G20 nations are underutilising universities to tackle SDGs

THE report shows that higher education institutions have made huge strides in measuring their progress, but governments can make more of academic expertise

August 23, 2023
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The G20, or rather its constituent members, has a great deal of responsibility when it comes to enacting the United Nations’ Agenda 2030. Not only are these the biggest economies, responsible for the lion’s share of current carbon emissions, but they also are the countries with the greatest resources available to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

A key part of any approach must include higher education. Higher education is in a unique position to support government action across all 17 SDGs. Higher education will research relevant policies and technologies; it will lead local communities; it will preserve its own resources; and – of course – it will educate the next generation of leaders.

Today Times Higher Education is launching a report that focuses on the progress that has been made by universities in the G20 nations, and highlights three key opportunities that need to be taken next. Overall, the report concludes that governments in the G20 are underutilising higher education institutions, whose role extends far beyond contributing to just SDG 4 (quality education).

The data underlying the report have come from the THE Impact Rankings. These rankings cover each of the SDGs, and are free for universities to participate in. They contain data from more than 1,705 institutions, of which 749 are in G20 countries (excluding those institutions whose membership of the G20 comes exclusively from membership of the European Union).

The three areas of progress are:

  • measurement
  • engagement
  • impact

The three clear opportunities are:

  • building more relevant research bases
  • identifying appropriate cooperation
  • developing stronger government and higher education linkages

Each of these is worth more exploration and discussion, but in this blog I would like to dig a little deeper into the nature of measurement – why it’s important, and what progress we are seeing.

If we are to implement the SDGs, we need to know both where we are and how we are doing. This is recognised within Agenda 2030, where member states are reminded to “conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, which are country-led and country-driven”.

Universities can also consider the voluntary review (VR) approach to measurement. It has many things to recommend it, not least a detailed and deep review based on your own measures and focuses.

VRs are, however, time-consuming and resource-intensive things to undertake. It’s great to see that a few universities have concluded these reviews – and undoubtedly more should – but by themselves they aren’t going to be the solution.

It’s here that the Impact Rankings play their part (alongside other rankings and ratings such as the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s STARS). Since we launched the rankings in 2019, we have seen participation grow from 541 to 1,705 institutions. We will shortly start collecting data for next year’s rankings, and hope to grow further.

The Impact Rankings are by no means perfect. They aren’t as able as I would like to measure outcomes. This is a notoriously difficult challenge, and one that I am working on with a subgroup from the UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (Hesi). Outcomes are important as they help us to understand the impact that our efforts are having.

Without the ability to measure impact outcomes (and ideally, differential impact), we can’t be sure that our work is doing what we hope. This was also touched on in earlier work by the Rankings, Ratings and Assessments group at Hesi.

But what we can see, already, from the Impact Rankings, is a willingness to measure within the sector – something that can be developed further in time in order to bring in additional key aspects such as teaching and learning (for example, the excellent work done by Sulitest and its TASK programme).

We have grown the Impact Rankings vastly since we first introduced them in 2019. With your help, we will see them grow even further next year, as more universities take that critical step of self-understanding and measuring their impact.

Duncan Ross is chief data officer at Times Higher Education.

Read our report Higher Education’s Role in Advancing the SDGs in the G20: Progress and Opportunities

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