Davos Agenda

Why universities should be part of the game plan for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals

Universities can and must help us reach the SDGs

Universities can and must help us reach the SDGs Image: Shutterstock

Phil Baty
Chief Global Affairs Officer, Times Higher Education
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  • Universities transfer their knowledge and ideas from their lecture rooms and laboratories into society through collaborations with governments and businesses.
  • But a Times Higher Education report warns that governments are failing to harness the power within the world’s universities to help us meet our sustainable development goals (SDGs).
  • The report highlights three key opportunities where governments can accelerate progress as the 2030 deadline for the goals draws near.

Universities are vital to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): they nurture the next generation of skilled, sustainable citizens and prepare our future leaders. They make the breakthrough discoveries we need to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. They transfer their knowledge and ideas from their lecture rooms and laboratories into society through collaborations with governments and businesses.

But a new report from Times Higher Education warns that governments across the G20 nations and, by implication, beyond, are failing to fully harness the extraordinary power within the world’s universities to help us meet our SDGs.

Data from the report shows that research is being insufficiently and inconsistently targeted at the goals and that there are significant gaps in the sharing of evidence between universities and policymakers. "Higher education is a critical and valuable resource; one that is underutilised in our drive towards sustainability. By engaging higher education institutions, their staff and their students, governments across the G20 will find a willing and powerful partner in delivering the goals,” the report says.

The Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings assess universities’ contributions to each of the 17 SDGs through four key activities: teaching, research, outreach, and the stewardship of universities’ own resources – primarily their campuses and staff.

In the five years since its launch, the Impact Rankings have exploded in popularity as universities worldwide step forward to share data, determined to demonstrate their commitment to the 2030 goals.

Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2023: Partnerships for the goals + top 3 SDGs.
Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2023: Partnerships for the goals + top 3 SDGs. Image: Times Higher Education
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This year, 1,705 universities from 115 countries participated and more are signing up for the 2024 exercise. The study has highlighted various examples of outstanding work over the years, from the University of Johannesburg's leadership in tackling poverty and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia's excellence in supporting clean and affordable energy to the innovation in supporting sustainable cities and communities at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

The ranking has been particularly powerful in highlighting the vital, but previously invisible, social and economic impact of universities from the Global South that usually lack the vast resources to shine in the more traditional university rankings, which focus on pure research, reputation and often resources.

Overall, this vast and unique database can be deployed to highlight good practices, support collaboration and investment, map activity worldwide and incentivise further improvement.

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How can governments better support universities in delivering the goals?

Another recent report showcasing Higher Education’s role in advancing the SDGs in the G20: progress and opportunities draws on the data behind the rankings to highlight a range of policy opportunities where governments could better support universities in delivering the goals.

“Higher education institutions have made huge strides in measuring their progress towards the SDGs and the data shows where they can maximize their impact at a local and national level,” said Ross.

“It is clear that governments worldwide can leverage higher education institutions as powerful partners to reach the SDGs.”

The report identifies gaps in activity and highlights three key opportunities where governments can accelerate progress as the 2030 deadline for the goals draws near:

1. More targeted research

The data shows that universities carry out vast amounts of research directly relevant to delivering the SDGs, from food security to health and the environment, but the activity is very uneven, and across critical SDGs, there are relatively low levels of activity, for example in SDG 1 - No Poverty.

Funding and incentives should be targeted at these key neglected areas.

Uneven Spread: Research into SDGs

2. Partnerships for the goals

Ideas transcend national borders and geopolitical constraints, making universities well-placed to drive SDG 17 – Partnership for the Goals – and bring countries together to take on shared global challenges, such as the climate emergency.

However, university excellence in specific and often niche areas that support the SDGs can be hard to identify and resource limitations in key countries can hold back collaboration. Data can be harnessed to support effective matchmaking – between universities and between universities, industry partners and funders.

These partnerships can drive greater knowledge sharing, innovation and broader global cooperation.

3. University evidence-based policy

Governments can be criticised for demanding 'policy-based evidence' from universities when evidence-based policy is needed. When it comes to the world's urgent, grand challenges spelt out by the SDGs, clear, research-driven evidence about the urgency and scale of the problems and the implications of failure is vital - as is a relentless focus on solutions that will work.

Universities are in the truth business. They act as society's 'critic and conscience', at arm's length from governments. Their role in providing clear and frank policy advice is more important than ever.

Rachel Sandison, Deputy Vice Chancellor for External Engagement at the University of Glasgow, ranked 13th in the world overall for SDG impact, said: “Responding effectively to the grand challenges of our time requires cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration with collective action across the triple helix of higher education, government and industry.”

Barney Glover, Vice Chancellor of Western Sydney University, the number one ranked university for impact overall, puts it more bluntly: “If we are arrogant enough to believe that we can make a difference to the complex problems we’re facing without collaborating… without bringing the best together to think through, to analyze, to synthesize and to strategize, I think we are going to let down generations to come.”

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Davos AgendaGlobal Cooperation
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