Advancing Sustainability in Higher Education Through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

Advancing Sustainability in Higher Education Through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

How the UN's Sustainable Development Goals have the potential to transform higher education across the globe.
Photo: Ken Richardson

Photo Above: Dr. Ogbuigwe talks with Meghan Fay Zahniser, Executive Director for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. 

This blog post was adapted from a talk at the World Symposium on Sustainability at Universities, held at MIT in September 2016.

When I cast my eyes to the future from the mind-boggling realities of today - disparities between nations; the world’s richest 20 percent consuming nearly 75 percent of the planet’s natural resources; the wealth of the world’s 225 richest individuals amounting to the annual income of the bottom 47 percent of the world’s population or 2.5 billion people - I feel the compelling notion that higher education must transform itself if it is to remain relevant.

I see these complex times as both challenging and exciting. They are exciting because we were built for times like this. This generation, our generation, must deliver the tools for resilience, innovation and adaptation to the next generation. Tomorrow’s campuses must not only be sustainable and cutting edge in design, but they must be able to produce tough graduates, ones who may be living in vulnerable societies, but who are equipped to ride the storm.

On 25 September 2015, the 194 countries of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Development Agenda titled “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” A major part of this Agenda was the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their associated 169 targets. So what is the role of the SDGs in advancing this movement in higher education?

People, dignity, planetary health, partnerships, and justice are essential pillars needed to foster the resilience and reconstruction needed for tomorrow's campuses, all of which are supported by the SDGs. Goal 4 of the SDGs is specific to the advancement of quality education, with target 4.7 placing more emphasis on education for sustainable development. According to the UN, the SDGs seek to end poverty, protect the planet, foster peace, and ensure prosperity through renewed partnerships. That's enough reason for me to jump onboard!

The United Nations' SDG's
The United Nations

In January 2014 at the African Union Summit in Addis, Ethiopia, African leaders adopted the Common African Position (CAP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The CAP highlighted the following key objectives as overarching for Africa: poverty eradication, the need for a structural transformation of Africa, and the development of productive capacities in Africa.

So as an African teacher in one of Africa's emerging campuses, I see the SDGs as a comprehensive platform to finally transform higher education in Africa to deal with fundamental issues that have held us down, such as poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, an excessive ‘consumption’ of unproductive education and goods, debt burden, market inaccessibility, technology dearth, governance challenges, and public health issues like HIV/AIDS, malaria, measles and malnutrition.

The SDGs provide an ethos for higher education to reinvent itself and to rethink teaching, research, and community engagement. To promote a high quality, diverse yet integrated curriculum with programs that are professionally strong, academically rigorous, morally sound and relevant to society. To build educational institutions that ‘speak’, that breed and demonstrate innovations and knowledge for the challenges faced by society and adequately prepare the population to cope with challenges brought on by globalization. Institutions that will empower students to become ethical, critical, and reflective citizens with the ability to evaluate situations and make informed decisions.

The SDGs further advance sustainability in higher education by creating environments where institutions can access additional funding towards research and facilitation for academics and stakeholders in higher education to build clear vision that guide teaching and research in sustainability. This will enable institutions to participate in networks, collaborate, and coordinate activities that advance sustainability. It will also promote the dissemination of more knowledge on alternative paths towards sustainable development and lay a universal basis for recognizing and following excellent case studies in the adopting of good practices in sustainability.

SDGs provide for a broader understanding of sustainability for institutions of higher education, governments, and businesses. This, in turn, promotes multi-sector collaborations, which push the boundaries of sustainable development and motivate businesses and the broader society to change their operations and reflect alignment with the sustainability agenda. Such collaborations, partnerships, and networks tend to shift thinking, motivate, and hasten the achievement of sustainability.

On the flip side, higher education is essential in popularizing the SDGs.  To ignore the higher education sector in these efforts would be to ignore the power of knowledge residing in the universities and the power of the youth (half the world’s population is under 20 years old) in contributing to responsible, critical and effective decision making for the future we want.

Can you imagine what will happen if this knowledge-force and manpower reorients all learning and research for sustainable development? For people, dignity, planet, partnership, prosperity, and justice? It is said that inspirational learning only happens when you have truly inspirational teachers. So the mission of SDGs in higher education is not just about new courses, or buildings, or about pushing the barriers of light and recycling, but also about inspirational teachers, students and campuses. About learners who are willing to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Undoubtedly the new sustainable development agenda and the SDGs play an important role in advancing sustainability in higher education by creating opportunities to realize more funding to support research and development of new programs that advance sustainability concepts. The SDGs are challenging universities to disseminate more relevant information and training programs that address the specific goals of sustainable development. The SDGs will also facilitate a better, more focused view of sustainability. That is, sustainability as not just about environmental conservation but as more holistically in terms of environment, economic and social development.

Universities can ingrain the SDGs into their practice by including sustainability training for all courses offered; exploring opportunities that engage communities and institutions in the advancement of the SDGs, and showcasing instances and models of sustainable development programs and activities.

So what do we as higher education practitioners lose if we ignore the SDGs and in particular its spirit? We will eventually lose relevance.

We will also lose the great opportunity to contribute to the wellbeing of people and society, and to solving the local and global problems that face humanity. In the words of Dr. Marceline Collins-Figueroa, if we choose to ignore the SDGs: “higher education will become the dinosaurs of tomorrow.”

Akpezi Ogbuigwe is Director of the Advancement & Linkages Center at Rivers State University of Science and Technology in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Previously, she was Head of Environmental Education and Training, Division of Environmental Policy Implementation (UNEP), where she initiated UNEP’s multi-stakeholders program on Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in African Universities and the Global Universities Partnership on Environmental Sustainability. She has professional experience in the field of environmental education, ESD and environmental law. Her research areas include transformational change in higher education in Africa, sustainable development and environmental law and policy.