Make students SDG competent | Maxim Vandekerckhove

No hunger, clean water, affordable and sustainable energy, these are just a few examples of the major challenges that we face in the world. In 2015, the United Nations placed the challenges in 17 sustainable development goals, which have been endorsed by almost all countries of the world.

Together we want to ensure that all 17 are achieved in 2030. Already in twelve years!

This requires strong leadership at all levels of society. I hope that the colleges and universities will do the same. After all, that’s where the leaders of the future are. The SDGs deserve a central place in higher education. The challenges in the world are complex and intertwined, and so are the solutions. They require a multidisciplinary, innovative approach. The people who meet the challenges and take the lead need special skills. Being able to collaborate across traditional boundaries is one; to understand and feel differently-minded people from other fields, sectors or countries. Listening and empathy are also essential skills. The leaders of the future must be able to unite the needs of different stakeholders in the collective goals of the UN. Powerful leadership is impact-driven, focused on the collective rather than on individual interest.

As soon as the SDGs become an overarching frame of mind at colleges and universities, these special competences will receive full attention in the education programs. Universities of applied sciences are already concerned with sustainability and social responsibility in their own way, but hardly under the SDG denominator. Initiatives are fragmented and not integrated. The good news is that the researcher sees enough starting points to link the current study programs to the SDGs. These programs do not have to be turned upside down. Because it is precisely at smaller companies that students can make the difference. Most entrepreneurs have little knowledge of the SDGs, students can show the added value by helping entrepreneurs with the development of sustainable business models.

Teach students what the SDGs are and that everyone has a responsibility to contribute to that. Make sure that they will have the knowledge and competences in their job to be able to bear that responsibility. The SDGs must therefore be included in the curriculum! That brings a future-proof world closer.

If we look at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) we see that they are not all equal, since the ecological boundaries prevail. For example, SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 13 (climate action), SDG 14 (life in the water) and SDG 15 (life on land) must first be met as a condition for developing a healthy society and economy. Unfortunately, it is precisely those SDGs that today receive the lowest priority from companies and governments. So, we are still facing major systemic challenges to realize the transition to a sustainable society. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) therefore distracts us from what we really need to do to save the world: switching to value-driven organizations that put human and planet health first, at all costs. But the line between companies that design CSR strategies because they are profitable, and companies that act based on their values, was thin and often not clearly stated. However, they will result in a completely different outcomes: business as usual or the transition to a sustainable society. Companies, governments and organizations should therefore not simply design a CSR strategy, but take a stand and express their values in practical terms.

Transformative dynamics

In the meantime, the SDGs are creating a strong dynamic worldwide. It is too early at the moment to say whether that will really be a “transformative” dynamic – that word is very present nowadays. In the best case, the SDGs will lead to an integrated and coherent policy and change practices in individual countries, at European level and at the global level.

In this case, companies that really want to opt for a different business run a hopeful trend. In the negative case, the SDG framework is eagerly used to prove that people are supposedly doing everything they should, and it is not a compass to change things and to coordinate things. In the worst case, the potential power of the SDGs is also quickly neutralized in this way and they become an alibi to continue with an unsustainable development model. It can still go either way at the moment. What we are not allowed to do is put the SDGs cynically away. It is fascinating and hopeful that so many people and organizations around the world want to work with this framework. The entire package of SDGs and more concrete objectives and matching indicators, among other things, offers civil society extra instruments to hold countries to account. Hopefully the SDGs can make difficult discussions hip again or break open stuck debates.


[1] UNDP (2017) More than philanthropy: SDGs are a $12 trillion opportunity for the private sector.
[2] SDG Barometer (2018) Antwerp Management School, Universiteit Antwerpen, Louvain School of Management.
[3] Sachs, J. et al. (2016). SDG Index and Dashboard – Global Report. New York: Bertelsmann Stiftung & Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
[4] Universities and Sustainable Development Towards the Global Goals, 2018, European University Association

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