Emerging Economies Summit: Universities urged to focus on Sustainable Development Goals

Institutions in developing world told to take lead on tackling major global challenges

January 16, 2019
Source: Getty
Common concerns: the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals include eradicating poverty and hunger

Universities have been urged to put sustainable development at the heart of their institutional strategies.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s Emerging Economies Summit, Phil Cotton, vice-chancellor of the University of Rwanda, said that the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations should be “fundamentally important” to institutional cultures.

The 17 goals, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, include ensuring equal access to higher education for men and women by 2030, and a major increase in the number of scholarships available to students in the developing world. They also cover issues ranging from eradicating global poverty and hunger to providing access to clean water and sanitation.

Professor Cotton said that his institution had a “shared narrative” with the Rwandan government around focusing on human capital, health and young people, as outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals.

“We can’t afford to ignore them, because they are fundamental to the human rights that underpin the development of our young people,” said Professor Cotton, who is also a professor of learning and teaching in the University of Glasgow’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing.

The debate, held at Qatar University, came as THE develops a ranking based on institutions’ performance in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals.

Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of the International Association of Universities, argued that focusing on the goals could bring wide-ranging benefits for institutions.

“We want to do things that are also meaningful to our students as well, and they want to know that their choice of university is making a difference,” she said.

Joanna Newman, chief executive of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, argued that the Sustainable Development Goals could be a “useful tool” for universities, highlighting that, while universities had for decades been working on the issues they focused on, it was helpful to have a “common language”.

“They are a way of reaching out to students and staff and inspiring them,” Dr Newman said of the goals. She said that the problem was that universities had often been poor at communicating how much effort they were already putting into the sustainability agenda, and in a society in which the value of higher education was often questioned, they had to get better at it.

Ernest Aryeetey, secretary general of the African Research Universities Alliance, said that helping to translate new knowledge and evidence into policy for national governments should be a key priority for universities if they wanted to address the Sustainable Development Goals.

Professor Aryeetey said that this was particularly the case in Africa, where tackling issues such as health, education and climate change was particularly important, but where most of the relevant research was done by academics in the US or the UK.

He said that if African universities, which have on-the-ground experience of the problems, do not “take the lead on providing evidence to their governments, the SDGs won’t be completed”.

It was important that local universities influenced what went into their national strategies, Professor Aryeetey added, because local context was vital to achieving the global goals.


The positive, long-term impact university research makes on society will be the central theme at the Times Higher Education Research Excellence Summit: Asia-Pacific at the University of New South Wales from 19-21 February.

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