Higher education and the sustainable development agenda in Pakistan

IPD group photo

On 25 September 2015, all 193 United Nations (UN) member states gathered at the Sustainable Development Summit to adopt the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, with an overarching commitment to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development that promises 'no one is left behind.'

Three years on, Pakistan seems to be lagging behind its regional peers, ranking at number 126 out of 157 countries with a score of 54.9 under the SDGs' global index. This comes as a surprise since the government has shown a heightened commitment to the Agenda 2030 and has been proactive in its approach to adopting this humongous development agenda, adopting the SDGs as national development agenda rather than a stand-alone UN initiative. Furthermore, special SDG units have been embedded at the Prime Minister Office, the Parliament, the Planning Commission and at all provincial levels.

It's no secret that Pakistan failed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), showing dismal or no performance in 24 indicators including education. Now the big question is whether or not history will repeat itself? And if all mechanisms are in place, what more can be done to improve our current performance?

First and foremost, there must be a realisation that the Pakistani government alone cannot implement the SDGs and collaboration with the public and private sectors and civil society is critical for discernible performance. It is well-established that universities and other educational institutions are the most crucial for sustainable development. Higher education underpins all the SDGs, in fact, research and education are explicitly mentioned in several of the goals and their targets. In a report by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SSDN) on the importance of the involvement of universities it is explicitly mentioned that 'arguably the SDGs will not be achieved without this [higher education] sector.'

Pakistan has over 190 higher education institutions that need to significantly increase their contributions and meaningfully engage with the SDGs. This seems to be the missing piece of the puzzle that can accelerate the position of Pakistan up the SDG index and help deliver true and meaningful performance across all goals.

COMSATS University, Islamabad (CUI), is among the few universities that has been striving to do its part in promoting the agenda 2030. Back in 2015, COMSATS University, Islamabad (then COMSATS Institute of Information Technology) joined the Association of Commonwealth Universities' international campaign 'The world beyond 2015 – is higher education ready?' in a bid to raise awareness within the higher education community of Pakistan on how HEI's should respond to global development challenges Post-2015 (MDGs were phasing out in 2015).

Now again, deriving inspiration from the Association of the Commonwealth Universities (ACU), CUI has begun to host residential summer schools on topics concerning the SDG agenda. This is indeed a fun and innovative way to raise awareness about the SDG agenda and inculcate and mainstream SDG goals in the curriculum.

Set to be held in August, CUI's first ever residential summer school 2018 by the name of Archiventure, hosted by its Department of Architecture and Design, is centered on the SDG Goal Number 11: Creating Sustainable Cities and Communities.

The theme of the school will closely study how to make cities and human settlements 'inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.' The school hopes to achieve an increased awareness around the SDG agenda and come up with tangible solutions to some of the problems and challenges posed within the Goal 11. With over 11 international tutors, 3 renowned national speakers and an expert panel of national and international jurors, Archiventure is a design competition for students of urban planning, architecture and design that will awards participants with international internships at some of the most exciting international architectural firms.

This is just one way my university is engaging with the SDGs. However, there are many more innovative ways to contribute through learning, teaching and research. Previously, CUI has also held several talks, seminars and discussions around the themes of the SDG's with the aim to increasing public awareness. Most popular themes have been around climate change and mitigation, food security, water management and women empowerment, to name a few. More formidable efforts however are needed across the board from the entire higher education sector in Pakistan to call for increased engagement and participation in the development agenda.

Most importantly perhaps there is a need for now providing comprehensive academic and/or vocational education to implement SDG solutions for empowering and mobilizing our youth. Globally there is a surge of academic degree programs and courses introducing the key theoretical as well as practical aspects of SDGs. There has also been a whole host of MOOCs and free online resources and courses designed and developed for consumption at a large global scale. The SDG Academy, a knowledge cloud created by the SSDN, itself has created and curated several free, graduate-level courses for students around the world on cross-cutting issues related to the SDGs such as global health and wellbeing, human rights, gender parity and environmental security. And one theme that emerges in all courses is the theme of enhanced global cooperation and collaboration to advance this shared global vision. The higher education sector in Pakistan could utilize and embed these rich and diverse resources within its own education systems and the curricula and develop own graduate-level courses to respond to the growing global demand for graduates who understand and can implement the SDG agenda.

Apart from enhancing learning and teaching another key ingredient in the mix is of course 'research.' The higher education sector of Pakistan is already geared towards strengthening its research capacities and huge funding goes into international research collaboration and research commercialization at most HEI's across the board. It goes without saying that for the successful implementation of many of the SDGs fundamental and physical sciences, social sciences, engineering, and humanities research are all imperative. However, the universities should also promote SDGs as a priority research topic. Only through dedicated research, in collaboration with the government bodies and the civil society, can Pakistan understand its local challenges and develop bespoke solutions to progress its sustainable development journey. The government and policy makers too, working with the researchers, can then properly understand and comprehend the gaps in implementation and study the trajectory closely to identify reasons for our below average performance so far and working towards plausible solutions to improve our current standing and attain our goals for 2030.

Dr Arshad Salim Malik is a Steering Committee member for the ACU Internationalisation Community and Head of the International Office at COMSATS University Islamabad in Pakistan.