How Sustainable Development Goals can mobilise collaboration

“University teaching and learning will shape generations of graduates who will go on to tackle these challenges in their professional lives”

In just a few months’ time, a very different sort of university league table will make its debut on the world stage. This new global ranking will be the first to measure universities’ success, not by reputation or research output, but by their contribution to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a set of global targets aiming to end poverty, protect the planet, and promote peace and prosperity for all.

University rankings are, of course, a contentious arena, and the launch of this latest league table may yet prove divisive. But, at the very least, the fact that such a ranking exists points not only to the sector’s growing engagement with the SDGs, but also to increasing recognition that traditional metrics are failing to capture universities’ true impact on society.

In fact, higher education will be central to achieving every one of the 17 global goals. University research will generate the knowledge and innovation needed to address the most complex and intractable issues of our time. University teaching and learning will shape generations of graduates who will go on to tackle these challenges in their professional lives. And university-community engagement will enable local partnerships and the co-production of critical knowledge.

Of these elements, it’s often the scientific breakthroughs that attract the most attention, and it’s easy to see why. University research transforms lives – from life-saving vaccines to artificial intelligence and its dazzling applications. But ‘impact’ – that slippery customer – comes in many shapes and sizes. HE institutions are in very different situations, and not all will deliver headline-grabbing tech. But every university – whether large, small, public, private, old or new – can contribute to the SDGs.

Arguably, this is nothing new. Universities have long been drivers of innovation, economic development, and societal wellbeing. Where the SDGs come in is to provide a comprehensive and universally-agreed framework to link this work explicitly with the international development agenda.

“Universities have long been drivers of innovation, economic development, and societal wellbeing”

Around the world, for example, universities are incorporating the SDGs into their teaching and curricula. In doing so, new generations of students become familiar with the complex and interconnected nature of global challenges and are instilled with a sense of collective responsibility to solve them. At Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, for example, all first-year students take a compulsory course in sustainability. Others, such as Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, are mapping their curricula against the SDGs, reviewing course content through an SDG lens.

Similarly, we see the SDGs being embedded and brought alive within institutional operations, policies and practices, and across academic disciplines and university activities. This could mean improving the gender balance in leadership roles, the development of carbon-neutral campuses, or initiatives to address disadvantage or exclusion in local communities. This is a way for universities to live the values they espouse and show first-hand how global goals can translate into locally-relevant contexts.

One major way in which the SDGs differ from previous development targets is the inclusion of higher education itself. SDG target 4.3 sounds a clarion call for equal access for all to technical/vocational and higher education.

Other targets include an ambition to expand the number of university scholarships available to developing countries. A nod here to the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and the newly-named Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarships – both of which are helping to expand the number of scholarships available to developing nations, and widening the range of study destinations to create new ‘south-south’ exchanges.

But the SDGs have another vital function: they prioritise partnerships, providing a common framework through which universities and other organisations can come together to collaborate on global challenges. International associations such as the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) play a valuable role here, particularly as a platform for ‘non-traditional’ collaborations, with partners drawn from a more diverse range of countries and institutions.

Our Climate Resilience Network, for example, encourages universities across the Commonwealth to pool expertise and experience of coping with climate change and natural disasters, and is led by institutions whose campuses and communities have borne the brunt of weather extremes.

In all these examples, perhaps we glimpse the true power of the SDGs: not simply to galvanise change, but to mobilise international collaboration and shared endeavour on scale never seen before.

About the author: Dr Joanna Newman is Chief Executive and Secretary General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities. She will be speaking on the role of universities in the delivery of the UN’s SDGs at Universities UK International’s flagship annual conference. The PIE News is supporting the event as a media partner.