Why should universities pay attention to the SDGs?

The United Nations’ goals provide a useful framework for institutions to demonstrate their impact and work in partnership – activities that are increasingly important in the age of Covid-19, says Duncan Ivison

April 21, 2020
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How can universities contribute to the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? This is a good question, but an even more important one underlying it is: why should universities do so?

I believe the increased focus on the SDGs – including the new Impact Rankings developed by Times Higher Education – is a sign of deeper changes occurring across the higher education sector worldwide. And it involves a confluence of factors that are worth disentangling and paying attention to.

First of all, there is now a remarkable global consensus on the importance of the 17 domains identified by the SDGs and the challenges we face in ensuring the well-being of our people and our planet. The framework provides a way for governments, industry, civil society and universities to consider how they can contribute to addressing these global challenges. At their best, the SDGs provide focus and purpose for institutions in pursuit of global justice.

However, we shouldn’t be complacent about what this consensus amounts to. Talk is cheap. Many of the challenges underlying reducing global poverty or tackling global warming, for example, involve deep disagreements and conflicts between powerful sectors of the global economy. According to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, our region is going backwards in relation to some of the most important SDGs – including improving clean water and sanitation and responsible consumption and production – and has stalled on many others.

But the SDGs provide a global language for political action and policy reform. Universities can and need to contribute to these discussions. We are inherently local and yet at the same time globally oriented institutions. Our students and staff come from around the world. Our researchers work in multinational teams and the research they do cuts across national boundaries. We should be helping shape this language, as well as critiquing it, and developing new ways of understanding the goals and the best way to measure them.

Duncan Ivison on the THE Impact Rankings 2020 

Second, research-intensive universities like mine are increasingly expected to demonstrate how our research (and education) is contributing to solving some of the most pressing challenges we face today. In Australia, a horrific bushfire season and now the Covid-19 crisis has made this abundantly clear. At some of the most difficult moments in these crises, university researchers have been the ones providing expert advice to government officials, offering potential solutions, helping the media explain the complexity of the events occurring, and engaging the general public around the deep scientific, legal, political and cultural dimensions of the issues at play.

The public communities we serve expect great universities to do this. It’s a difficult challenge. Funding for public universities is in decline, even as the expectations and demands placed on us increase. The SDG framework, however, makes vivid the kind of contribution that universities can make, especially when we work together and with other partners, both locally and globally. The value of global collaboration is a difficult sell in a world in which politics is dominated by fear and a rush to close our borders. But if the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t solve our greatest challenges without new modes of cross-national collaboration and coordination. The vaccine that will eventually protect us against Covid-19 will emerge as a result of this kind of collaboration, not a denial of it. Universities can be exemplars of this spirit and approach.

Finally, the SDG framework can help governments, industry and the general public understand the impact of our research and teaching. Measuring impact is now a ubiquitous feature of higher education assessment regimes around the world. It is an inherently difficult thing to capture. And we should be wary of the potential downsides of a too narrow focus on impact – especially if that means less support for basic, discovery-oriented research which produces the kind of deep, transformative outcomes that have the greatest impact in the long term.

But the focus provided by the SDGs, as well as the targets that accompany them, offers a useful set of benchmarks against which universities can measure themselves. There are limits to what universities can do and the SDGs don’t capture everything about the impact of our research. But they provide a framework that the global community values, and that many of our staff, students and alumni also value.

Even more importantly, the SDGs promote a culture of co-design and collaboration between governments, industry, universities and civil society in tackling these challenges. They promote innovation, not for the sake of innovation itself, but for the public good.

Duncan Ivison is deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Sydney.

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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