university presidents from the Arab world.

These included integrating sustainable development goals, objectives and plans across programmes and curricula in university programmes for undergraduate and postgraduate studies, as well as in relevant research, consultations and studies, in a way that enables capacity building and a strengthening of national expertise.

Other measures included the creation of partnerships between Arab higher education institutions to maximise efforts in addressing challenges such as high youth unemployment, health threats, biodiversity loss and natural disasters.

There was a suggestion to establish an electronic platform to make available research papers that serve the goals of sustainable development in all universities with the aim of exchanging experiences and maximising benefits.

Another measure included the establishment of Sustainable Development Centres within universities to enhance knowledge and skills in respect of the SDGs.

Universities were encouraged to act as incubators of ideas, which contribute to the development of new technologies and solutions that improve sustainability in various fields, such as renewable energy, agriculture, water resources management and clean technology.

Higher education institutions were also encouraged to develop plans and programmes aimed at contributing to achieving all sustainable development goals without being limited to the fourth SDG goal of quality education.

Al-Qahtani highlighted the need to overcome challenges universities face in carrying out their developmental role. These included funding and infrastructure limitations, the challenge of utilising scientific research, and forging international cooperation.


Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, research professor at the Biotechnology Research Institute of the National Research Centre in Cairo, Egypt, welcomed the Pan-Arab university plan to drive the 2030 Agenda.

“Universities and higher education institutions have a critical role in helping society to achieve the SDGs through leadership, research, teaching and learning and campus operations as well as advancing the SDGs with practical solutions for sustainable development through diverse activities and institutional commitments,” he told University World News.

“However, we hope to see the plan implemented on the ground, not just end up to be ideas presented for sustainable development on papers and inside the halls of seminars and conferences,” Abd-El-Aal said.