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Universities move to achieve the SDGs – and approach the next hurdle

Universities have a key role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and it is clear that they are ready to face the challenge. However, as EUA’s Thomas Jorgensen explains, universities still need address some specific questions to take this role to the next level.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have risen fast as a concern for universities around the world. The International Association of Universities has documented more than 700 institutions around the globe working towards the achievement of the SDGs. However, this is likely only a small part of what universities are doing in the field. In Europe, there has been a major change from these goals being seen as regarding mostly cooperation with the Global South to taking them on board as a challenge to be solved at home.

The SDGs have several qualities that make them reference points for university researchers and leadership alike: they are directly linked to the societal relevance of research in a way that is immediately understandable for a large community beyond academia, and they give a sense of purpose and belonging to a greater mission.

The SDGs also give a holistic framework for university leaders to show all the many facets of what their large and complex institutions are doing. Moreover, many students identify with the goals and are at times the drivers of introducing sustainability-related activities in the learning environment. After years of linking universities to a discourse that concerned economic competitiveness, the change towards sustainability seems to give more credit to the breadth of universities’ contribution to society.

SDGs figure displaying the unique contribution of universities to Sustainable Development GoalsPolitically, achieving the SDGs is also linked to the increased need for investments in education, research, and innovation. In its SDG Brochure, EUA points to the fact that working for SDG4 and SDG9 (Quality Education and Investing in Innovation) facilitates the achievement of all the other goals. This message has not been lost on bigger political players. In its Reflection Paper about sustainable development, the European Commission states that “Education, science, technology, research and innovation are a prerequisite for achieving a sustainable EU economy” (p. 22).

There is no doubt that universities are moving forward to support this agenda, but doing so, they might approach a significant hurdle. One of the attractions of the SDGs is that they give a flexible framework that can link research and learning to a bigger agenda. Research and study programmes in energy can demonstrate how they contribute to SDG7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and crop scientists can show how they work towards SDG2 (Zero Hunger). Likewise, university leadership can put labels and colours on on-going activities and demonstrate the contribution of the institution as a whole. This raises awareness and possibly the impact of research and learning. However, one of the main points of the SDGs is that the goals are interconnected. Sometimes achieving one goal can facilitate another: access to quality education, for example, can alleviate gender inequalities; and research and study programmes in renewable energy help to combat climate change. At other times there are trade-offs, that are not always positive: intensive farming methods can prevent hunger, but they might not be good for biodiversity; making flying cost more to prevent climate change can increase inequalities by making flight travel a privilege for the rich. For this reason, the SDGs require integrated implementation.

While some universities are well aware of this, there is still some way to go to make the connections between SDGs commonly understood. The recently published Times Higher Education Impact Ranking, for instance, does not only measure a limited number of SDGs (the two goals for biodiversity are missing), but measures them separately as well. Another challenge in the sustainability discourse is the tendency to conflate sustainability and climate change. For example, the drafts for the next European research programme, Horizon Europe, mention the two together almost interchangeably. While measuring single goals has the advantages of awareness and impact raising, as mentioned above, and while climate change is undeniably a very important goal, the piecemeal approach is not entirely in the spirit of the SDGs as such. It is among the low hanging fruit that is being picked fast at the moment, but it is necessary to think about the next steps once different activities have been labelled and climate has gotten its deserved priority.

The labelling of activities and raising of awareness will not by itself lead to fully using the potential of universities for sustainable development. The steps needed for making qualitative progress in universities, would be to make the goals work together and consider the influence of impact made in one area on other areas. In some institutions, this work is already underway. However, it is imaginable that there are major governmental, cultural, and legal obstacles to this: Does university leadership have the power and the administrative capacity to allocate resources in a way that not only considers the thematic areas of learning and research but also their combined impact on society? Will staff have the awareness to make these considerations far beyond the field of expertise that they have meticulously developed? Are there sufficient incentives in terms of career assessment and funding structures to create large, interdisciplinary, impact-aware research teams? Not least: how will and how should universities prioritise direct impact on sustainable development with regard to their unique role in promoting curiosity-driven research?

Universities can play a decisive role in achieving the SDGs, and there is clear evidence that they are ready to take on the responsibility, but the next step forward will require tough answers to tough questions.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Thomas Jorgensen

Thomas Ekman Jørgensen is Senior Policy Coordinator at the European University Association

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