Universities must act now on sustainability goals

Implementing the SDGs will require people who have skills such as systems thinking and integrated problem solving—and universities are perfectly positioned to help. Here’s a practical guide for universities to get started on the Goals.

A banner of the SDGs
Universities are essential for providing the knowledge, innovations and solutions to implement the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Image: UN Ukraine, CC BY-ND 2.0

In an unpredictable and insecure global political scene, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are intended to tackle pressing global challenges.

Agreed on by all participating countries, including Australia, the SDGs set 17 goals and 169 targets to promote economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

The goals cover a wide range of complex and interrelated challenges. Addressing them will require changes in how societies and economies function, and how we interact with our planet.

The United Nations agreed to these 17 goals in September 2015.


Universities are uniquely positioned to assist with implementing the SDGs. They are essential for providing the knowledge, innovations and solutions to underpin implementation. They are also essential for creating current and future implementers, and for providing cross-sectoral leadership in local, national and global implementation.

It is crucial that universities’ role in achieving the SDGs is nationally recognised and that universities are at the table in discussions about them. This is particularly important as the Australian government prepares to present its first Voluntary National Review of progress in implementing the SDGs to the United Nations next July.

Many universities are already looking at ways they can contribute. However, there is little guidance available on what this looks like in practice.

We prepared a guide – “Getting Started with the SDGs in Universities” – to provide practical assistance to universities that wish to engage with and implement them. The guide is a joint initiative of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability. It has had input from many universities across Australia and New Zealand.

Engaging with the SDGs will benefit universities by helping them demonstrate impact, capture demand for SDG-related education, build new partnerships, access new funding streams, and define what a responsible and globally aware university is.

Fundamental contributions to the SDGs: education and research

The importance of education for sustainable development is recognised in a number of the goals, particularly SDG 4, which calls for “inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Many targets within this goal are directly relevant to universities, such as for all learners to “acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development”.

Business trends suggest students with SDGs skills and literacy will be a growing expectation from employers. As well as an understanding of the subject areas of the SDGs, students will need skills such as systems thinking, integrated problem solving and entrepreneurship.

Research is the basis for understanding the key sustainable development challenges represented by SDGs and for providing the evidence-based solutions, technologies, pathways and innovations for addressing them.

With their extensive research capabilities, universities will need to play a leading role if the goals are to be successfully implemented.

A bigger role: innovation and leadership

Universities can make a much broader contribution to the goals than just research and education. They also have a role as hubs of innovation to support and host businesses – such as high-tech companies – that provide technologies and services for sustainable development.

Universities are major employers, consumers, investors and real estate holders. As large enterprises, they have significant impacts on social, economic and environmental wellbeing both on their campuses and in surrounding communities. By aligning university governance and operations with the aims of the SDGs, universities can make a significant contribution to their achievement. They can also send a clear message about what they and their communities value.

Engaging with the SDGs will benefit universities by helping them demonstrate impact, capture demand for SDG-related education, build new partnerships, access new funding streams, and define what a responsible and globally aware university is.

Accelerating action

There is no “right” way for universities to engage with the SDGs. How universities choose to act will depend on their size, research and educational strengths, funding arrangements, the needs of the communities they serve, and other factors.

The guide sets out how universities can tailor a whole-of-university approach to the goals. This starts with mapping what is already happening, building capacity, identifying priorities and gaps and then mainstreaming the SDGs in key policies and strategies. The guide also contains tools and case studies to help universities as they build their engagement.

The ConversationAchieving the SDGs is a big task, and given the critical roles universities have in supporting and delivering on this, the sector needs to make progress. The important thing is for universities to get started. This guide provides the framework for doing so.

Tahl Kestin is Sustainable Development Solutions Network Manager at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; John Thwaites is Chair of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute & ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University; Katie Ross is Research Principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Leanne Denby is Director of Sustainability at Macquarie University, and Marjan van den Belt is Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) of Victoria University of Wellington. This article was originally published on The Conversation

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