June 15, 2017
Universities: Getting ready for the SDGs

The traditional separation between academia and the professional world is becoming more porous and dynamic. How, in that regard, will the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) affect universities and vice versa?

Higher education was never explicitly involved in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as either a development goal in its own right or as a potential agent to address other development goals. The focus was on primary education and particularly access (not educational outcomes). Progressively, the MDGs and international development became a discipline of study by interested students and researchers. Universities produced research, data and analysis of the MDGs experience. It could be said that universities “followed the MDGs” from the outside, from an observer vantage point, in most cases.

At the SDG Fund, we are convinced that universities will be at the core of the 2030 Agenda. Target 4.3 refers specifically to universities by demanding equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, “including university”. For some education specialists, this has been one of the first occasions in which the United Nations has so strongly affirmed that inequality in access to higher education is a driver of poverty.

At the SDG Fund, we are starting to see how universities are going to play at least three key roles in fulfilling the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development:

  • Expanding human capital with an SDG perspective: first, by training students to understand how the SDGs are going to make their work better and more sustainable. The SDGs shouldn’t only be part of international development programmes but of most disciplines. It is not only about memorizing or learning the 17 goals, but about embedding sustainable development principles across disciplines. The SDGs are not isolated goals but are instead deeply interconnected. Universities will need to educate their students on the social, economic and environmental implications of their future careers and professional work. Second, universities will be also part of new training programmes for non-university students. Massive open online courses are a clear example of what can be done in this realm and many more hybrid training formats will contribute to continuous and lifelong learning modalities.
  • Research. Researchers at universities have a privileged vantage point to look at the different SDGs, understand what approaches are more effective and analyze the process of implementing the 2030 Agenda. Some of the topics will require new conceptual frameworks, for instance, in better understanding the interlinkages and correlations among different goals. Research will help us to understand better the costs of implementing the SDGs, but also the opportunity costs of not investing sufficiently in the SDGs. Action-oriented research, with an understanding of its different users (policy-makers as well as the private sector and civil society), will be necessary. As a universal agenda, researchers should help address the SDGs at the global but also at the local level, with attention to underlying similarities and differences among countries and territories. Taking into account that the 2030 Agenda focuses on leaving no one behind and lifting out of poverty those in most need, collaboration among universities may tackle the unequal distribution of universities and research centers. Oftentimes the poorest of the poor live in areas without universities or research centers that could understand the sustainable development needs of those areas.
  • Implementing the agenda. From a role of observers, universities are increasingly becoming actors in multi-stakeholder partnerships for the SDGs. University researchers and students are participating hands-on in projects with their expertise, time and financial resources. They can contribute to knowledge transfer and build the tools that the SDGs will require. Universities do indeed invest in development, a trend that is becoming more frequent in the academic world. This “clinical” approach, as it could be defined, facilitates first-hand intervention in the field. However, it is important that university development projects are not isolated and are integrated in larger efforts that include government, civil society and the private sector. For example, an SDG Fund programme in Sierra Leone is working in Kono, paradoxically one of the poorest districts of the country in spite of a highly productive mineral industry. Columbia University is collaborating in a joint programme with UN agencies, the private sector and national government to use geographical information system (GIS) technologies to better understand the territory and track its recovery after more than ten years of conflict and the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Aware of the tremendous potential of universities in contributing to the SDGs, the SDG Fund has established a University Chair that, in collaboration with researchers, students and universities across the world, will advocate for universities to have a more central role in the work to be done over the next 15 years.

This blog is an abridged version of a more extended article to be included in an upcoming academic publication on the SDGs.

About the author

Paloma Duran, SDG Fund Director. The Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDG Fund) is an international multi-donor and multi-agency development mechanism created in 2014 by the United Nations to support sustainable development activities through integrated and multidimensional joint programmes.


This article was originally published on United Nations academic impact, on June 15, 2017. Read here.