| 6 minute read

The role of universities in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals

Elena Galán-Muros
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We have invited Victoria Galan-Muros, Chief of Research and Analysis at the UNESCO International Institute of Higher Education, to delve into the crucial role universities play in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Join us as we explore the challenges universities face when integrating sustainability into their curricula, research, and operations, and discover practical steps than can help you overcome them.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Balzhan Orazbayeva:
What has motivated UNESCO to place such a strong emphasis on sustainable development within higher education institutions (HEIs)?

Victoria Galan-Muros:
Just to give you a quick background, we are the only institute in the United Nations which with the mandate to improve higher education systems in all member states. The institute was established 25 years ago and, as a UN agency, at UNESCO we have the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as our overarching framework and guide.

At the UNESCO level, we are all encouraged to investigate how does education and culture contribute to the SDGs globally, and then we specifically research how does higher education contribute to the SDGs.

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
How do you perceive the role of higher education institutions in advancing the sustainable development goals? Does UNESCO have a specific vision for that as well?

Victoria Galan-Muros:
The short answer is that without universities, we’re not going to achieve the SDGs. The 17 SDGs and the 169 targets revolve, in very general terms around social, environmental and economic issues or, as we say, people, prosperity and planet. They are not perfect, they are overly ambitious, but they are a global commitment to save us from ourselves.

And we are halfway and we already know that we will not achieve most of them, but it doesn’t mean that we should stop working towards them. In this context, universities host the best educated people in society, the best talent, the majority and often the most cutting edge research and usually the most disruptive innovation is also at universities. This is exactly what we need to face all the current and future global challenges in a sustainable way.

Universities not only have to be there and be players, they actually should lead and be engines for a more sustainable future.

Universities have a potential to do this that you are not going to find in any other organisation. Maybe because of this, it should be coupled with a responsibility to action. We always say that it should be part of the university’s social responsibility.

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
What are some of the major challenges that universities face when trying to implement SDGs? And how do they usually try to overcome them?

Victoria Galan-Muros:
One of the major challenges that universities face is when they try to implement the SDGs in their institutions. A lot of university leaders wouldn’t know how to do it. It’s a new process how to transition to be more sustainable institutions, and here I have to call some general guidelines for HEI leaders that I drafted last year to systematise their contribution to the SDGs.

I divided this process into 11 different steps and considered high level actions. It is a short document to lead the change in each of them, so they can hopefully systematise their approach to the SDGs and transform, which we are finding is one of the trickiest things.

To quickly summarise it, there are 11 stages:

  • Stage 0: Conceptual alignment and rationale – Finding a common understanding among all the stakeholders of concepts such as sustainability or sustainable development.
  • Stage 1: Awareness raising – The university community need to know the reason why they need to make a transition to a more sustainable university and how this will affect each of them.
  • Stage 2: Leadership commitment – Ensuring the willingness, responsibility, intention and the dedication of resources to become a more sustainable HEI.
  • Stage 3: Stakeholder engagement – Engage key stakeholders, both internal and external, and make sure they feel ownership of the process.
  • Stage 4: Strategy design and draft – Creating a public, institution-wide strategy document, which should be co-designed and agreed to set the goals and to guide the whole process.
  • Stage 5: Knowledge provision – Making sure that the university community knows what to expect during and after the sustainability transition.
  • Stage 6: Current initiatives mapping – Clear understanding of what the university is currently doing that contributes to the SDGs.
  • Stage 7: Future initiatives prioritisation – Based on the previous stage, identify and prioritise sustainability-related activities that are not currently in place, but would like to do in the future.
  • Stage 8: Resources provision – Ensure the physical, human and financial resources needed to undertake those initiatives.
  • Stage 9: Implementation – Define and implement a set of concrete and actionable projects coordinated across the organisation.
  • Stage 10: Long-term sustainability – Make sure that the initiatives are sustainable in the long term.

The document is brief, but more details on how this can be done are detailed there, and hopefully this helps with the main challenge that we have seen in HEI’s, which is the implementation and the integration of these projects in a systematic and institution-wide way.

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
How can research and education within the universities serve as catalysts for policy innovation in this realm of sustainability?

Victoria Galan-Muros:
We have traditionally struggled to get research and education outputs or results to policymakers.

As much as we all would love to say that all policy is evidence-based and that universities have a very important role in shaping policymaking, it’s actually not that common.

But currently, universities are having more programs on sustainability, so eventually there are going to be more civil servants that are going to be specialised in sustainability or with sustainability skills if they have taken these additional courses.

Some HEIs are also influencing governments through capacity building of civil servants as a lifelong learning activity. Universities are offering governments courses on sustainability for policymakers or for civil servants, and they are partnering with governments as well for consultancies in sustainability-related topics.

Some universities are becoming very good at monitoring relevant social and environmental indicators related with the SDGs and offering this knowledge to governments so they can use it to make policies.

 We are seeing some joint innovation centers or hubs in sustainability topics between governments and universities, and the research community is starting to sit in advisory boards for sustainability within governments in a more official way. There are chief scientists in some countries, like Australia and the UK, that are helping translate research findings into policy actions or implications.

These activities would be easier if they were not just one-off transactions, but more strategic and permanent relationships between universities and policymakers, because the trust and the commitment that would happen in that relationship would greatly facilitate this influence.

Ready for more?

Visit our collection Uniting for sustainability: Five reads on higher education’s role in tackling the climate crisis to learn more about how universities and other HEIs can create a more sustainable future.

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