Higher education practice & the Sustainable Development Goals: innovative ideas from across the sector

Dr Artur Szymański
Cranfield University

December 2020

We are increasingly aware that our daily choices affect the world we live in. More of us now intentionally choose sustainably sourced products, such as fair-trade coffee, rainforest alliance chocolate, or cotton. More industries modify their products and services to reduce their impact on the environment and to improve the sustainability of the earth. Our lifestyle choices and daily behaviours such as recycling our rubbish and turning off the heating in an empty room are good things to do, however, they play a relatively small part in a much broader, global agenda on sustainability, as set out by the United Nations in their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This blog will consider how policy and practice within UK higher education (HE) can contribute to the worldwide movement on sustainability and it will identify some innovative initiatives which are already in place across the UK HE sector.

What Are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were set by the United Nations to combine social, economic, and political development, with the environment being just one part of this much broader agenda. The fundamental aim of the SDGs is to eradicate poverty and hunger, enhance good health and well-being, promote quality education and combat inequalities. At the same time, the goal is to provide access to affordable energy, promote industrial innovation and secure peace, justice and strong institutions. All the goals are interconnected and require strong partnerships and despite the defined timeline in which we must reach them – by 2030 – it will be a lifelong challenge to fulfil and maintain them.

The HE sector bears an enormous responsibility in shaping future generations and influencing young minds. Therefore, it should set and lead by example on SDGs literacy, not just by promotion, but also by fulfilling the goals themselves. The graphical representation of UN SDGs can be seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Sustainable development goals defined by United Nations.

Linking the SDGs to UK HE

Research institutions within the HE sector foster innovation and economic growth by pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, which will be critical for achieving the SDGs. Apart from that, universities can exhibit the SDGs in many ways, through their operating models, management policies or their teaching and design of curricula. There are several opportunities for where this can happen, with some excellent examples of SDGs awareness already demonstrable among UK institutions. In the majority of cases, universities share the common aim to be ‘a sustainable organisation’, typically focusing on environmental factors through the following actions:

  • The implementation of the ISO standardisation for environmental and energy management.
  • The promotion of sustainable travel options, such as public transportation, cycling, multi-occupancy car usage and electric vehicles.
  • Sustainable procurement requiring that all products and services provided to the university are compatible with the protection of the environment and society.
  • The roll-out of Green IT, providing state-of-the-art services and solutions, keeping the energy bills and carbon footprint low.
  • The promotion of biodiversity and wildlife on campus aiming to retain, protect and expand existing green areas, with native species wherever possible.

Apart from the more common initiatives mentioned above, there are some unique, innovative endeavours from a handful of universities which are worth sharing:

The ‘Sustainable Building Futures’ project with Coventry University is an excellent example of how the SDGs can provide adequate support to local small and medium enterprises and how academic research serves society. The project supports the practice of sustainable building, including developing energy efficiency solutions; carbon and waste minimisation action plans; architectural support and many others. In addition to the business assistance, it focuses on research and development, developing business plans for new products or markets, market research and prototyping. The team works with businesses of all sizes in a variety of ways from one-off projects solving specific problems to full strategic partnerships designed to facilitate business growth and expansion.

The University of Edinburgh’s Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability supports the university to understand, explain and deliver on its ambition to be a leading socially responsible university. The department provides a ‘Sustainable Campus Fund’ to support projects that reduce the university’s impact on the environment. It offers MSc level courses on Environmental Sustainability and has additional courses related to sustainability under consideration. The growing range of courses and projects proves an interest and demand for graduates specialised in sustainability. The University of Southampton has also been giving MSc project students opportunities to study SDGs areas for many years.

The University of Bristol developed the ‘Bristol Futures’ initiative. This encourages innovative learning resources and extracurricular activities. It offers three, free of charge courses, and one of them is Sustainable Futures. The course equips students to engage with the challenges of improving our quality of life while sustaining the natural environment and finding ways of living with environmental change. It focuses on a wide range of aspects from happiness, purpose and life satisfaction to global responsibilities on energy, microplastics and climate change.

Engagement with the SDGs at CILE Partner Institutions

Aston University’s recently published 2020-2024 Sustainability Strategy builds on an earlier report which sets out the institution’s comprehensive objectives which are designed to meet the SDGs through the implementation of a number of strategies, policies and management systems. The most noticeable is the ‘Adaptation and Climate Change’ policy which identifies climate change as one of the greatest and costly challenges we all face. It points out and addresses the extreme weather events, their consequences and possible impacts over time. The policy assesses the risks and presents the measures taken by the University and Birmingham City Council to mitigate the uncertainty that climate change brings.

Cranfield University has an exceptional approach to biodiversity. Its unusual rural location allows it to take actions on a larger-scale than in urban-located universities. With almost 9 hectares (more than 12 football pitches) of conservation areas, Cranfield’s Green Team takes a proactive approach to retain the unique environment. The biodiversity action incentives include a woodland trail walk, wildlife cameras, local honey harvesting and spring watch; where all Cranfield staff and students are welcome to take part, socialise and network.

Overall, the SDGs are often addressed through university operations and research, although they are not always present in the curriculum. To have more impact, they should be mapped into all taught programmes, regardless of the topic, to relate content to future world challenges. A great opportunity lies with final year student projects on sustainability, which could be performed on living lab projects using university or city infrastructure. Such an experience gives a hands-on experience of progression towards sustainability in practice.

SDGs at MK:U

The motto of the city of Milton Keynes is ‘different by design’. There is no doubt that its new university, MK:U, is going to be unique as well, designed for the 21st century. It will focus on new technologies and industries, providing technical, creative and commercial skills for the future digital workforce; at the same time driving sustainable innovation and growth for individuals, industry and wider society. MK:U’s courses have been designed with industry, for industry, with a substantial focus on students’ practical skills, which will be crucial for the rapidly growing local economy and for preparing future alumni to tackle society’s global challenges.

MK:U’s goal is to embed sustainability into all elements of the MK:U philosophy. The approach it has taken is to include the SDGs through all teaching and learning, to ensure that its future students are equipped with essential knowledge and sustainability literacy. Such a combination of hard skills with leadership, problem-solving and SDGs awareness will shape future leaders ready for challenges of an ever-changing world. This will help us to build a better future and economy not only for Milton Keynes and the UK as a whole, but it also ensures we are continuously contributing to fulfil and maintain our sustainability commitments at the global level as well.

Artur Szymański

Artur Szymański, Research Fellow in Turbomachinery Aerodynamics at Cranfield University contributes expertise to the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Education (CILE). The joint virtual centre aims to develop new knowledge in innovative education, business-engaged educational design and innovative delivery modes in undergraduate provision within UK Higher Education. Through joint research, the sharing of best practice and the design of innovative education pathways, Aston and Cranfield Universities are supporting the proposed development of a new model STEM-focused university in Milton Keynes.

This blog has been produced for the Centre for Innovation and Learning in Education, a Catalyst OfS funded project.


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