Universities can and must play a more proactive and prominent role in embracing sustainable development goals (SDGs). Why Universities? Because universities train the decision-makers of tomorrow; they are viewed as independent; they can shape behavior; they champion ethics and values; and they can deal with complex problems through research and innovation.
After the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the inevitable economic downturn, how can the 2030 SDG Agenda be put back on the right path? Universities face challenges on account of their rigid organisational structures, difficulty to embed sustainable education in their curricula, inertia to change and often lack of openness and connectedness to the world.
This starts at the helm of the university in setting the vision. Universities should aim beyond the traditional development of human and intellectual capital and embrace business and social capital, which are key to promoting sustainable development.
It becomes imperative to review organisational structures if universities are to effectively address multi-disciplinary topics such as climate change, food security and ocean conservation. At the University of Mauritius, we brought together under one Faculty the physical, biological, agricultural and marine sciences to enable academics to address key SDG issues in a structured manner.
To fully respond to SDG target 4.7 – ‘By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development’ – we cannot remain in silos. We need to change the system as a whole. It involves rethinking the curriculum, campus operations, organizational culture, student participation, leadership and management, community relationships and research; and doctoral training so that PhDs are not only original pieces of work but also impactful contributions to society.
Despite the negative impacts of COVID-19, which has given rise of protectionism for some, it is not a threat to globalisation as many fear. In fact, this crisis should foster partnerships and collaborative actions more than ever. Universities can and must lead the way. Digital technologies can help in enhancing partnerships post-pandemic. Universities must embrace digitalisation. The University of Mauritius recently organised a 10-day-online internship programme with TACCI (Trans Asian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) in India on ‘IoT to Product Design’, attracting 200 students from both countries: A vivid example of new technology-enabled partnerships requiring little financial means.
The pandemic has reminded us of the importance of values and discipline. The need for students to acquire not only knowledge and skills but also values and attitudes that empower them to contribute to sustainable development becomes a must – they are the next generation of SDG Ambassadors.
“Universities are ideally positioned, through their vast partnerships and networks across all sectors of society, to lead the implementation of SDGs and get closer to achieving the 2030 Agenda.”
Pooling together universities around SDGs to form ‘University SDG Clusters’ could lead to impactful results at the regional or global scale. University partnerships drawing public, private and community partners together is key to success. Universities in the global south could lead the way.
It is time to act taking into account lessons drawn from the pandemic. The huge energy savings in China during lockdown and the depollution of the atmosphere gave hope to those struggling to address climate change, but only for a short period, as economic activities take over post COVID-19. Universities can play a more prominent role in advising policy-makers how to better reconcile SDGs and the GDP.
Professor Dhanjay Jhurry is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius. Previously, he held the National Research Chair in Biomaterials and Drug Delivery (Mauritius Research Council), while heading the Centre for Biomedical and Biomaterials Research, which he founded. He received the first Best Mauritian Scientist Award in 2011, was decorated by the Republic of Mauritius (2019/2012) and by the Republic of France (2007). Prof Jhurry is an elected member of the Association of Commonwealth Universities Council and of the Scientific Council of the Francophone Association of Universities.