Universities shift focus towards SDGs to prove societal value

But institutions warned against United Nations framework becoming a ‘tick-box exercise’

March 25, 2020
Source: Getty
The THE University Impact Rankings will measure universities’ contribution against all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for the first time this year

When world leaders adopted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a 2015 summit in New York, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai said that all the targets came down to just one thing: education.

Universities are now doing their best to bring the Nobel prizewinner’s vision to life.

Higher education institutions’ recent shift in focus towards the SDGs is evidenced by Times Higher Education data. More than 850 institutions from across the world have participated in the second THE University Impact Rankings, which will measure universities’ contribution against all 17 SDGs for the first time this year.

Last year’s ranking, which included metrics against 11 of the goals, received submissions from more than 500 universities.

Universities in Japan have once again been most engaged in the ranking, with 73 of the country’s institutions submitting data this year (up from 42 last year). Meanwhile, 53 Russian, 43 Turkish, 38 US and 35 UK universities have participated.

Overall, institutions across 89 countries/regions, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, have taken part, up from 75 last year.

Excluding the revitalising global partnerships goal (SDG 17), which is the only mandatory goal for inclusion in the overall ranking, SDG 4 on quality education has received the most submissions, with more than 670 universities providing data on metrics including their lifelong learning measures and their proportion of first-generation students.

Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at THE, said it has been “extraordinarily exciting to see so many universities across the world embracing new metrics to better identify their immense and multifaceted contributions to global sustainable development, [and] new data-driven strategies to help share and spread best practice across all the SDGs”.

“The evidence for this new focus is seen in the extraordinary way universities globally have embraced THE’s pioneering University Impact Rankings in such a short space of time, and also in the countless new stories and best practice case studies that are emerging,” he said.

“It is clear to us that many universities across the world are putting the global goals front and centre in their institutional strategies, and some are making planetary health their raison d’etre.”

Julian Skyrme, director of social responsibility at the University of Manchester, said that higher education institutions were “a little bit slower” to act on the SDGs than industry and governments but “what you’re seeing now is a tremendous outpouring of creativity and focus by universities in this area”.

He added that the SDGs have helped to “shift behaviours within universities” and acted “as a way of framing some of the things we already do and the benefits we have always brought for society”.

“The SDGs are a gift for universities. They help to make the case for the value that universities bring to society,” he said, adding that the goals provide “a common international language” that can be used across all sectors and countries.

Manchester has included social responsibility as part of its strategy for the past 10 years, but one of the key targets in its latest vision is “sustaining and creating more impact against the SDGs”, Dr Skyrme said.

Global entries to latest THE University Impact rankings

Global entries to latest THE University Impact rankings

The university is looking to explicitly flag which SDGs are related to each of its degree and research programmes so, for instance, prospective students can clearly see the connection when choosing a course. Meanwhile, last year, the institution developed an optional online module for students on the SDGs and published a report to explain how the university was tackling the goals, which was downloaded more than 6,000 times, making it its most popular ever corporate report.

David Farrar, president of Canada’s McMaster University, said that his institution has taken a “problem-based learning” approach to incorporating the SDGs into every aspect of the university.

“Our global health [degree] programme categorises its international activities according to the SDGs…We have a new innovation minor that’s inspired hundreds of student-led research projects focused on the SDGs,” he said, adding that the goals were “a driving force in my strategic planning”.

Martin Eriksson is an environmental sciences researcher at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology and network manager of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network Northern Europe, which has more than 50 member institutions across the Nordic region.

He said that a recent snapshot study of the network revealed that 11 out of 16 universities surveyed mentioned SDGs in their institutional strategy. The network has also seen an increase in the number of applications, he added.

“This is an indication that not only are they interested in aligning their strategies with the SDGs but they are also interested in networking and collaborating on these questions,” he said.

Dr Eriksson added that some of Sweden’s research funding bodies now ask academics to reference which SDGs their applied research will target as part of applications.

Another important driver is “interest and demand from students”, he said.

“There is increased pressure on universities and teachers to keep up to date with these things. Possibly this has to do with the effect of Greta Thunberg,” he said.

However, Dr Eriksson added that academics should be free to “critically evaluate” the SDGs, given that the UN’s Agenda 2030 was signed by 193 heads of state and is hence “a political framework”.

“Universities are important contributors to the implementation of the SDGs but they also have a long-term mission to generate and teach knowledge and should not be bound by politics. There are definitely people within universities that don’t have the same stance on this,” he said, adding that some academics may see the goals as a fad in comparison to the long-term mission of science.

Anne Devulder, vice-president of student life and social and environmental responsibility at Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris, which is the joint leader of a new SDSN in France, said that the institution has over 50 research units that are directly linked to the SDGs, while almost all of its laboratories are indirectly dedicated to “SDG subjects”.

The university is also set to launch a new bachelor’s degree in sustainability science in September.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented generational phenomenon with students. The students are really dynamic about the SDGs. They really want to learn about the SDGs and how to respond to the challenges of our society,” she said.

Jonathan Grant, vice-president (service) at King’s College London, said that the institution has not organised its strategy around the SDGs, but it does report against them as a way of demonstrating progress, partly prompted by the THE University Impact Rankings.

Professor Grant added that universities have “failed” to demonstrate their social purpose “for quite a long time now” but the SDGs could provide some institutions with “a useful framework” for improving in this area.

However, he said mandating that universities embrace the SDGs “would be a mistake”.

“We should welcome [the SDGs] and use them where appropriate. But at the same time, I don’t think that’s a substitute for really thinking about your vision and your strategy and delivering your social purpose as a university,” he said. “I [would] worry if it becomes a tick-box exercise.”


The 2020 THE University Impact Rankings will be launched at an online mini-summit on 22 April.


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Reader's comments (3)

Given the criticality of SDGs, universities in the top three positions for attaining SET goals should be appropriately rewarded. In addition a Nobl Prize should be created and awarded to the researcher who Dr work makes a significant contributing reducible of the following societal problems that have persisted for years across the world: poverty, unemployment, crime or inflation.
I am curious to see if Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge decided to participate this time. Since this is only the second edition, we can expect major shifts. Indeed, more universities submitted data this year, THE added news SDGs, and universities will likely submit data for more SDGs than they did in the first edition. Combined, these elements will reshuffle the cards. While this ranking is a great initiative, I have a concern about one methodological choice. For the final ranking, Times Higher Ed calculates a score for each university depending on four SDGs: SDG17 and the 3 SDGs where the university performs the best. This encourages universities to submit data for as many SDGs as possible in the hope that they will end up performing very well in at least some of them. I bet many universities will adopt this strategy, and it's all right if they do. Yet, THE's methodology means that a university that performs well in all 17SDGs—which is quite an achievement considering their broad diversity—will be outranked by another one that performs very well in 4SDGs. A bit unfair, isn't it? Universities submitting 17 SDGs deserve some form of recognition as well! I suggest THE prepares special side-ranking that would include only those universities who submitted data for all SDG.
I agree with Alexandremorinchasse. Since the concept of SDGS are becoming familiar with many HEIs. Some of the HEI have concentrated on few of the 17 SDGs while others concentrate on all the 17 SDGs. Accordingly the facts submitted can be evaluated Dr. Kantha D. Arunachalam