Institutional CommitmentShared Goals

Embracing the Sustainable Development Goals and Forging a Way Forward

Higher education is only called out in two of the 169 SDG targets; however, there are more than 60 targets in which it plays a pivotal role. Higher education leaders are urged to undertake a holistic evaluation of how they propose to address the SDGs and map out a way forward, whilst recognising that there are many limitations and barriers.
Written by Angel Calderon

Higher Education and the SDGs

For a long time, higher education institutions (HEIs) have been engaged in institutionalising sustainable development, community and engagement studies into their systems or operational practices. However, since the 1990s, the concept of sustainability has gained prominence in understanding and measuring the impact of HEIs in the communities and jurisdictions in which they serve and operate.

Furthermore, HEIs regularly highlight in statutory or ad-hoc reports how they engage with their stakeholders, how HEIs contribute to urban or regional economic development and achieve what they set out to do through their strategic plans.

However, the adoption of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), which came into effect in 2016, represents a significant challenge for HEIs globally. This is because the adoption of the SDGs forces HEIs to assess how they engage with these goals and how they address societal challenges head on.

The aim of the SDGs is to mobilize efforts to end all of forms of poverty, fight inequalities, and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind.

Over the next few years, HEIs are likely to embark on a sustainable development journey like no other in history.

The SDGs apply to all countries, but the SDGs are not legally binding. This means that HEIs (regardless of geography, institutional typology, affiliation, and status) and every other partner or stakeholder need to work together and coordinate efforts to ensure the achievement of the SDGs.

Higher education leaders are urged to undertake a holistic evaluation of how they propose to address the SDGs and map out a way forward, whilst recognising that there are many limitations and barriers (whether these are political, economic, or geographical). There may also be institutional barriers which need to be addressed to develop an institution-wide approach. They are also urged to reframe their performance measurement regimes and third mission aims to monitor institutional progress towards achievement of the SDGs.

Over the next few years, HEIs are likely to embark on a sustainable development journey like no other in history. This is because globalization has facilitated a transformation where spatial boundaries disappear, enabling a borderless engagement, whereby local and global spaces are interconnected.

Progressively, we will see that HEIs will include terms associated with the SDGs and the development agenda to 2030 into their strategic plans. The SDGs will feature alongside an array of terms to denote ‘impact’, ‘transformation’, and many other relevant terms.

Limited Visibility of Higher Education in SDG Targets

Higher education as a system and as an institution has a limited visibility in the goals and measurement. Higher education and universities are called out directly in only two instances out of 169 targets.

The first instance is target 4.3 of SDG 4, which is about ensuring equal access for all women and men to quality and affordable technical, vocational, and tertiary education, including university.

The second instance refers to target 4.b of SDG 4, which deals with the number of scholarships available to developing countries for HE enrolment in specific fields within developed and other developing countries.

Both targets are problematic in that they continue to reinforce expansion of national systems without consideration on the overall quality of education and institutions. To be effective, these targets would need to address the need to support capacity-building in countries where the higher education systems are yet to have robust quality assurance and monitoring processes in place. These are required to assess the overall quality of education of their HEIs.

Role of Higher Education in Other SDGs

There are about 60 instances (i.e., targets) across other SDGs in which HEIs play a pivotal role and are a synergy between regional development and achievement of those goals.

In 35 out of the 60 instances, capacity-building is the main tenet for higher education in supporting governments and all stakeholders in achieving the SDG targets. This is particularly relevant for the development of HEIs in Africa and Latin America, two regions where inequalities remain high compared to others, and the effects of COVID-19 are likely to be long lasting.

Another critical dimension for higher education in supporting the SDGs is through knowledge transfer, knowledge transformation, and knowledge translation. These efforts are particularly relevant to SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure) and given the regional asymmetries and lack of access to resources, including access to the latest technological developments in many world regions.

The ongoing engagement of HEIs across world regions with market forces, the state, and civil society (e.g., NGOs) will harness efforts to find solutions to many of those long-lasting problems such as ending epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases, and other communicable diseases.

Not All SDGs Are Viewed Equally

The 17 SDGs are not all viewed equally across countries and world regions. This is reflected in the way countries report their progress in achieving the SDGs through the voluntary national reviews and the focus to the SDGs varies over time.

What is seen across countries and world regions can be seen across HEIs.

Higher education supports fulfilment of the SDGs, particularly in the domain of capacity building, but there are some SDGs which stand out for HEIs. For example, HEIs play a key role in 11 out the 19 targets in SDG 17 (Partnership for the Goals). This SDG is all about cross sector and cross-country collaboration in the pursuit of all goals. SDG 17 contains a call out for developed countries to play a transformative role in supporting capacity building in developing countries, improving access to science, technology, and innovation on mutually agreed terms.

