Creating an ecosystem around higher education to promote sustainability

(Photo Credit: Times Higher Education)

At Prince Sultan University, initiatives are under way that draw on the UN’s SDGs, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and the institution’s own ambitions

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be achieved only through strong global partnerships and committed collaboration. Universities are uniquely placed to lead the cross-sectoral implementation of the SDGs and advance the UN’s 2030 agenda.

Any agenda targeting the 2030 SDGs requires inclusive global, regional, national and local partnerships built on principles and values, as well as a shared vision that places people and the planet at the centre. This is something that Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan University (PSU) recognises.

PSU is committed to promoting the UN’s SDG 2030 agenda as part of its own institutional strategic plan in support of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 framework. The Vision 2030 initiative calls on organisations – both private and public – to empower, nurture and inspire young Saudi citizens to fully realise their potential as part of the country’s ongoing formative action to combat the climate crisis and its impacts.

During a fringe event held as part of the 2022 THE Global Sustainable Development Congress, hosted by Times Higher Education in partnership with the University of Glasgow, faculty members from PSU, alongside external partners, explored the strong international cooperation that is essential for the creation of a more sustainable world. The panellists discussed why higher education institutions rely on these partnerships to ensure that countries have, now more than ever, the means to recover from the pandemic, build back better and achieve the SDGs.

A call for action

The discussion began by looking at SDG 5, which concerns gender equality. Heba Khoshaim, vice-president of the women’s campus at PSU, spoke about why gender equality was so important, what action PSU was taking to further gender equality, and how SDG 5 was aligned with the country’s wider Vision 2030 strategy.

“Gender equality is a basic human right,” Khoshaim said. “It is fundamental for the maintenance of a peaceful and sustainable world. If you ignore 50 per cent of the global population, you ignore 50 per cent of the potential. The most recent data suggests no country in the world has yet achieved full gender parity. This is alarming.”

In education, facilitating equal opportunities is vital. There also needs to be equal recognition for students. At PSU, there is a focus on three main areas: education, empowerment and inspiration. There are four programmes offering degrees for female students only, with some in fields where women have been historically under-represented, such as architecture.

“Highlighting the importance of international partnership, Stanford University started its Women in Data Science conference in 2015,” Khoshaim explained. “PSU joined in 2018 and since then has been offering the same conference yearly in March, chosen as it is the month in which International Women’s Day takes place.”

SDG 8, which focuses on promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, and employment and decent work for all, is another important focus area for PSU. Jolly Sahni, director of PSU’s Jubilation Office and associate director of MBA programmes, spoke passionately on this SDG.

“At PSU, we are going above and beyond in terms of SDG 8,” Sahni noted. “We have clear routes into employment, we pay employees much higher than the minimum wage, as defined by the Ministry of Labour, and we treat faculty and other staff fairly at all times.”

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted PSU’s commitment to SDG 8. The crisis provided a lesson about resilience and how to use technology creatively to solve unprecedented problems. “We don’t just prioritise physical well-being,” Sahni said. “Mental well-being is important at PSU, too – and another key element for meeting SDG 8.”

Exemplified by the UN Global Compact, sustainability depends on a holistic ecosystem that unites higher education, government, industry and wider society. Maryam Telmesani, chair of the Saudi Arabia local network at the UN Global Compact, noted that while we are seeing progress in the private sector around sustainability, her organisation is committed to furthering progress in this area by driving impact and making sure progress is measurable.

“We help organisations meet their sustainability objectives by connecting, learning, leading and innovating,” Telmesani said. “To embed sustainability, there are a lot of educational elements. We have the UN Academy, peer training, accelerator programmes and Think Labs.”

Looking at SDG 16 and its emphasis on promoting peace, justice, strong institutions and inclusive societies, Dhafer Almakhles, chair of communications and networks engineering at PSU, spoke about the importance of effective collaboration between universities and government.

“The Saudi government and PSU are working together to enable the achievement of SDG 16,” Almakhles said. “There are numerous challenges that make it difficult to achieve this SDG, but they can be overcome. For example, PSU aligns itself with the government’s Oversight and Anti-Corruption Authority to enhance the principle of transparency.”

Challenges and opportunities

“There are around 8.4 million students in Saudi Arabia, approximately 25 per cent of the kingdom’s total population,” said Mohammad Nurunnabi, director of the Center for Sustainability and Climate at PSU. “These students will form the heart of a more sustainable world. PSU, the government of Saudi Arabia, Vision 2030 and the UN’s SDG agenda all have the same ultimate ambition: to create a world that works for all – both now and in the future.”

But meeting this ambition is not always straightforward. The pandemic, for example, although not as disruptive as it once was, remains an ongoing challenge relating to the UN’s 17 SDGs.

“At PSU, we finished four programme accreditations in the past two weeks with two different agencies,” said Tahira Hoke, director of the Evaluation and Academic Accreditation Center at PSU. “And while we would like to think that Covid is behind us, one of those accreditations had to take place online due to the virus. Virtual accreditations remain with us, and this can create challenges.”

It must be remembered, however, that some new opportunities were generated because of the pandemic – particularly around partnerships and empowering location-independent collaboration. “Technology has accelerated the partnerships available,” Sahani said. “Even so, human relationships are key.”

It is difficult to fully comprehend all 17 SDGs. Achieving them depends on partnerships from across industry, education, government and, crucially, across international borders.

“The challenges that we continue to see around sustainability could easily be viewed through a defeatist lens – or they could help make us more resilient,” Hoke said. “During the many conversations taking place today, I heard solutions that led to challenges, which led to further solutions. Every challenge creates an opportunity. As we continue to move closer to meeting the SDGs, it’s essential that we remember that – at PSU, in Saudi Arabia, and across the globe.”

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