Newcastle University

Written by Philip McGowan, Pablo Charro de la Fuente, Naomi Oosman-Watts and Tracy Scurry

Universities have a critical role in shaping and responding to the needs of society and Newcastle University has a long tradition of tackling societal challenges locally, nationally and globally. The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals at its heart, provides a unifying global agenda that seeks to transform our world, and this features prominently in our Vision and Strategy. Universities can be agents for powerful change towards achieving these ambitious goals, through our research, our curricula, through empowering and energising graduates, and through our wise and innovative management and working practices. 

The university has established an SDG Committee that reports directly to the University Executive Board, to bring coherence and structure to our response to the SDG agenda. It seeks to harness the considerable interest in the Goals that already exists across the university and to identify and create new opportunities and enhance our ability to pursue them. For learning and teaching, we have set ourselves the challenge of “embedding awareness and understanding of the SDGs in the student experience by developing a curricular and extracurricular offer that addresses the SDGs and explores the Agenda’s underlying principles of indivisibility, universality and of leaving no one behind.” 

Newcastle University is committed to equipping our students to be socially responsible, future focussed, and globally and culturally aware individuals. Many programmes across the University already prompt our students to consider critically the global challenges that we face and reflect on how we can achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. There are many instances across disciplines that rely not just on the programme content but also the style of delivery. For example, a key feature of the undergraduate law programme links students to the department’s pro bono work supporting local community organisations, giving students a deep understanding of issues relating to the legal system, children’s rights, and the law. This exposes students to social responsibility and the need to support disadvantage communities (Goal 10). In contrast our first biology undergraduates are introduced to the SDGs, and choose one of the targets contained with Goal 15 (Life on Land) and assess what it would take to achieve the target, and the impacts of achieving it, and whether or not there are ethical considerations. This is underpinned by the implementation of the newly designed Newcastle Graduate Framework that facilitates a programme level consideration of how these skills and attributes are delivered. 

Building on these existing strengths, our next steps are to explore how we can best embed understanding of the SDGs, their context and principles across the Newcastle University student experience for all students. This will allow us to embrace the potential for the SDGs to provide a rich, challenge-led approach that equips students for the future. This is not without challenge, and as part of this process we have explored practices and approaches across the sector. Reflecting our commitment to work with and learn from others, this work will be used as the basis for stimulating discussion about what approaches might be appropriate in the context of Newcastle University.

Our initial conclusions are that there is a great diversity of approaches within the sector. At one end of the spectrum, resources are provided centrally, and academic units are encouraged to use these to embed the SDGs into the curriculum, making them more explicit to students. This ‘opt in’ process is incremental and to a certain extent relies on academic units being actively engaged. At the other extreme, institutions (or academic units) seek to redesign aspects of curricula to specifically consider the intersection between the degree discipline and the SDGs, in a ‘review and embed’ approach. There are models in between, such as ‘bolt-on’ where modules focusing on the SDGs are added on to existing courses. 

Our next steps are to work across the university to establish how best to further embed the SDGs in all their aspects, into our student experience. It is critical that we work in partnership with our students and Newcastle University Students’ Union (NUSU) to develop our work around the SDGs. The NUSU supports many campaigns and student groups concerned with all aspects of sustainable development and understands that this is a clear priority for students. A study by the National Union of Students (UK) shows clearly that the great majority of students want their institutions to be doing more on sustainable development and are keen to learn more about sustainability issues. 

The NUSU sees the SDGs as a strategic priority for the University and will be co-leading efforts to embed the Goals into the student experience. This perspective is critical because our students believe that they should complete their education with knowledge and skills required to address sustainability challenges. Working together will enhance our ability to develop appropriate within- and cross-disciplinary educational content that embraces the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and includes extra-curricular activities, initiatives and events that expand the student skills across this area. By doing so, we also aim to enhance the career prospects of the students and promote sustainable development career destinations.


Prof Philip McGowan and Naomi Oosman-Watts will be speaking at our Live Event - 'From Global Goals to Global Learning' - on 25 June 2020, at 9am British Summer Time.

Register for this Live Event by visiting the event page

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