Also, HEIs play a key role in four out of the 12 targets in SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) through capacity-building. This SDG is all about promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels of society. By improving educational opportunities and attainment levels as well as higher employment rates we reduce possibilities of conflict. Life-long learning can be a vehicle to harness political and social harmony, as well as to minimise populism and mistrust in institutions. There is a need for HEIs to incorporate in their annual report their advocacy role in working with governments, civil society, and market forces to eliminate corruption in all its forms, and to strengthen the rule of law in the jurisdictions in which HEIs serve and operate.

Capacity-building efforts of HEIs are spread across 10 SDGs, of which two have been mentioned above. The higher education footprint is in every SDG, e.g., higher education plays a key part in reducing inequalities (SDG 10), reducing poverty (SDG 1) and achieving gender equality (SDG 5).

For many years, HEIs have given priorities to reducing their carbon footprint (SDG 13), having policies addressing respect of human and labour rights and discrimination (SDG 8), and working with local governments for sustainable practices in cities (SDG 11), amongst many actions.

Measurement of research outputs and impacts are perhaps the most developed metrics for all HEIs. This is because these outputs can be categorised by using key word phrases to one of the SDGs. Metrics on operations and institutional stewardship are relatively well developed across many HEIs institutions and national systems, whilst measurement on community engagement or third mission activities tend to be varied and disperse.

The 17 SDGs are not all viewed equally across countries and world regions.

There is so much yet to be done in terms of mapping, learning and teaching activities, and ascertaining what kind of institutional metrics can best address any of the 169 SDG targets or to any of the 231 SDG indicators. HEIs need to detail more about their partnerships (SDG 17) and ethical advocacy for improved governance, transparency, and accountability at all levels of society (SDG 16).

Key Challenges and Road Ahead

Every HEI across the globe is likely to be engaged with the SDGs but the degree of engagement will likely vary considerably. In part, it is influenced by institutional leadership, institutional resourcing, student activism, and even social and political imperatives, which are likely to play a part in how institutions embark on the SDG journey.

HEIs need to identify which SDGs are most pertinent to them in terms of targets and indicators, recognising there are differences across countries and world regions.

There are many challenges, but a key one for HEIs is knowing depth and breadth of activity, including institutional expertise, related to every SDG. Let us briefly consider some possibilities and a way forward.

Firstly, HEIs are increasingly aligning their strategy to the SDGs, including the use of the SDG taxonomy for measuring social and environmental impact. In doing so, HEIs need to identify which SDGs are most pertinent to them in terms of targets and indicators, recognising there are differences across countries and world regions.

Secondly, HEIs are urged to look inwards and outwards so that they can map out areas of relative strength and weakness and forge a way forward. This process may involve assessing the extent to which efforts and activities across all SDGs are identified and able to be documented, and be part of a materiality assessment, sustainability, or SDGs impact report.

Thirdly, HEIs have to identify, monitor and evaluate metrics that in a very concise and clear way demonstrate their progress or regress in achieving their SDGs impact and the additional financial resources allocated to these tasks.

Fourthly, critical to the success of implementing the SDGs is working in partnership with stakeholders (both internal and external). It is also useful to consider the extent to which HEIs are part of networks, alliances, or consortia. In doing so, we can establish mechanisms by which HEIs can harness joint efforts to tackle some of the common challenges. A key emphasis of successful implementation of the SDGs is working in partnerships and breaking institutional and geographical boundaries.

Fifthly, the global SDGs indicators undergo annual refinement, and a comprehensive review is due in 2025. HEIs leaders and institutional planners are urged to consider the best way that they can utilise the SDG indicators and HEIs own identified ones and the tier classification in their performance measurement regime. This includes selecting benchmark institutions so they can fully ascertain institutional progress towards achievement of the SDGs and fulfilment of their own strategy. HEIs leaders are also urged to take an active role through their institutional networks in the refinement of the global SDG indicator framework. University leaders should strive to have a seat at the table of the UN statistical commission as part of the expert group in refining and reviewing the global indicator framework.


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sustainable development goals strategy capacity-building performance measurement third mission research learning and teaching

About the author

Angel Calderon
Principal Advisor, Planning and Research, RMIT University (Australia)

Angel Calderon is co-editor of a book on institutional research and planning in higher education, published by Routledge. He has also co-authored another two volumes on higher education. His research interests include higher education policy, international education, impacts of trade liberalization on educational services, global megatrends, benchmarking and university rankings.

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