Universities and Beyond: A Vehicle for Accomplishing the SDGs

On July 13, 2020, the SDG Academy, the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE), the International Association of Universities (IAU), L’Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF), and the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) co-hosted the workshop “Teaching, Learning, and Integrating the SDGs at Universities and Beyond – Linking to the Decade of Action” as part of UNITAR/UNDESA’s HLPF SDGs Learning, Training and Practice series.

The workshop brought together stakeholders from the UN System, academia, and other international organizations to discuss the future of higher education under COVID-19 and methods for implementing the SDGs in formal and non-formal adult education. Together, they affirmed the need for interdisciplinarity and student-led movements, centering collaboration across departments and sects as key to progress on the SDGs. Furthermore, participants discussed the role of the university sector and stressed the importance of institutions taking activist positions, taking action outwards instead of inwards. 

Dr. Hilligje van’t Land moderated the workshop’s first session.

IAU Secretary General Dr. Hilligje van’t Land, moderated the first session, “No ‘One-size-fits-all’ method to approach the SDGs in education,” and posed critical questions: How can we translate SDGs efficiently into institutions’ teaching, learning, and research practices and strategies? What and how do we teach about the SDGs and undertake international research to have a long-term positive effect on sustainability and society? 

SDG Academy Director Chandrika Bahadur, ACU Secretary General Dr. Joanna Newman, and Prof. Muneo Kaigo from the University of Tsukuba, Japan, offered thought-provoking insights. Ms. Bahadur discussed reconciliation between two tension-creating factors for universities seeking to invest themselves in sustainability: depth and breadth in education. Additionally, she identified a key distinction in sustainability education: teaching the SDGs outright and teaching topics related to them. This distinction brings a new challenge⁠—application of theory⁠—which may not be purely academic. Lastly, Ms. Bahadur stressed the necessity of multiple SDG education models. To ensure that students’ education is centered both locally and globally, their curriculum must fit their situation. Because of the pandemic, technology is offering a new way of teaching sustainable development, a way currently modeled by the SDG Academy itself.

SDG Academy Director Chandrika Bahadur discusses applied learning for the SDGs.

Dr. Newman emphasized the importance of ethics in decision-making for universities, as well as the embedding of the SDGs in universities’ actions on and off campus through institutional commitment from leadership, implementation, and innovations like Hackathons. She highlighted the possible issue of competition due to rankings systems, which may exacerbate inequality due to lack of resources on the part of certain universities. Echoing other participants, she affirmed the need for interdisciplinarity and partnerships. 

Dr. Joanna Newman affirms the centrality of ethics in education.

Dr. Muneo Kaigo, Professor of Social Sciences at Japan’s University of Tsukuba, stated that “we’re facing an opportunity to create a renaissance of education,” which could be steered by the SDGs. Prof. Kaigo then took interdisciplinarity one step further to advocate for the breaking of disciplines for reorganization. He also gave an example of students from Okayama University who created an initiative to donate money from meals to countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda while creating more awareness of pertinent SDGs. 

Prof. Muneo Kaigo advocates for departmental reorganization and student collaboration.
Florencia Librizzi moderated the second session.

The next session, moderated by SDG Academy Head of Program and Partnerships Florencia Librizzi, looked at global and local partnerships across sectors, using the SDGs as the common mission. Speakers addressed the roles that corporations and partnerships play for the global agenda, as well as the challenges and opportunities that stakeholders can use to build the future.

Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, emphasized the need for universities take activist positions, allowing them to expand outwards and leverage their position in the community to spread their agenda. By becoming vocal advocates, universities can return to their original role as servants of their communities. He discussed his own positionality coming from the Caribbean, where environmental advocacy because is crucial to addressing the existential threat of climate change. With this in mind, the University of the West Indies partnered with the State University of New York system to create a joint institute posed to expand teaching and learning for leadership on sustainable development. 

Sir Hilary Beckles highlights the necessity of activism in higher education.

Ms. Carole Avande Houndjo, ICAE’s Vice President for Africa, gave a perspective from West Africa, where non-formal education channels have been effective in promoting the SDGs via local community radio and advocacy through the local government. ICAE has partnered with local radio in West Africa to have weekly segments in which listeners ask questions about the SDGs. 

Carole Avande Houndjo discusses non-formal education in communities.

Finally, Bianca Kopp from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Education for Justice (E4J) Initiative stressed the importance of breaking silos and collaborating, particularly in light of funding cuts to the United Nations and to education more broadly.  

Bianca Kopp iterates the importance of collaboration between sectors.

The workshop concluded with final remarks from Dr. Katarina Popovic, Secretary General of ICAE, who reaffirmed the importance of further education, including non-formal education, during COVID-19 to teach humanitarian values to develop critical thinking. Though the world is dealing with the same pandemic, crises look different in different context; therefore engagement at regional and local levels is key. Dr. Popovic closed with a call for open-mindedness and a serious restructuring within the higher education sector. 

Dr. Katarina Popovic wraps up the workshop with a statement on higher education during COVID-19.

Click here to watch a recording of the workshop. You can find recordings from other sessions in the SDGs Learning, Training and Practice series on UNITAR’s website.