The Sustainable Development Goals – how Higher Education can play its part

23 July 2021
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At the request of The Millennium Universal College (TMUC) Islamabad, Pakistan, Prof Philip Dearden, the Head of CIDT joined a discussion on the roles of Higher Education in delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Philip debated this important question with M. Ali Kemal from the Ministry for Planning Development and Special Initiatives and Arif Masud Mizra, Regional Head of Policy MENA ACCA.

You can watch the full webinar on LinkedIn.

The fast moving session was moderated by Sarina Shirazi, Head of Social Sciences and Noorulain Zafer, Head of the Professional Qualifications & Career Development Center at TMUC.

This TMUC Talk webinar provided the case for building, strengthening and institutionalizing university partnerships with governments and communities to achieve the SDGs. The speakers discussed how a change in mind sets and culture in both academia and government can be brought about, and invited all parties to start the dialogue, if we are to rise up to the global challenge.

During the discussion Philip made a series of important points about the Higher Education and the SDGs. These include the following:

1. A key feature of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is its universality and indivisibility. The Agenda addresses all countries – from the Global South and the Global North – as target countries. All countries subscribing to the 2030 Agenda are to align their own development efforts with the aim of promoting prosperity while protecting the planet in order to achieve sustainable development. Thus, with respect to the SDGs, all countries can be considered as developing and all countries need to take urgent action. This very much includes both the UK and Pakistan.

2. When asked about which is the most important goal, the simple reply was that no one goal is more important than any other. Indeed it was noted that the most important feature of the SDGs is that they are interlinked. If we are going to deliver on one we have to deliver across the board. E.g. we cannot deliver on development if we do not have peace and security in place. We should not be delivering creating decent work and jobs if these jobs are going to destroy the environment. The SDGs are all intertwined and interlinked.

3. The important role of universities in both educating their students about the SDGs and in actually contributing to the SDGs is slowly being realised. UNESCO led the way in this regard with the publication of a set of Learning Objectives for the SDGs (UNESCO 2017).

4. It was noted that back in 2017 Philip was advocating that the 17 SDGs should be the curriculum that we teach in universities. It was further noted that this important point is now being picked up and there has been a lot of recent rapid change. There are now many resources available to assist curriculum development involving the SDGs.

5. It was also strongly noted that the role of higher education in creating awareness of the SDGs is critical. Our students need to know about the SDGs and they need to know about them in some detail see this example.

6. Graduating students may go onto work in the business sector, in civil society organisations or the government sector. Wherever they go they need to have a good understanding of the SDGs and the importance of us all delivering them. This is as true in the UK as in Pakistan. There are four very good reasons why all students need to learn about the SDGs:

  • Students need to learn about the world.
  • Students must be active participants in the world they live in.
  • Students grow empathy and compassion.
  • Students and teachers are inspired to take action.

7. It was also noted that in Higher Education we all need to be implementing the SDGs through the 3 Cs – the Campus, the Curriculum and the Community. Our campuses need to be beacons of sustainability. Our curricula need to cover the SDGs and we need to work with local communities as part of the civic responsibility role that we all hold. We need to drive understanding of the SDGs. We need to get staff and students debating issues around the SDGs and get both staff and students taking clear ownership of the SDGs relevant to their own subject disciplines.

8. Many universities are working both locally and globally towards the SDGs. The phrase ‘working glocally’ has been used in relation to the University of Wolverhampton.

9. The University of Wolverhampton is engaged with the SDGs in a number of ways. We strongly believe we are providing a quality education to our 23,000 students. Some 11% of these are international students who study on our campuses here in the UK. In addition we now have a wide range of Transnational Education (TNE) Programmes.

10. The Centre for International Development and Training (CIDT), a specialist, not-for-profit, self-financing development centre within the University has the SDGs at its very focus. The staff of CIDT believe that Higher Education is about pushing at the frontiers of knowledge, to enable economic growth and create a democratic and inclusive society. CIDT staff are at the edge of this frontier, practicing a dynamic and alternative approach to teaching, research and knowledge transfer. The centre has successfully adapted the traditional model of the University to meet the technical and capacity development needs of economically developing countries. It embodies the spirt of UK higher education in a significant yet atypical way. The centres organisational model relies on the international quality of its programme deliverables and integrity of its international development approach. The Centres capacity development support to education, lifelong learning, “green growth” and environmental governance is rooted in sustainable partnerships – not as “experts” but to empower its project partners, to unlock their potential and enhance capabilities. Its work is based on challenging principles, which are innovative in international development programming and have been commended as a major factor in programming success (DFID 2013). The CIDT’s focus for the period 2000 to 2015 was the MDGs. The CIDT is now very much focused on the SDGs, especially Goals 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 13, 15, 16 and 17.

11. Research to provide the necessary knowledge, evidence base, solutions, technologies, pathways and innovations to underpin and support the implementation of the SDGs is critically important. Research needs to be done through both traditional disciplinary approaches and newer interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches; providing capacity-building for developing countries in undertaking and using research; collaborating with and supporting innovative companies to implement SDG solutions; improving diversity in research; and training students for sustainable development research. Some Universities are focussing their research agenda and strategies around the 17 SDGs. See the University of Wolverhampton presenting research at the House of Lords.

12. In 2018 the Times Higher Education new global Ranking of “Impact and Innovation” was been published. This new and innovative ranking looked at how Universities are delivering against the SDGs. In the first year, 11 SDGs out of the 17 were used with 47 metrics out of a possible 199 metrics and 111 measurements chosen out of 223 targets. This new ranking system looks at three ways in which Universities contribute to society. Through:

  • Research – Creating knowledge to address the world’s problems
  • Stewardship – managing resources, teaching well – the good university.
  • Outreach – directly acting in society.

In summary it was noted that a Universities have a unique and critical role in helping the world achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through their research, teaching, operations and outreach/community leadership.

On a practical front two new SDG initiatives related to Universities require a mention:

  1. A new guide from SDSN Accelerating Education for the SDGs in Universities is strongly recommended. This guide aims to help universities, colleges, and tertiary and higher education institutions implement and mainstream education for the SDGs within their institutions.
  2. The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) has launched a campaign to show the world what universities are doing for our planet. Their campaign – #UnisForOurPlanet – highlights the important work that universities, students and researchers are spearheading across the Commonwealth to tackle climate change.