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Integrating UN Sustainable Development Goals in university curriculum, research, and partnerships

Integrating UN Sustainable Development Goals in university curriculum, research, and partnerships

Nicole Arsenault

How have universities integrated the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) and what lessons might be learned and applied therein? This is the key question that Nicole Arsenault, MES alumnus and Program Director of York’s Office of Sustainability, sought to address in her MES Paper on The Role of Universities Towards a Sustainable Future: Integrating the Sustainable Development Goals (2021).

Since graduating from Glendon with a BA in Multidisciplinary Studies, Arsenault has pursued her environmental passion in creating a better world for future generations. When she became Manager of York’s Transportation & Student Services, she oversaw the transportation needs and projects of York’s community of students, faculty and staff. In 2016, she won the President's Sustainability Leadership Award for revamping the university's transportation modal split, before the opening of the University-Spadina subway on Keele campus.

Pursuing the MES program has allowed Arsenault to pursue continuous and lifelong learning as well as complemented her experience as a sustainability professional in higher education. With her area of concentration on sustainability and organizational change, matched by her passion for being a changemaker for environmental sustainability and social justice, she grew into the role as Program Director of York’s Sustainability Office giving her the unique opportunity to experience and embody both theory and practice of sustainability.

      Overview of university contributions to SDGs. Source: Getting Started with the SDGs, by SDSN Australia/Pacific, 2017:10)

“Universities play a crucial role in helping to shape a sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals," says Arsenault. "The SDGs provide a framework towards not only successfully building a sustainable university but also for how universities can contribute to addressing these substantial challenges in the real world", she adds. "By integrating the SDGs through the whole-institution, universities can influence society, through its research, teaching & learning, operations, and community engagement."

So how are universities integrating the SDGs and how can their efforts be accelerated? Arsenault stresses that the internationally agreed to SDGs are a vital component to any attempt to incorporate sustainability and equity into society because UN has recognized post-secondary institutions as vehicles for change in society.

“Several universities have taken steps to embed and integrate sustainability through research, curriculum, and within operations; yet resolving the most critical problems will require more work, more adaptation of value-based approaches and philosophies, as well as greater promotion of innovation, experiential learning, and responsibility towards future generations,” expounds Arsenault. “To integrate the SDGs within universities, a holistic approach is required, including governance and administration, research, teaching, operations, and collaboration with local and global communities.”

Using York University as a case study, Arsenault illustrates these points.  She highlights how York University has taken many progressive steps to implement the SDGs in its teaching, research, and community engagement programs.  Looking at York University’s Academic Plan of Building a Better Future 2020-2025, there are six priorities of action that York University is pursuing over the next five years. These include: 21st Century Learning, Living Well Together, Knowledge for the Future, From Access to Success, Advancing Global Engagement, and Working in Partnership. The priorities are conceptualized as a wheel to reflect their fluidity and interdependence with the SDGs enveloping the wheel to depict York’s longstanding commitment to building a more just and sustainable future.

In terms of specific actions, York has developed a Sustainability Strategy that serves to foster a culture of sustainability within and beyond the University. In York’s UNSDG Report 2021, York was recognized by the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking for the third consecutive year and was ranked 67th out of 1,115 universities in the world. York participated and submitted information for all 17 SDGs and was ranked in the top 4% globally, 3rd in Canada, and 27th in the world for the SDG 17 – Partnership for the Goals. York also ranked 5th in Canada and 24th in the world for SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities.

The President’s Sustainability Council -- the pan-university advisory body -- guides the university into advancing York University's sustainability strategy, initiatives, projects and practices. York has also made significant progress in advancing equity and inclusivity with priorities such as Black Inclusion and the Indigenous Framework. Further, a President’s Advisory Council on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) was created as the pan-university committee to help guide and advance these institutional priorities.

York University Student Centre: Green roofs and permeable landscape surfaces

York is further advancing awareness of and engagement with the SDGs through its numerous institutional partnerships. One of the most noteworthy is the newly created Centre International de Formation des Authorités/Acteurs Locaux (CIFAL) York, which was developed in partnership with United Nations Institute for Training & Research (UNITAR) bringing together key policy actors in addressing complex global issues such as sustainable development, disaster recovery, health and economic development. York is also part of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)  and is actively engaged in the SDSN Youth Network, as illustrated by its creation of the SDG Student Hub at York.

In terms of curriculum, the Cross-Campus Capstone Classroom (C4) is an interdisciplinary program in which students work together in groups to solve real-world problems with social impact, aligning all projects with the SDGs. And further embedding the SDGs into Teaching & Learning, the York Academic Innovation Fund has prioritized projects that advance York's strategic priorities in teaching, learning and experiential education. The university's research priorities have also focused around six intersecting themes: (1) advancing fundamental inquiry and critical knowledge; (2) analyzing cultures and mobilizing creativity; (3) building healthy lives, communities and environments; (4) exploring and interrogating the frontiers of science and technology; (5) forging a just and equitable world; and (6) integrating entrepreneurial innovation and the public good.

York University's Las Nubes EcoCampus in Costa Rica

Indeed, York has implemented various sustainability initiatives within its operations, including energy efficiencies and deep retrofits; zero-waste program; green buildings, grounds and landscaping; transportation and mobility; and food initiatives such as locally sourced, and fair trade. Through these initiatives, York has been recognized as one of Canada’s Greenest Employers for nine years in a row. In 2020, York University made additional progress by aligning with the Paris Agreement and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in committing to become carbon-neutral on or before 2049. York also has an eco-campus in Costa Rica housing the Las Nubes project that allows students to gain first-hand experience of tropical ecology, sustainability, Indigenous education, arts, health, and conservation in rural Costa Rica.

Arsenault provides key recommendations to further support the integration of the SDGs at York University. These include institutional support and funding for Campus as a Living Lab given the university’s teaching and research resources, technology, organisation and socio-economic vehicles to advance SDG collaboration and partnerships; a 17 Rooms event to increase SDG awareness;  integrating Indigenous and non-Western knowledges, other worldviews and different ways of knowing; and maximizing York’s KMb Unit to facilitate SDG connections and collaboration between researchers, stakeholders, and the community of practices, among others.

“The challenge of achieving the SDG goals is far-reaching, and we will only succeed if everyone, including governments, businesses, organizations, academia, and individuals, make a concerted effort,” emphasizes Arsenault. “It is time for a societal transformation and a paradigm shift through collective action to solve these world issues, and universities need to be at the heart of it,” she concludes.