by Maryna Lakhno
The idea of sustainability in higher education has been around for a long time. It started with early international discussions in the 1990s, continued during the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2004-2015) and is currently embodied in the global engagement of higher education institutions (HEIs) within the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The SDGs Puzzle
The SDGs are not primarily oriented towards higher education. There is nothing in this initiative that binds HEIs to act, let alone placing legal oblations on them. So it may seem puzzling that many universities worldwide, from New Zealand to Mexico, voluntarily decided to work with the Agenda 2030. Some have altered their institutional strategies and behaviors in fundamental ways in pursuit of the SDGs, even though this requires significant financial and organizational efforts. Those diverse and multifaceted changes include sustainability shifts in campus operations, curricula, ways of teaching/learning, outreach activities as well as research. Why are the SDGs so attractive for universities?
The SDGs as ‘agents of change’
First of all, education institutions in general are frequently seen as inevitable drivers for sustainable solutions:
Sustainable development cannot be achieved by technological solutions, political regulation or financial instruments alone. Achieving sustainable development requires a change in the way we think and act, and consequently a transition to sustainable lifestyles, consumption and production patterns. Only education and learning at all levels and in all social contexts can bring about this critical change.
Their ‘agent of change’ function incorporates numerous angles. In general, universities are created for public good and have crucial influence on humankind, as they spread knowledge and participate in governance nationally and locally (Sedlacek, 2013). HEIs have the potential to become platforms of innovation and have a direct influence on future decision makers. Being a centre of knowledge, these “institutions have the responsibility for preparing their graduates for entry into government, business and industry sectors” (Thomas and Nicita, 2002).
HEIs go beyond their walls
Furthermore, universities are frequently associated with the crucial stakeholders of regional development, which allows them to support their “faculty and administrators to regional boards” (Goldstein, 2009). This process can be of a great benefit to both sides, making educational institutions serve as “bridging organizations between societal and other institutional actors” (Sedlacek, 2013). A university does not end inside its walls and includes multiple stakeholder groups which are governments, international organizations, NGOs, businesses, faculty, administrative employees, students and their parents (Hussain et al, 2019).
The SDGs are universal
In fact, the SDGs touch numerous aspects of central concern to the university. Their multifaceted nature makes it possible to unite pre-existing policies under one umbrella. If we look at the main messages of SDGs, we see that their core values are all-inclusive, be it in terms of gender equality, poverty reduction, climate protection or education quality.
Building bridges between continents and research traditions
Goal 17, namely Partnerships for the Goals, is one of the stimuli that asks HEIs to act beyond national borders. University networks play a key role, acting as facilitators of information exchange, SDGs good practice models and source of empowerment for further action. This can be done at any level of the university, starting from inclusion in the curriculum of an HEI and ending in its sustainable investment strategies.
The Global Goals are ‘affordable’ for all HEIs
To conclude, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved by HEIs with smaller endowments. Their universal and non-binding nature does not require an HEI to follow all the goals at once. Additionally, they give space for institutional creativity, which is so valued in times of limited resources yet offers unlimited prospects for a better future.
Maryna Lakhno is a doctoral research fellow in the Yehuda Elkana Center for Higher Education at the Central European University in Vienna. The preliminary title for her dissertation is ‘Universities: Local Agents of Global Changes. The SDGs as a Policy Framework for Higher Education.’ By scrutinising the UN SDGs from both actional and ideational perspectives, she aims to contribute to higher education policy by pointing to the existence of a new and consequential, although unexpected, global policy framework.
Goldstein, HA (2009) ‘What we know and what we don’t know about the regional economic impacts of universities’ in Varga, A (2009) Universities, knowledge transfer and regional development: geography, entrepreneurship and policy. Cheltenham: Elgar, pp 11–35
Hussain, T, Eskildsen, J, Edgeman, R, Ismail, M, Shoukry, AM, Gani, S (2019) ‘Imperatives of sustainable university excellence: A Conceptual Framework’ Sustainability 11 (19): 5242. DOI: 10.3390/su11195242.
Sedlacek, Sabine (2013) ‘The role of universities in fostering sustainable development at the regional level’ Journal of Cleaner Production 48: 74–84 DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.01.029
Thomas, I, and Nicita, J (2002) ‘Sustainability Education and Australian Universities’ Environmental Education Research 8 (4): 475–492 DOI: 10.1080/1350462022000026845
UNESCO (2011) From Green Economies to Green Societies: UNESCO’s Commitment to Sustainable Development Retrieved from UNESCO: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000213311