Universities made SDGs a priority, now they must speed up progress

Having embraced Sustainable Development Goals, higher education has to accelerate their wider use and impact, says Rachel Kyte

June 1, 2023
Justin Ginnetti, a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, wearing n inflatable globe hat to illustrate Supercharge the goals
Source: Getty

Browse the full Impact Rankings 2023 resultsTo participate in next year’s Impact Rankings, email us

This year is the midpoint in pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and concern has grown over the past couple of years that SDG achievement needs to catch up.

The economic impacts of Covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided setbacks. Increasing levels of indebtedness in a broad swathe of countries in the Global South are compounded by climate impacts taking percentage points of GDP away from countries already in weak growth positions.

In the geopolitical turmoil of 2022, governments lost focus on the SDGs. However, across the business community, in all sectors of the economy, the SDGs have become a framework for describing the business purpose and its role in society. And across civil society organisations, they provide the framework for prioritisation and cooperation.

For universities, the SDGs provide an essential tool in curriculum development and the structure for how they must think about their mission and their place within society.

First, education. The SDGs force interdisciplinarity. Let’s take SDG 2, zero hunger (or, specifically, how do we ensure everyone can afford a healthy, sustainably produced diet?) At the Fletcher School, as a graduate school of global affairs, that question pulls every field of study into the room. Or there’s SDG 7, sustainable energy for all; how can we provide affordable, reliable and clean energy at a sufficient level to allow people to be productive in their economies (not just enough to power a lamp)? Again, every discipline has a part in tackling that puzzle.

Universities can teach SDGs, individually and collectively, but they can also use the SDGs to enhance learning outcomes and the effectiveness with which we prepare people for the challenges and opportunities in this fast-moving, digitised, unequal and heating world.

Teaching the SDGs can mean developing new courses focused on the SDGs, including interdisciplinary courses covering multiple SDGs. In teaching and research, the SDGs provide platforms for research with non-traditional partners and engagement among academia, civil society, government and business.

Pedagogical approaches to the SDGs mesh well with student demand for student-centred, interdisciplinary and problem-based learning, where students are actively engaged in addressing real-world challenges. Real-world, multi-SDG problem-solving can engage business, government, civil society or community partners.

Second, the SDGs also provide a framework for examining the role of a university within the broader community and as an institution and community within a wider society. If this is the world’s agenda for action, how is the university using it in its sustainability action plan and how it partners locally?

The SDGs map the route for universities to develop their role in and commitment to sustainable development, and this is increasingly, together with their specific performance on climate justice and evidence of university citizenship on sustainability, a prerequisite for prospective students.

Increasingly here at Fletcher, we find students are prepared to build a better world through careers focusing on business, aware that they will also build career portfolios across government and civil society.

The SDGs provide students who are focused on business and finance with a framework for purposeful business that not only addresses critical global challenges but also focuses on the partnerships across government and other sectors in society to achieve business goals. More directly, with more and more companies incorporating SDGs into their strategies, there is a growing demand for professionals with expertise in sustainable business practices. Understanding the SDGs can help students identify career opportunities in business.

When the gavel came down at the UN in 2015, the SDGs were the product of input from communities, interest groups, businesses and governments worldwide. They were a government-to-government agreement and agenda. Yet it is in the rest of society where the SDGs have become embedded to an unprecedented level. This ownership, as well as the content, is something for universities to help understand and integrate into teaching across the curriculum. Still, it is also for universities to use the SDGs to both develop their own identity and practise sustainability. Our students will shape a world that has yet to internalise its goals. We must prepare them.

Rachel Kyte is the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. She is a member of the UN secretary general’s high-level advisory group on climate action and an adviser to the UK presidency of the UN climate talks.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles