Student reflecting

Mat Wright

Written by Lauren Rickards and Wendy Steele, Associate Professors at RMIT University in Australia


What is the relationship between universities and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): the transformational vision of environmental sustainability, social justice and prosperity laid out by the United Nations? 

Universities have an opportunity to demonstrate significant leadership in achieving the SDGs through research, engagement, learning and teaching and their business decisions. But the SDGs also demand many things from higher education. Not just new content, but new structures, processes and ethos. 

As an integrative, transformational agenda, the SDGs demand approaches that work across boundaries, and that connect efforts across different issues to identify synergies and tensions. For this reason, the SDG agenda is not just one among many areas within a university, it is a framework and context that demands a new way of working. Furthermore, they require universities to address existing ambiguities and paradoxes.

In the following sections we first outline universities as places of paradox, before turning to consider three key elements of the SDG agenda and what this means for learning and teaching.

The university as a place of paradox

Like the UN, the university is characterised by tensions and inconsistencies. In particular, the university is a place of conservative and transformational tendencies. There are at least three common manifestations of this tension.

  1. Tradition and radical change - As institutions, universities and associated groups such as academic disciplines can be deeply resistant to change, which is one reason they have been both relatively immune to disruption over the centuries, and repeatedly targeted for ‘makeovers’ by private sector interests. At the same time the Academy and higher education more broadly is founded on a commitment to intellectual freedom and critique, a generator of novelty and innovation, and an enabler (if not always site) of profound social change.
  2. Wealth and financial precarity - Universities have the ability to generate and concentrate both great wealth and great financial precarity. As Covid-19 and the related economic crisis have exposed starkly, some institutions, disciplinary areas and staff are disproportionately wealthy and secure, while for others (notably casualised staff, many students) financial and career precarity has become thoroughly entrenched.
  3. Inclusion and exclusion - As institutions committed to the value of ideas and knowledge as a common good, universities espouse and facilitate democracy and openness. Their relative independence means many universities can actively embed inclusive and democractic practices and try to promote them in wider society by helping ensure citizens are informed. Yet universities also have the capacity to exclude, exploit, and entrench concentrations of power and privilege. Whether manifest in decisions about access, or about which voices are privileged in curricula, partnerships and university decision-making, universities can be welcoming and open-minded or hostile and oligarchic.

These and other paradoxes mean that when it comes to the SDGs, universities are not just enablers of change but targets of change. 

Universities’ two-sided relationship to the SDGs is especially apparent in the learning and teaching area. A growing number of universities are now working to embed the SDGs as part of a broader transformation agenda into their strategic plans, curriculum, pedagogy, student experiences and graduate attributes. Some universities are focusing on a small subset of the SDGs, whilst others are taking them as a whole and considering their higher order objectives. Here, we take the latter approach, focusing on social justice and environmental sustainability and how they intersect with the three paradoxes outlined above. 

More emphasis on social justice and sustainability

Heeding the SDG Agenda’s call for a more socially just and sustainable world requires more than adding in a bit of teaching on the topic. While the importance of new courses or degrees should not be under-estimated (e.g. postgraduate degrees on climate change), the SDGs prompt us to look across university learning and teaching and better address the sort of inequities mentioned above. This includes the question of what issues and perspectives and whose voices are included in curricula, how and why. All disciplines need to think carefully about how they engage with climate change, for example, and what they implicitly if not explicitly communicate to students about it.

The TIMES Higher Education Impact Index evaluates universities’ progress in helping achieve the SDGs. While its metrics are imperfect, it helpfully makes clear that universities need to walk the talk as well as lecture on it.  As a social phenomenon, it is itself an index of wider concerns about who can access university courses, how university credentials help distribute social advantage, what professions and occupations are encouraged over others, and who is given or left with teaching roles in universities, how, and to what effect.

The SDGs are also a reminder that the way we teach is as important as what we teach. Above and beyond the specific places in the SDG agenda where education is explicitly discussed, the agenda makes clear that achieving SDGs such as gender equity, climate change mitigation, and innovation require universities to reflect on the limitations of some of their traditions and structures and to revitalise their role in generating transformational social change.

Vasiliki Kioupi and Nikolaos Voulvoulis argue that more than prescribing a specific pedagogy, the systemic, critical character of the SDGs requires: stakeholders and learners [to] work together to construct a common vision of sustainability, identify the competences needed, and develop appropriate pedagogies and learning strategies.

Kioupi, V.; Voulvoulis, N. Education for Sustainable Development: A Systemic Framework for Connecting the SDGs to Educational Outcomes. Sustainability 2019, 11, 6104.

In trying to shape general student experiences in positive ways, a growing number of universities are engaging with the SDGs, whether through opportunities such as work placements that allow students to do SDG based policy work, for example, or as part of broader public engagement activities, including online ones. The influence of isolated, deliberate SDG-oriented initiatives on students needs to be understood in the context of non-SDG-oriented influences. Many students are alert and sensitive to hypocrisies.

The student-led movement for university fossil fuel divestment for example demonstrates an awareness of not only the enormous financial wealth that some universities have, but of the impact that wealth has in the world, for better or worse. Given the intelligence and passion of students and staff, some universities are more fully involving students in not just one-off sustainability events but, in the sustained, transparent and genuine institutional effort to reduce environmental impacts that are needed.

So to help HE T&L become more just and sustainable, what is needed? 

At RMIT, a growing number of us are exploring these issues. As part of this, we took inspiration from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Getting Started with the SDGs in Universities guide, to produce a white paper on how the university could engage with the SDG agenda across its portfolios of learning and teaching, research, engagement, and governance and property services.

Our conclusion is that two main things are needed: 1) deep institutional commitment (including leadership); and 2) a bold and ethical innovation culture (including encouragement to be creative). Our subsequent exploration in this space has only reinforced our conviction that these two pillars are essential if universities are to avoid engaging with the SDGs in a superficial and/or patriarchal way.

Universities can be deeply committed to SDG engagement across the institution, but still not do much differently, other than re-shape existing processes and practices in key areas such as research and learning and teaching. An ethics-based approach to innovation is courageous, imaginative and intelligent enough to not just change product specifications, but systems, goals and paradigms - including the innovation culture itself - so that societal needs and goals are more effectively met.

Notably, this includes shifting the focus as a sector from competition to collaboration through partnerships and networks such as the ACU and groups such as the British Council.

Overall, for universities to perform their unique function as enablers of change, they need to simultaneously embrace their role as targets for and sources of positive change, and work harder to role model the sort of approaches and impacts they want to engender in students and others.


Professors Rickards and Steele spoke at our Live Event - 'From Global Goals to Global Learning' - on 25 June 2020, at 9am British Summer Time.

You can view the recording of this event here.

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