The SDGs have become a rallying point for students and staff

Universities’ reputations will increasingly be driven by their work related to sustainable development, says Stuart McCutcheon

April 20, 2020
Auckland Khartoum Place
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What do “Amnesty on Campus”, “Campus Feminist Collective”, “Engineers Without Borders”, “Equal Justice Project”, “Fairtrade Club”, “Plastic Diet”, “Social Innovation New Zealand”, “Students from Refugee Backgrounds” and “Sustainable Future Collective” have in common?

The answer is that they are all among the 200 student clubs currently operating on the University of Auckland campus. (“Plastic Diet” is, just to be clear, dedicated to cutting out single-use plastics). With a focus on addressing social and environmental issues for the common good, they are strikingly different to the sporting and cultural clubs that predominated when I was a student (although we have those clubs as well, of course). So too our university Blues Awards, which has traditionally been a sporting accolade but now also includes categories on service and leadership, arts and cultural and innovation.

These changes reflect a very strong commitment to the idea of public service among our students, and the staff who teach and support them, a commitment that was also evident in the 1970s and 1980s, in the wake of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, but perhaps less apparent in the period around the global financial crisis.

It is therefore unsurprising that the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become something of a rallying point for our students and many of our staff. The announcement that we had been ranked number one in the world in the inaugural THE Impact Rankings last year was greeted with enthusiasm by members of our community, despite them being somewhat jaded by exposure to endless rankings results.

Being number one was important, but more important was the fact that our contributions were so valued in relation to the SDGs. The areas in which we are most highly ranked – good health and well-being (SDG 3), partnerships for the goals (SDG 17), gender equality (SDG 5), and peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG 16) – were of particular significance to our people because they are issues that appeal to New Zealand values of cooperation and a fair deal for all.

Given the positive reaction of our own people, and the idealism of the mostly young students who study with us, it seems to me that universities’ impact in the context of the SDGs will become increasingly important to institutional reputations.

The concept of “impact” is, of course, nothing new, having been a feature of many discussions about the benefits of investment in research – although it is famously difficult to measure. What the 17 SDGs do is provide a framework for consideration of impact, not only in research but in teaching and community service.

While each university will make its contributions to the SDGs in a manner specific to its own location and strengths, all have the opportunity to contribute in some way. The framework provided by the SDGs supports collaboration between like-minded academics and within international university networks that organise joint research ventures, many of which are also aligned to the objectives of the SDGs. These strategic partnerships also help to promote relationships and reputations.

But, ultimately, this is about more than just rankings; it speaks to the role and reputation of a relevant, responsible and globally aware university playing its part in forging a more sustainable path for the planet and for humanity.

To this ideal, the commitment of our students and staff is unwavering. As a result, even the act of preparing our submissions to the 2020 assessment – of gathering stories from across the university of how our people are contributing to a better planet and better lives – was a hugely positive experience.

Stuart McCutcheon was vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland until March 2020.

The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2020 will be published on 22 April at midday BST. Register to attend our virtual THE Innovation and Impact Summit on 22 April here.

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