6 July 2020
How Can Universities Meaningfully and Effectively Use the SDGs?
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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Colleges and universities are expected to contribute not only to their local communities, but also the global community.

Additionally, universities are expected to instill their graduates with a well-rounded education and global awareness.

Developing plans for 17 goals areas may seem daunting at first, but the process can be taken in stages.

Even though institutes of higher education are under no obligation to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a voluntary set of objectives that were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 – many universities have chosen to do so. What do universities find so compelling in the SDGs? Two major appeals are the power to ensure that governments keep their commitment to implement the Goals and the value of providing a systems approach lens that will help students develop a well-rounded understanding of how global challenges need to be addressed.  

Colleges and universities are expected to contribute not only to their local communities, but also the global community. What better way to do so than to advocate for governments to keep their commitment to implement these 17 Goals and to contribute to the body of knowledge around the SDGs? Additionally, universities are expected to instill their graduates with a well-rounded education and global awareness. The SDGs framework models a systems approach for examining global and local challenges. It can help students understand that success in addressing issues they are passionate about depends on success in addressing other issues, including on their own campuses.

The SDGs were developed because business as usual had not led to a just, sustainable world. The 193 governments that adopted these Goals in September 2015 recognized that change needed to happen for their achievement. The SDGs seek to transform action on each of the 17 issue areas they address, so if a university adopts the SDGs without changing its policies to become more sustainable, that’s not really in the spirit of the SDGs. Developing plans for 17 goals areas may seem daunting at first, but the process can be taken in stages. The first step to SDG adoption is recognizing the SDGs.

Two compacts that many higher education institutions have become signatories to are the University Global Coalition (UCG) and the UNITAR Declaration on Global Engagement (DGE). The UCG describes itself as “a collaborative platform of globally engaged universities and higher education associations working in partnership with the UN and other stakeholders to create a more sustainable future for all.” The DGE’s mission is being “committed to educating students who can successfully live and work in our globally connected world and change it for the better.” These sorts of coalitions and declarations signal an institution’s intent to act in a way that is informed by the SDGs, but whether universities actually act from their international, sustainable intentions is a different story. The next step is to identify how intent will be backed with action.

Times Higher Education releases annual Impact Rankings to assess universities against their pledges to implement SDGs. This is a ranking that universities must apply to and supply their own information, so not every school that has proclaimed support of the SDGs is included. The 2020 Impact Rankings include 768 schools from 85 countries. The countries that submitted the most schools for ranking were Japan (63 universities), the Russian Federation (47), Turkey (36), the United Kingdom (34), and Spain (32). There was also some national concentration of the highest ranked overall universities. Of the top 20 universities, five are in Australia (four of those in the top 10, even), four are in the United Kingdom, and three are in Canada.

Not every university that claims to be committed to the SDGs is included in the THE ranking. Out of 73 US universities who signed the UCG, only 8 were ranked (out of 31 total ranked US universities). Just because the other 65 schools are unranked doesn’t mean they’re ducking out on accountability, but it might signify that they aren’t taking their commitments as seriously as the ranked schools.

A good portion of the weighting used in THE rankings is research carried out by the universities. Research is perhaps one of the most important ways universities can contribute to the SDGs. In order to understand where they are making research contributions, universities might search through their past research for keywords related to the SDGs, like “sustainable agriculture” and “inclusive economic growth.” Identifying research that matches SDG themes will help a university learn the areas in which it may already be contributing to the body of information around the SDGs, and in what areas it can expand into in the future.

Teaching is another important metric when measuring SDG implementation at universities. The introduction of the SDGs aids the development of students’ global competence and ability to collaborate and lead across national boundaries. Is the university offering classes where students will learn about the SDGs and become more globally aware? Are faculty members aware of the SDGs, and do they incorporate global perspectives into their teaching? Arizona State University Tempe (#5 overall in the THE rankings), for example, has incorporated the SDGs into their teaching by designating faculty members as experts on each SDG.

After making the commitment to become sustainable, universities need to be held accountable. Many of the THE Impact Rankings’ top ten most SDG-aligned schools have in-depth annual sustainability reports available to the public. The University of Bologna (#6 overall) even incorporates the SDGs into its overall strategic plan instead of sequestering sustainability to its own separate report. This university also has a webpage dedicated specifically to the SDGs. The University of Sydney (#2 overall) releases SDG Updates with explanations of what the university is doing to promote each goal, along with the units of study and research supporting that goal.

Some schools work with organizations like the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) to measure their sustainability progress. AASHE suggests sustainability benchmarks based on the SDGs and has an option to self-report progress in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). The majority of categories rated by STARS are focused on environmental sustainability, but there are also ratings for wellness, employee compensation, and diversity and equity.

Often, the push for universities to become more sustainable comes from their students. Students can have huge impacts on the sustainability policies of their universities, but the student body changes every three to four years. For universities to truly adopt the SDGs, the administration must make sustainability a priority in their operations, and hold themselves accountable. The creation of an office of sustainability is a great place to start, but sustainability must make its way into the conscience of faculty and students to make the most difference.

On Wednesday 8 July 2020, the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) will organize a virtual discussion on the theme, ‘Where Next? Redesigning Further Education for the Future.’ This event seeks to inspire participants with “new, propositional fresh thinking as to what we can achieve collectively while also ensuring that we consider inclusion and equity at all levels, everywhere.” The HESI event is one of nine special events taking place alongside the annual meeting of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The HLPF is the annual global “check in” on SDG progress around the world. I will be listening in and will report back on what I learn. Read my summary here: HLPF Special Event Considers Higher Education’s Role in Building Back Better.

This article was authored by Lydia Grund, IISD Generation 2030 intern and biology and environmental science and policy major, The College of William & Mary.

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