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Universities’ role in meeting Sustainable Development Goals during a crisis

  • 10 August 2021
  • By Stephanie Marshall

By Professor Stephanie Marshall, Vice-Principal (Education) at Queen Mary University of London. Stephanie’s Twitter is @SmarshallYork.

In March 2020, we saw the start of perhaps the biggest global crisis of the twenty-first century: the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, governments and businesses in every corner of the world turned their attention to managing the resulting unprecedented disruption, damage and devastation.

Higher education institutions were no different in that they too experienced a shift in priorities. You could be forgiven for suggesting that it would be nonsensical for universities or anyone else to think about any of the longer-term, ambitious targets they were previously working towards. But, as the Prime Minister has himself noted, we have the chance to build back better in our recovery. We can create a better world by addressing problems we have faced for far too long.

Sustainable Development Goals are a helpful tool in achieving this. Aside from the fact that these goals, such as those set by the United Nations in its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are all noble endeavours, there are numerous measures and indicators that make tracking progress straightforward. We cannot build a better world a without knowing how swiftly we are moving in the right direction.

Universities can be central to meeting sustainable development goals during a crisis like COVID-19. This is also not a new line of thought. The Paris Agreement – a legally binding international treaty from 2015 on climate change – identified educational institutions as partners in meeting the sustainable development goals of the treaty.

Additionally, if we examine the United Nations sustainable development goals, we can see that each one requires education to empower people with the knowledge, skills and values to live in dignity, build their lives and contribute to their societies. Whether it is fostering sustainable cities and communities, ensuring healthy lives and wellbeing, delivering quality education or providing access to affordable and sustainable energy – universities can be at the core of making this happen.

The biggest question is how. Unsurprisingly there is no single clear answer. But there are numerous ways that universities are already hard at work. We are fortunate in being able to draw on expert knowledge from some of the brightest minds in leading academics, scientists and experts. We are also lucky to have world-class facilities to carry out game-changing research. As a case in point, Queen Mary was recently awarded a major European Research Council grant to our School of Engineering and Materials Science to develop solar technology. This will allow researchers to push the limits of energy efficiency and explore delivering vast amounts of clean energy, with the ultimate goal of tackling climate changing and global warming.

As we know, the importance of cutting global emissions and addressing the changing climate has been thrust into the spotlight through the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. This received much media attention and provoked significant discussion about the urgent need for change.

And universities have of course accelerated their research into health matters as a result of COVID-19, playing a central role in understanding transmission and prevention, informing policy, providing vital public health advice and developing vaccines.

More broadly, embedding the concept of sustainability itself into each and every curriculum at universities is a strategy that has been successful thus far – and must continue. Queen Mary, like so many other universities, has a major ‘inclusive curriculum’ programme, ensuring that students can see themselves in their programme of study. Indeed, several of the examples of best practice cited by students highlight not just their own inclusivity, but also the exploration of numerous UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Achieving global sustainability will not happen overnight. It will take a lot of years of hard work and campaigning, combined with the desire from governments and business leaders to implement change. We must do all we can to ensure future generations carry on the fight, otherwise what we achieve in the next ten or twenty years will ultimately matter little. Students should graduate with the knowledge not just of the importance of sustainability, but how they can carry this into their future careers and leave armed with the desire to do so.

As anyone involved in higher education will attest to, one of the most notable changes the pandemic caused was the complete overhaul in the way universities, colleges and any educational institute operated. Working or studying from home became the norm, which had a sizeable impact in reducing our carbon footprint. As we all take a step closer to normality and returning to work or studying in-person, it is imperative that we get the balance right in this hybrid experience. We know the environmental benefits in working from home, but this has to be considered against another cornerstone of sustainable development: ensuring good health and wellbeing.

Social isolation has a notable impact on mental health in particular. A Higher Education Policy Institute poll recently found more than fifty percent of students reported the pandemic negatively affecting their mental health. We know there is no silver bullet for mental health, but universities must do everything in their power to support both the mental and physical wellbeing of staff and students.

And universities must also acknowledge their role in addressing digital poverty, which has been exacerbated since the outbreak, as noted in research by the University of Cambridge among many others. While society has embraced digital technologies and the advances that have happened since March 2020, it has led to an intensified digital divide with those from disadvantaged backgrounds denied the same opportunities and access as their wealthier peers. The problem is not going away any time soon, despite the Government procuring millions of laptops for disadvantaged school pupils and charities and trusts pulling together free-to-use online resources. In working towards a quality education for all, we must do more to ensure the effects of the pandemic on children’s learning does not leave a lasting legacy.

We cannot shape a brighter tomorrow without each of these strands of activity, but the commitments need to be turned into practice. Universities cannot do this alone. It requires a combination of factors, namely political will at the highest level alongside global and regional collaboration. However, there has perhaps never been a generation more invested in the planet’s future than today’s crop of students, who put sustainability at the heart of everything they do and strive passionately for change. Anyone who has spoken to them knows their commitment is unwavering, so there is optimism for the future.

It is hard for anyone to say how close we are to the end of the COVID-19 crisis. But what is easier to see is the institutional commitment in higher education towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals has never been stronger than during this difficult period. And with much progress made, we cannot afford to lose this valuable momentum.

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