Universities Shift Focus Towards Sustainable Development Goals


When world leaders adopted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a New York summit in 2015, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai said that all the targets came down to just one thing: education.

Times Higher Education data shows evidence of HE institutions’ recent change in focus towards SDGS. More than 850 institutions across the world have taken part in the second THE University Impact Rankings, measuring universities’ contribution against all 17 SDGs for the first time this year.

Last year’s ranking received submissions from more than 500 universities. Universities in Japan have been most involved in the ranking, with 73 of the nation’s institutions submitting data this year. Other universities that participated were from Russia (53 in total), Turkey (43), USA (38) and 35 from the UK.

Overall, institutions across 89 countries and regions have taken part – up from 75 last year.

Excluding the revitalising global partnerships goal (SDG 17), the only compulsory goal for inclusion in the overall ranking, SDG 4 on quality education received the most submissions. With more than 670 universities providing data on metrics, this includes lifelong learning measures and their number of first-generation students.

Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer at THE, said:

[It has been] extraordinarily exciting to see so many universities across the world embracing new metrics to better identify their immense and multifaceted contributions to global sustainable development, [and]new data-driven strategies to help share and spread best practice across all the SDGs.

The evidence for this new focus is seen in the extraordinary way universities globally have embraced THE’s pioneering University Impact Rankings in such a short space of time, and also in the countless new stories and best practice case studies that are emerging.

It is clear to us that many universities across the world are putting the global goals front and centre in their institutional strategies, and some are making planetary health their raison d’etre.

Julian Skyrme, Director of Social Responsibility at the University of Manchester, added that higher education institutions were ‘a little bit slower’ to act on the SDGs than industry and governments but ‘what you’re seeing now is a tremendous outpouring of creativity and focus by universities in this area.’

He continues that the SDGs have helped to ‘shift behaviours within universities’ and acted ‘as a way of framing some of the things we already do and the benefits we have always brought for society.’

The SDGs are a gift for universities. They help to make the case for the value that universities bring to society.

Skyrme also mentioned ‘a common international language’ provided by the goals that can be utilised across all sectors and countries.

As part of its strategy, Manchester has included social responsibility for the past decade, but one of the main objectives in its latest vision is ‘sustaining and creating more impact against the SDGs,’ according to Skyrme.

The university seeks to explicitly flag which SDGs are related to each of its degree and research programmes, meaning potential students can clearly see the connection when choosing a course. Last year, the institution created an optional online module for students on the SDGs and published a report detailing how the university was addressing the goals. This became its most popular corporate report, downloaded more than 6,000 times.

David Farrar, President of Canada’s McMaster University, said his institution has taken a ‘problem-based learning’ approach, stating:

Our global health [degree]programme categorises its international activities according to the SDGs…We have a new innovation minor that’s inspired hundreds of student-led research projects focused on the SDGs.

Farrar added that the goals were ‘a driving force in my strategic planning.’

Martin Eriksson, Environmental Sciences Researcher at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology and Network Manager of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network Northern Europe, said that a recent snapshot study of the network revealed that 11 out of 16 universities surveyed mentioned SDGs in their institutional strategy. The network has also seen an increase in the number of applications.

Eriksson added that some of Sweden’s research funding bodies now ask academics to reference which SDGs their applied research will target as part of applications. Another important driver is ‘interest and demand from students,’ he said.

There is increased pressure on universities and teachers to keep up to date with these things. Possibly this has to do with the effect of Greta Thunberg.

Although, Eriksson believes academics should be free to ‘critically evaluate’ the SDGs as the UN’s Agenda 2030 was signed by 193 heads of state and so is ‘a political framework.’

Universities are important contributors to the implementation of the SDGs but they also have a long-term mission to generate and teach knowledge and should not be bound by politics. There are definitely people within universities that don’t have the same stance on this,” he said, adding that some academics may see the goals as a fad in comparison to the long-term mission of science.

Anne Devulder, Vice-President of Student Life and Social and Environmental Responsibility at Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris, said that the institution has over 50 research units that are directly linked to the SDGs, while almost all of its laboratories are indirectly dedicated to ‘SDG subjects.’

The university is also set to launch a new bachelor’s degree in sustainability science in September.

We are witnessing an unprecedented generational phenomenon with students. The students are really dynamic about the SDGs. They really want to learn about the SDGs and how to respond to the challenges of our society.

Jonathan Grant, Vice-President (Service) at King’s College London, said that the institution has not arranged its strategy around the SDGs, but does report against them as a way of demonstrating progress.

Grant added that universities have ‘failed’ to demonstrate their social purpose ‘for quite a long time now,’ but the SDGs could provide some institutions with ‘a useful framework’ for improving in this area.

However, mandating that universities embrace the SDGs ‘would be a mistake,’ Grant continues:

We should welcome [the SDGs]and use them where appropriate. But at the same time, I don’t think that’s a substitute for really thinking about your vision and your strategy and delivering your social purpose as a university. I [would]worry if it becomes a tick-box exercise.


Former Head of Outreach 2019-20. Final year English student, passionate about world affairs, dancing and history.

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