Sustainable Development Goals: a role for higher education?

2015 marked the start of another journey of setting global benchmarks for human progress.  The 17 goals and 169 targets that now make up the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals build on the goals of their predecessors the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) giving countries a projected development trajectory on issues such as poverty alleviation, gender equality, environmental protection and health improvements.

National funding priorities were based on the delivery of the MDGs and with no mention of a goal for higher education, many in the sector felt that this would put the sector at a disadvantage when it came to setting national funding priorities. Advocates hoped the SDGs would provide an opportunity for put higher education to be seen as fundamental.

On the other side of the debate, the Association of Commonwealth Universities’ campaign ‘The world beyond 2015; is higher education ready?’ discussed how universities could and should contribute to the delivery of the new SDGs. The strongest of the campaign’s conclusions addressed how university research in developmentally strategic areas can inform good policy as well as how access to quality higher education systems underpins national economic growth.


In addition to this, it is important that universities see the SDGs as an opportunity to better their overall systems to support the delivery of this next stage of human development. How can universities support the SDGs if they themselves aren’t thinking about the changing nature of higher education?  

The SGDs focus on tangible impacts and have been called the “Universal declaration of human rights in the age of metrics and data” by the Centre for Global Development.  Who is better placed than universities to deliver and drive something that requires measuring outcomes?

Strengthening research

So how can universities use the SDGs to support the delivery as well as develop and grow within themselves? Firstly, universities need to look at the systems that support research in their institutions. Universities have to improve the way research is conducted as well as managed. How are systems within institutions structured around data collection, methodologies, collaborations and funding? What support is given to early career researchers to ensure they understand what it takes to be a globally recognised? Further to this, it is essential that more training is provided to communicating research to a non-scientific, more general audience (including for funding opportunities) as well as conveying complex ideas in a way that can be easily understood. 

The SDGs have also provided a platform to showcase local, regional and national research on a wider scale. The Goals and Targets provide universities with a greater opportunity to engage in community-based research; gaining traction and visibility for small scale research. Universities need to actively engage more with their communities and show they are still a key instrument in delivering on the social agenda.

Collaboration within and without

The interconnected nature of the SDGs present universities with the opportunity to be more deliberate in integrated teaching and learning areas that address the global challenges. All universities should be committed to delivering curriculum that critically evaluates their disciplines contribution in delivering the SDGs as well as create curricula that encourages cross-collaborative efforts; more reflective of problem solving challenges in the real world. As Sir David King, former UK government advisor on climate change once said, “We can’t solve tomorrows challenges with the same thinking that got us into this mess in the first place”.

Not only is it important for universities to work collaboratively internally, universities need to strengthen their organisational effectiveness by encouraging more effective external partnerships. More than just providing evidence to support the goals, universities need to be committed to creating equal partnerships with civil society and business and push for sustainable economic policies which support university research and the knowledge it generates to better inform and support public policy and practice. In an era of growing internationalisation, there is a greater need to increase research collaboration, not only north/south, but also south/south and inter-regional engagement. 

Building a skilled workforce

Lastly, universities play a vital role in building the skilled workforce of the future, inspiring the next generation of job creators through entrepreneurship as well as creating global citizens and change makers. Employers and investors are looking for graduates with analytical skills, integrated capabilities, social responsibility and values. Universities are only one of a handful of places where multi-disciplinary exchange of ideas can coalesce in a safe space and learning together is encouraged and celebrated. Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai states that university graduates’ “future employability requires that they have skills that are appropriate to market contexts and can be seen to be addressing developmental challenges.” Universities must promote positive, engaged citizenship amongst their students to make them better entrepreneurs, leaders and global citizens.

The future success of higher education relies on commitment and investment. What is needed is a dedicated focus from national ministries and governments to strengthen higher education systems – as well as championing the developmental role of higher education with donors and partners –  as an essential strategic component to meeting targets across the SDG framework.

The SDGs not only provide an opportunity for universities to engage in world changing research, but they also offer the opportunity for reflection on the future of higher education institutions. Why do the goals matter for higher education? They provide opportunity for institutions to better their research infrastructures, provide direction and the potential for international exposure to local, regional and national research, can create curricula aimed at tackling global issues, allow universities to create effective partnerships, and shape the next generation of problem solvers, knowledge creators and leaders.

The global adaptation of the SDGs not just away for the sector to contribute to the grand scheme of human development, but more importantly for it to be used as a catalyst for change from within. It is only then that there will be great progress for these goals and society.