Global Cooperation

Why universities are so important for hitting the SDGs by 2030

The EU-funded project Universities for Sustainable Development is helping universities in their work towards the SDGs.

The EU-funded project Universities for Sustainable Development is helping universities in their work towards the SDGs. Image: REUTERS/Phil Noble

Muhammad Sohail
Senior Lecturer at Vilnius University of Applied Sciences, Lithuania , Co-founder of Social Innovation Enterprise SE4All, Spain
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  • The deadline for hitting the UN Sustainable Development Goals is 2030 — and the Secretary-General has warned we're behind.
  • To make sure we hit them, we must leverage higher education institutions like universities to educate citizens and galvanize action.
  • The EU-funded project Universities for Sustainable Development is helping universities in their work towards the SDGs.

As pressure mounts to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we must draw on all resources available to hit the ambitious targets and build a better future for all — that includes making the most of universities and other higher education institutions.

They SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere. The 17 goals were adopted by all UN member states in 2015, as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which set out a 15-year plan to achieve the goals.

With a deadline of 2030, there are just 7 years left to meet them.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are a crucial pillar of the pursuit of the SDGs. They provide the knowledge, skills and mindsets essential for solving the world's sustainable development challenges and the meeting the SDGs.

The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022 painted a worrying picture of progress across almost all areas. It said that “cascading and interlinked crises are putting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in grave danger, along with humanity’s very own survival”.

The urgency of the situation demands that all sectors of society galvanize to secure greater participation and leadership, more resources and improved, game-changing solutions to address increasing inequality and the escalating climate emergency.

The SDGs are integrated into research programmes, national and international policies and even election campaigns globally. This is where universities and other HEIs can have serious impact.

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How HEIs can help us hit the SDGs

HEIs can contribute to the SDGs in various ways, leveraging their obvious strengths like education and research, but also their capacity to build communities, to influence people and to engage communities directly.

Teaching: HEIs can incorporate elements of education for the SDGs into most existing formal and informal learning and teaching activities in universities. HEIs can also provide students with the necessary skills needed to implement the SDGs, such as strategic vision, design-thinking, social responsibility, problem-solving, anticipatory skills and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Research: HEIs provide cutting-edge academic knowledge in both research and teaching and stand as neutral and reliable stakeholders in society. HEIs can also contribute to identifying gender equality gaps in society and fight against sexual violence, abuse and harassment within their campuses with proactive policies.

Community engagement: HEIs can engage with their local communities and contribute to society's progress towards gender equality. HEIs can also provide work-integrated learning projects, learning and real-life experiences as part of their studies to enhance students' understanding of sustainability.

Non-academic services: HEIs can provide more sustainable accommodation, sustainable infrastructure, sustainable transportation by encouraging the use of public transportation, carpooling and cycling. Also HEIs can offer sustainable waste management practices by reducing waste and composting. Their often sizeable campuses and large student bodies mena they can have direct local impact on sustainability.

Management practices: HEIs can focus on successfully integrating the SDGs into their learning and teaching, research, partnerships and governance and culture.

Supporting higher education for the SDGs

There are many challenges in the road toward meeting the SDGs, including instability, implementation, governance, poverty, unemployment and the global economy. However, there are also many good practices and success stories that can be replicated and scaled up to accelerate progress towards the SDGs.

Take, for example, the EU-funded project Universities for Sustainable Development. The project is contributing to the achievement of the SDGs through the digitization of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda at universities in Spain, Lithuania and Finland. It promotes and facilitates the integration of the SDGs in all areas of university activity, promoting the 2030 Agenda across the universities through their ICT.

To support HEIs, both institutional and technical, in their transition to sustainability, the Universities for Sustainable Development project helps them to develop action plans and implement real-time data scorecards through the use of digital intelligent indicator A2030.

The Times Higher Education (THE) University Impact Rankings measure the progress of universities working to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the 2023 rankings, for the second year in a row, the highest-scoring institution is Western Sydney University in Australia, having achieved a near-perfect score. The UK’s University of Manchester is second, making it the top European institution in terms of SDG performance.

Top 10 partnerships overall for the goals + top 3 SDGs.
Top 10 partnerships overall for the goals + top 3 SDGs. Image: Times Higher Education

Achieving the SDGs is hard — but it is essential

Achieving the SDGs is a big task, and considering the vital roles that universities play in supporting and implementing them, the sector must strive for advancement.

Nelson Mandela famously remarked: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” That same attitude can help us with meeting the SDGs. Every sector of society has a role to play in the pursuit of the SDGs — but universities and other higher education institutions are particularly important.

Now is the time for bold action. Commitment, solidarity, financing and action — to put the world on a better path by 2030.

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