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The role of universities as leaders in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals

Convenors: Matt Foster (OU) and Myles Wickstead (King’s College London)

Background

The previous ACU event held at think tank Wilton Park in January 2020 and its subsequent report in May (https://www.wiltonpark.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/WP1755-Report.pdf) provided a clear consensus that universities could be doing more towards the achievement of SDGs. From this report 3 groups were identified with the following actions being recommended can be summarised as:

  • University leaders

Integrate impact-based SDGs into plans; encourage innovative research; and review incentives and recognition

  • University networks

Externally make stronger cases for universities role in achievement of all goals across all countries; Advocate internally for more open approaches; and provide channels for those who wish to connect with universities

  • Government

See the value of universities and to see them as partners on the achievement in SDGs; engage with them systematically including in Voluntary National Reviews; create and encourage opportunities for universities in development partnerships

Within universities these actions can be implemented as institutions (e.g. green energy policies); as researchers (e.g. on how SDGs might connect in particular countries); and as individuals (staff and students).

Key points from discussion

Forming and use of network(s) of SDG activists to encourage, clarify and push the agenda and using this to map existing work

One of the main issues bought up was the need to encourage discussions and networks between activists, academics and practitioners to see what is already being done, how this works towards achieving SDGs and how this can be used to shape future activities and goals. 

Many academics will be doing research in their own right that would also fit under the umbrella of SDG and could therefore contribute and encourage more action. Universities may actually be surprised how much work is being already being done that can fall under SDGs. By recognising this through an increase in mapping, this will then encourage conversations and collaborations both internally and globally across universities. The ACU already has a SDG network which can be found at https://www.acu.ac.uk/get-involved/higher-education-and-the-sdgs-network/  

SDG being seen as a top down approach?

SDGs are seen by some as more of a top down approach with them being someone else’s framework into which you much fit in. However, through the use of networks and mapping the goal is to encourage people to see how SDGs can be used as a space for discourse to identify how Higher Education can collaborate to make a contribution.  

Reduce inequality and no one left behind

These are important parts of the SDG to remember and incorporate when increasing the effectiveness of universities in SDGs as they will broaden the scope for discussion and help fit technical thinking into political thinking. The SDGs are universal, and they apply as much to the UK as elsewhere, so there is a massive potential domestic as well as international role for Universities to play.

Especially in the testing times of current pandemic, it is important to ensure that all voices are being heard in relation to development, how we are defining development and the impact that privilege and wealth have on this. A key part of this is recognising the potential to engage students and the impact this can have on effectiveness.

Effect of co-curricular volunteerism

Young adults play a crucial role in the pursuit and advancements of SDG and can act as a catalyst to achieving these goals. The global population of young people is 1.8 billion and set to increase, yet there is currently a gap in the effectiveness of how universities have prepared young people to with challenges to SDC in communities. 

A number of recommendations were presenting including a greater integration of issues relating to the SDGs within curricula and the encouragement of co- curricular volunteerism.

Co-curricular volunteerism advocates for the integration of SDG related volunteer activities to be integrated into Higher Education curricula to galvanise progress and create inspiration through opportunity. This can be through fieldtrips, internships and work experience and will encourage debate, understanding and engagements across all subjects.

Practical incorporation of SDGs for universities

We heard the examples of Strathmore University, Kenya who sustain themselves, creating solar power and are now selling electricity back to the grid. They’ve also created a climate innovation centre where entrepreneurs who have ideas around sustainability can come to get help and support with business. They also have outreach and mentorships programs to support equality for all regardless of privilege.

Competition between universities

In the current climate, there is a large amount of competition between universities for students, with universities all trying to find there USP. With the publication of league tables like the Times Higher Education impact ranking, it is important that these are seen as a way of focusing minds and encouraging discussion rather that a competition. 

Next steps

  • From the discussions of the UK participants in this panel it is clear that a development education programme linked to the SDGs and supported by DFID would be welcome. This programme can then be adapted for Universities, schools and other parts of the education sector, but also for more general applications.
  • Support to further scope out a broad programme of development education focused on connecting the SDGs to universities (beyond development studies), private sector and professional bodies