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The Role of Higher Educational Institutions in Making SDGs a Reality

 The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by over 150 global leaders recognises the need to end poverty, improve health and education, reduce inequality, spur economic growth, and protect the environment.

UNESCO together with UNICEF, the World Bank, UNFPA, UNDP, UN Women, and UNHCR organised the World Education Forum 2015 where the Education 2030: Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action was launched to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. 


The framework outlines translating educational commitments made by governments and international organisations into concrete actions at national, regional, and global levels. The framework was ratified by 184 nations and the global educational community.


The United Nations has also identified 17 higher educational institutions (HEIs) around the world that will act as "academic impact hubs" for each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals – India for SDG 1 (no poverty); South Africa, for SDG 2 (zero hunger), Egypt, for SDG 3 (good health and well-being), Argentina, for SDG 4 (quality education); Sudan, for SDG 5 (gender equality), Canada, for SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation); Greece, for SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy);  Pakistan, for SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth); Australia, for SDG 10 (reduced inequalities); Spain, for SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities); Argentina, for SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production); Switzerland, for SDG 13 (climate action); Norway, for SDG 14 (life below water); Iran, for SDG 15 (life on land); UK, for SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions); and United Arab Emirates (UAE), for SDG 17 (partnership for the Goals). 

The HEIs are actively promoting scholarly research and best practices regarding their goals as well as playing a vital role in shaping youth in becoming future leaders. The partnerships are managed by the UN Department of Public Affairs' (UNDP) project and UN Academic Impacts (UNAI), an international network of universities committed to advancing the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development through research, teaching, curricula, and outreach.

The scientific and technical advances that underpin the Sustainable Global Framework help ensure that no one gets left behind. However, they do not guarantee success unless all countries work together to share resources, collaborate, and learn from each other. 

Extended measures include forming strong linkages with businesses and industries to monitor employment needs and skill requirements. For instance, professional communities of practice, improving student employability by supporting their participation in internships and co-op placements, to build stronger connections among educators and researchers by facilitating cross-disciplinary collaboration. Such collaborations would enable greater access to technology and expertise for those seeking to develop fresh solutions to meet the challenge of achieving the SDGs.

Unsurprisingly, no single approach to achieving the aims of the SDGs can be successful alone. Instead, we must build on what works and innovate to meet emerging needs. 

Therefore, HEIs can contribute to the SDGs through a range of activities such as collaborating to build stronger links in early-stage R&D for SDG-relevant innovations, undertaking joint research ventures, establishing courses and training programmes, creating platforms for public engagement, facilitating knowledge transfer from academia into society, advocating for action on the SDGs and many more. 

Meanwhile, Governments in developed nations should encourage the participation of their people in their national community engagement efforts by collecting baseline statistics on the SDGs, interpreting results, disseminating findings, and using them to plan policy responses. They should facilitate access to the latest technologies so that organisations can track change over time and across geography, and understand how different interventions influence outcomes.

Higher education stakeholders should work together to ensure that the institutional processes and infrastructure used to deliver educational programmes and research reflect the values and principles set out in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To achieve this, it is recommended that HEIs review current policies and practices regarding gender equality, respect diversity, inclusion and ethical conduct, develop new policies and procedures, adopt best practice guidelines, implement effective mechanisms for monitoring progress, and strengthen partnerships with other sectors to jointly fulfill the mission based on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Nevertheless, several challenges remain to be addressed. 

First, there is still no consensus about how to define sustainability, making it difficult to measure progress towards the goal. Second, most countries do not have enough resources to address the many issues facing our societies today. Third, the current system does not allow for collaboration across sectors and levels of government. Finally, there is little evidence that governments will act on the SDGs. 

While within the HEI system, the challenges include the integration of diverse disciplines within academic curricula, the development of innovative teaching methods, and the promotion of interdisciplinarity in research. Efforts to address these challenges include using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework to organise student co-curricular initiatives such as courses, programmes, workshops, hackathons, innovation and entrepreneurship competitions, and study tours. Additionally, it can also include encouraging organisations associated with universities to promote SDGs engagement among their members and SDG-themed student initiatives through student clubs and societies initiatives.

HEIs should be made the focal point in creating sustainable futures. Despite the key roles in societal transformations, several challenges must be overcome within and outside HEIs for the realisation of our envisioned world.

Moreover, the performance of any nation in achieving the SDGs depends on its leadership.       Leaders who want to achieve sustainable development need to understand that they live in a complex system where everything is interconnected. They must learn how to accept differences and diversity, be knowledgeable, creative, resilient, reflective of personal beliefs as well as able to resolve conflicts and disagreements when arise. Effectively led nations can plan and implement wise policies, excellent services, and high-quality goods and services to fulfil the needs and desires of their people.

Today’s youth represent a powerful force for change and must be nurtured to lead from early in life. This includes developing self-confidence, empathy, respect, a sense of responsibility, being flexible, acknowledging strengths and weaknesses and identifying other qualities necessary for effective leadership.

Within the UN 2030 Agenda, youths are notably invited to contribute to the  achievement of the SDGs, of which they are also primary beneficiaries. The young contribute to economic growth, social cohesion, peace, security, and stability. They are critical drivers of innovation, creativity and play a vital role in addressing some of the greatest challenges facing humanity.