Universities from around the world are moving in the right direction in terms of meeting the challenges of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but there are still mountains to climb, participants at the first general conference of the International Association of Universities (IAU) held in six years heard. University World News was the media partner for the event.
The conference, hosted by University College Dublin in Ireland from 25-28 October, was presented with preliminary findings from the Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development (HESD 2022) survey on accelerating action on the SDGs.
Climate Course Content
Around 240 higher education institutions responded to all six climate change education questions, with about 70% reporting they offered a relatively small number of courses with some climate content, somewhere between 50 and 500 courses. A further 8% said they offered between 501 and 2,500 courses and 22% claimed to have more than 2,500 courses with climate content.
However, 60% of respondents pointed out that climate-related content is found in less than 10% of all their courses.
Private higher education institutions reported a wider array of departments and disciplines offering climate courses than public universities and the greatest concentration of institutions claiming to offer courses including climate content was found in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the figures varying from between 30% and 50% in responses across the region.
As for research, about half of all institutions responding to the survey estimated annual faculty production of climate publications at 20 or fewer publications per year; 30% reported faculty production at between 21 and 100 publications; and 15% of institutions estimated their faculty produce more than 100 climate publications in a year.
Isabel Toman, programme officer for sustainable development at the IAU, told University World News: “Higher education is being asked to be a key player in meeting all the SDGs and we are encouraged that the preliminary findings to our survey show that more institutions are rising to the challenges. The full results will be published at an online event on 31 January 2023.”
Toman said the IAU received a total of 464 responses overall to its survey looking at how higher education institutions work with sustainable development and the SDGs across the board.
Three partners were involved the survey: the Asia-Europe Foundation, Conferencia de Rectores de las Universidades Españolas (CRUE) and the Monitoring and Evaluating Climate Communication and Education (MECCE) Project, the latter looking specifically at climate change education.
In the preliminary findings, institutional involvement in both SDG 4, which aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, and SDG 13, which calls for urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, was highest among universities in Europe and Northern America.
Latin America and the Caribbean reported the second highest level of higher education involvement across both SDGs.
Diego Posada, a researcher for the MECCE Project, told the conference the figures might seem low, especially for the percentage of courses offered with climate content, but a decade ago the figure would have been zero, or very low, at many institutions. “We’re definitely moving in the right direction,” he told University World News.
Role Of University Leadership
The IAU has established global clusters to lead work on each of the 17 UN SDGs and support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with a university from around the world leading the first 16 and the IAU taking responsibility for SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals.
During the Dublin conference session focusing on the role of university leadership, several speakers from universities steering the clusters addressed delegates.
Pornchai Mongkhonvanit, president of Siam University in Thailand, which is leading the cluster supporting SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities), said it was part of a university’s role to make the world a better place for future generations and it was one of the reasons he joined the IAU. He said he was pleased to see around 80 members working on this initiative.
Ibtihal Elgharabawi El-Bastawissi, dean of the faculty of architecture at Beirut Arab University, Lebanon, which is leading the industry, innovation and infrastructure cluster, said she was developing a two-year capacity building plan to support SDG 9, but some colleagues struggled to grasp the idea of a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach when building resilient infrastructure and promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation.
Sandra Guarín Tarquino, director of the international office at Antonio Nariño University, Colombia, which is coordinating the cluster on SDG 2 (Zero hunger), said it was important to connect all the different stakeholders inside a university to focus on sustainable development, including international students.
Richard Grubb, head of policy and strategic partnerships at the Association of Commonwealth Universities, which represents just over 500 universities in all parts of the world, including small islands facing major resilience challenges, urged the IAU to involve international associations in “truly transformative partnerships”.
He said universities should collaborate and form multi-stakeholder partnerships that go beyond vice-chancellors.
Case study from Kenya
In a discussion following the presentations, Vincent Ogutu, vice-chancellor of Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya, congratulated those focusing on best practice – but suggested also talking about “best problems to solve”.
Initiatives that can make a real difference do not have to be on a grand scale, said Ogutu, who told University World News how Strathmore University was turning theories about sustainable development into practical support after being approached by KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, which offered to share its system called Challenge Directed Education.
“One project involved a KTH professor coming to Kenya to train our lecturers in how our business students could support poorer members of the community in Nairobi,” said Ogutu. “We jumped at the offer and one of the first projects involved a woman vendor selling vegetables by the side of our main road near the campus … She wasn’t making much money.
“After talking to her and studying her business model, the students and lecturer suggested she offer to take orders for vegetables and deliver them to all the neighbours living nearby.
“The students prepared marketing materials and by the time the project finished, the vendor had quadrupled her turnover and had to employ several people to keep up with demand.
“She is now making much more money and the students have learned how to run a real business.”
Ogutu is also working with an old classmate he studied with for his PhD in the United States.
“Professor Jessica Salmon, who is now at Siena College in upstate New York, got her students to come up with suggestions to problems that non-profits are grappling with in Africa, and we had African experts on the ground to give them feedback on how feasible their ideas were in an African context.
“Together, we worked on causes like homelessness, unemployment and food insecurity and got some excellent ideas from them and have now had a paper accepted by an international journal, the Journal of Teaching in International Business. So what we have learned together is now going back into the academic pool.
“This model could be a great way of using US students and African experts to solve real-life problems. It isn’t a ‘top down’ or ‘North-South’ approach of ‘we know best’ and could work in so many places around the world, and demonstrates how higher education can make a real impact on sustainable development by working with North-South partners on equal terms,” said Ogutu.
SDG media hub
Brendan O’Malley, editor in chief of University World News, told the conference: “Universities have a very important contribution to make to address the global challenges covered by the SDGs. That is why we have created an SDGs hub, an entire section on University World News giving space to ongoing coverage of this vital contribution.
“From now on we will be working closely with IAU and other higher education organisations to identify, share and promote best practice to our worldwide audience and the audiences of our partners.”
Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education.