CHALLENGES

Higher education is key to realising SDGs

The Academy was not born to die on Mount Discipline. We are meant to solve complex problems.

In Summary
  • We are often too narrowly educated to join the dots between deforestation and the collapse of lakeshore cities.
  • We are too specialised to join the dots between teen pregnancy and national GDP.
Graduates.
Graduates.
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We are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline
Karl Popper

The 2012 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, lays out the complex global challenges that confront and imperil our existence.

It frames the challenges across four interconnected axes: people, resources, environment and development in 17 goals, 169 targets, and 223 indicators, popularly known as the Sustainable Development Goals.

The SDGs are a call to action to launch our planet on a sustainable path. We have a role to play as individuals, members of our community, nationals of our countries and as intellectual leaders—scholars and students.

 

Universities have responded admirably through the creation of the University Global Coalition, which seeks to support the delivery of SDGs through education, research and service. Universities have an obligation to educate and inspire students to engage, develop innovative ideas that generate sustainable solutions for local communities, civil society, businesses and governments. The role of higher education in supporting the delivery of SDGs is clear and compelling. However, there is a raging debate on the capacity of higher education to contribute meaningfully to the realisation of these global goals.

The underpinnings of the SDGs are a set of complex and inter-connected challenges and opportunities. Inevitably, the solutions, both actions and policies, require multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches. However, at their core, disciplinary or subject matter designations in the tradition of departments are antithetical to the idea of unity of knowledge, which focuses on problems rather than subject matter.

We are often too narrowly educated to join the dots between deforestation and the collapse of lakeshore cities. We are too specialised to join the dots between teen pregnancy and national GDP.

The transcendence of the disciplinary silo mentality is especially relevant to the advancement of use-inspired knowledge to advance sustainable development”
Michael Crow

Our top economic professors who advise presidents/prime ministers and CEOs of foundations or corporations won’t make the connection between malnutrition and the cost of public education. National treasury aficionados will not measure the contribution of fertile soils, bees wetlands and forest contribute to national GDP.

The academy was not born to die on Mount Discipline. We are designed to solve complex problems, grapple with the most consequential challenge of our time, deliver equitable and sustainable development. But only if we organise differently and reimagine higher education.

To meaningfully drive and lead the attainment of the SDGs, we must take Karl Popper more seriously when he says; “We are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline”.

To quote Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University; “The transcendence of the disciplinary silo mentality is especially relevant to the advancement of use-inspired knowledge to advance sustainable development”. Under President Crow’s leadership, ASU eliminated several traditional disciplines academic departments including sociology, anthropology, geology, and several in various areas of biology. It can be done.

Together, students and the professoriate, must rise and meet the challenge of equitable and sustainable development; harness the vaults of capability the university offers and unleash an army of broadly educated graduates, not myopic subject matter experts.