“A seat at the table”: Universities are essential for progress on the SDGs and shaping the post-2030 Agenda locally and globally.

blogJanuary 25, 2024

Ensuring that everyone can live a dignified and fulfilling life is a global challenge and will require global solutions. We are just past the halfway mark of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and all indications suggest that we are not going to meet most of our 2030 targets in poverty reduction, climate change mitigation, addressing inequality and food insecurity and the many more audacious goals that were agreed upon by the international community in 2015. Failing to achieve the SDGs is not just a “poor country” problem as many industrial and post-industrial nations, including Canada, are certain to fall short of achieving the goals. And while the failure to meet the SDGs in developing world settings is regrettable, it is inexcusable for countries such as Canada.  

In the run-up to the 2015 SDG agenda, universities were not at the table. As an intergovernmental (and non-binding) agreement, strategic planning to achieve the SDGs centered around government officials. Soon after, the private sector became involved as well, as it became clear that achieving the 17 goals require private sector contributions in terms of resources, market-driven solutions and impactful innovations. Universities, however, were not a part of this planning process.

This was a huge oversight and a missed opportunity to engage higher education in discussions about their contributions to advancing the SDGs, particularly through their leadership, research and teaching. The SDGs, while appealing at a rhetorical level – after all, who couldn’t get behind a global campaign to eradicate poverty? – were audacious and aspirational. There were no theories as to how we would actually achieve these ambitious goals. In cartographic terms, it was as though we had a map showing where we were starting from (i.e. baseline) and where we wanted to go (i.e. target), but with little sense of the route we’d take to get there, no idea of the obstacles along the way, and no evidence-based knowledge about how to efficiently achieve the SDGs.

This is where universities can help. Academic research theorizes and empirically demonstrates social, political, economic, and technological transformations. Economists generate theories of equitable growth and productivity; health specialists develop life-saving procedures and medicines; marine biologists discover new ways to preserve diverse coastal ecosystems; and so on.

The SDGs require innovative solutions. Universities are where cutting-edge innovations are discovered. Artificial intelligence and machine learning were born out of the university setting. Vaccines targeting COVID-19 were discovered in university laboratories. Gendered analysis and cultural context – both critical for the implementation of SDG solutions – take place in university seminars.

Unencumbered by market forces, university researchers can conduct basic research, pushing the knowledge envelope. Their insights contribute to evidence-based policy, so that we are not trying to achieve the SDGs without supporting data and its analysis.

Achieving the SDGs will need new ways of thinking as well as new styles of leadership. Future thought-leaders, scientists, policymakers, innovators, and corporate champions are in university classrooms right now. Their points of view, knowledge and expertise and their principled commitment to the SDGs are required to lead next-generation organizations in the private, public and third sectors. Universities educate millions of young people. They are the talent pipeline needed to meet the world’s sustainable development goals, presently and into the future. Their voices must be heard.

What’s done is done. We missed our chance to seat universities at the table when the SDGs were contemplated, established and implemented back in 2015. Let’s not make the same mistake again when world leaders sit down in the next few years to consider the post-2030 agenda. For just as we can be sure the exclusion of universities back then hampered our ability to achieve the SDGs presently, not having university leaders at the table in advance of setting the post-2030 agenda will certainly mean the global community falls short again.

About the author

Professor Joseph Wong is Vice-President, International, University of Toronto, where he is also a Professor of Political Science. He held the Canada Research Chair in Health, Democracy, and Development for two terms from 2006 to 2016, and the Roz and Ralph Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy from 2013 to 2023.

Prior to being appointed Vice-President in 2021, Professor Wong was the U of T’s inaugural Associate Vice-President and Vice-Provost, International Student Experience, and before that, the Director of the Asian Institute, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He is the author of many academic articles and several books, including the latest From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia in 2022, published by Princeton University Press, as well as Betting on Biotech: Innovation and the Limits of Asia’s Developmental States (2011) and Healthy Democracies: Welfare Politics in Taiwan and South Korea, both published by Cornell University Press. His academic articles have been published in The Lancet, Perspectives on Politics, the Annual Review of Political Science, the Bulletin of the WHO, Comparative Political Studies, Governance, among others.

Professor Wong has had affiliations with Harvard, Oxford, Fudan University in Shanghai, Seoul National University and the Institute for Policy Research in Taiwan. He has advised governments on matters of public policy in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, as well as the UN and the WHO. Inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals, in collaboration with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Professor Wong founded the Reach Alliance: http://reachalliance.org/what-is-reach. The Alliance comprises eight university partners globally, including Tecnológico de Monterrey, University of Oxford, University College London, University of Melbourne, Ashesi University (Ghana), the University of Cape Town and Singapore Management University

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