The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 goals with 169 targets that all 193 UN member states have agreed to try to achieve by 2030. SDGs are a matter of urgency, and actions by all countries, both developed and developing, to end poverty and other socio-economic and environmental problems should align with strategies that improve the standard of life and education, reduce inequality, and harness economic growth.
Though it has been eight years since the inception of these goals, the SDGs Report 2023 flagged slow progress and painted a grim picture due to the prolonged effects of COVID-19, impacts of the climate crisis, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and a weak global economy. The lack of progress towards the goals is a universal experience, but it has been more pronounced in the Least Developed Countries. India, despite having managed the crises of the global economy and relatively succeeded in overcoming the challenges posed by the pandemic, has suffered a setback in achieving these goals.
NEP 2020 and SDGs
Yet, recent actions and policies indicate that India is committed towards realising SDGs. SDG4 pertains to access to quality education. It is a prerequisite for the achievement of other goals. India, with a long-standing history of equitable and inclusive education, has accelerated efforts to ensure the achievement of SDGs through various reforms. Among them, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 should be given credit to a great extent.
NEP 2020 has been prepared in tune with most of the SDGs. Though NEP 2020 calls for changes at all levels of education, priority should be accorded to higher education as it accelerates social mobility, empowers people through creativity and critical thinking, and grants them employment skills.
According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), people with a higher education degree are more employable and earn an average of 54% more than those who only have completed senior secondary education. A university-inclusive education, thus, better protects people against poverty (SDG1), prevents them from hunger (SDG2), supports them for good health and well-being (SDG3), promotes gender equality (SDG5), provides them decent work, which in turn drives economic growth (SDG 8), and reduces inequalities (SDG10).
Universities should strengthen the research-teaching nexus in university education. That way, students will become direct benefactors of the knowledge generated from research. Multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary systems of education produce multitalented people who can pursue research, and find innovative solutions to global challenges such as affordable and clean energy (SDG7), sustainable cities and communities (SDG11), climate change and global warming (SDG13), as well as studying their impact on an economy and the earth.
Sustainable development is possible only if we radically change the way we produce and consume (SDG12). Innovative solutions and start-ups (SDG 9) must be developed in collaboration with private companies. Introducing Value-Based Education (VBE) will help citizens become responsible towards self, society, and the planet and help our nation achieve “Life on Land” (SDG15).
Suggestions and concluding remarks
NEP 2020 demands that Indian higher education be committed to mapping its day-to-day operations with SDGs. Ranking universities according to the achievement of SDGs is a welcome move, but is still inadequate to meet the SDG deadline.
To accelerate the progress towards achieving the 2030 agenda, stakeholders of higher education should be educated and oriented so that none of their activities leave any SDG behind. The 56,205 higher educational institutions and universities in India should work together.
Universities should come out reinvigorated and play a part in the education, innovation, culture, and civic life of their local communities. Community health, energy-saving measures, efficient resource allocation, waste reduction, development of local skills, as well as the sharing of services, infrastructure, and facilities with other universities or external partners should become a culture in universities.
It is high time that universities adopted sustainability as a mantra and incorporated SDGs into their institutional strategies, both in daily administration and in teaching and research. It has been realised that higher education cannot work in isolation; rather it must be directly integrated with socio-economic development where each activity and transaction has meaningful and multiple impacts on SDGs. Every citizen must feel that the universities contribute directly to their well-being and nation-building.
Selvam Jesiah is Professor of Management, Sri Ramachandra Institute of Higher Education and Research