Guest Blog: Sustainable Development and Governing the Global Commons – the Role of Universities

Guest Blog by Jane Fulton
This post was originally published by the Australian Council for International Development here.

Patricia Garcia, Aimé Saba and Jane Fulton presented in a panel session on ‘Achieving Sustainable Development Goals through multi-stakeholder partnerships: What role for universities?’ during RDI Conference 2017.
In the 1960s, images of earth from space, as a tiny ball in a vast galaxy, flashed across our TV screens. One of these early ‘planet earth’ images was captured on August 23, 1966, by NASA's unmanned Lunar Orbiter 1, ahead of lunar landings later that decade that revealed a new way of looking at the world. It was James Lovelock who clearly articulated this new zeitgeist coining the term ‘Spaceship Earth’, using images of earth from space to reimagine our world as fragile, a living organism, highlighting the anthropogenic role in the tragedy of the commons.
Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s ‘Governing the Commons’ built on Lovelock’s handwringing by making the case for the planet’s governance. She was awarded the 2009 Economic Sciences Nobel prize "for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons" – her life’s work.
Speed ahead from the 1960s images of earth from space, and Elinor Ostrom’s treatise on global governance, and it might seem we are slow to come to terms with our global commons’ moral roles, rights and responsibilities. Kyoto Protocol (1992), Rio +20 Earth Summit (2012) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2016) have focused on the environment, but where is a global agenda to address all issues for its 7.5+ bn. human population?
Solution to Governing the Commons:  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Officially known as Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the SDG agenda is an action plan framed around people, planet and prosperity through to 2030, seeking a better, sustainable world for all.
Replete with 17 goals and 169 targets, we can think of the SDGs as a form of DNA, embedded in all plans, all implementation, all cooperation, all interaction, all curriculums, all outcomes, all people, all institutions, all countries, all cities, all families, all universities, all commercial enterprises, all corridors of power, all protection and management of flora and fauna, the air, the oceans, the climate.
We are still fumbling through the tragedy of the commons from centuries of misuse, but the 21stCentury is beginning to measure and understand the problems, and offer solutions – supporting the SDG agenda is a key part of this.
Universities have a key role in promoting SDGs
The SDGs provide a unique opportunity to higher education institutions to play an active and meaningful role in the development of their respective countries and in contributing towards global sustainable development. They also provide an opportunity for collaboration and partnerships, including South-South and North-South.
Here we identify the synergies between universities and the promotion of SDGs:
  1. There is wide acceptance, more than ever before, that higher education institutions have a crucial role to play in national development, especially in developing countries. The beginning of the 21st Century witnessed a massive increase in enrolment in higher education in developing countries, especially across Africa.
  2. The concept of sustainable development is now better understood within academia, and far more readily accepted as a topic of study and research.
  3. Higher education institutions, again mostly in developing countries, are receiving support at national, regional and international levels to better equip them to respond to development challenges.
  4. The SDGs are a broad agenda by design - higher education institutions can make positive contributions both in specific goal areas and via transdisciplinary approaches.

So what strategies can the higher education sector adopt for the implementation of the 2030  Agenda to be targeted, effective and meaningful?
  1. Worldwide, ministries responsible for higher education need to recognise the role that higher education institutions can play in promoting the SDGs and reflect this in policy and funding instruments.
  2. University associations can also play a meaningful role in promoting the SDGs in their member institutions to build capacity, share resources and expand the influence of education for sustainable development.
  3. As for universities, SDGs should be included in the institution’s strategic plan to convey the clear message of their importance and to enable resources be assigned to them.  To this end, each institution should establish an Office of Sustainability, responsible for mainstreaming sustainability within campus operations (food, waste and recycling, purchasing, ground transportation and water), as well as instilling an SDG focus in research and teaching, universities’ investments, and community initiatives.Key activities of a university sustainability office are:
  • ensuring that the institution has sufficiently trained staff to undertake work on the SDGs to transform curricula and pedagogy towards a sustainable development perspective
  • encouraging a multi-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary approach best suited to complex sustainable development issues typical in SDG initiatives 
  • enacting sustainable measures for all campus operations

Current initiatives 
Where the higher education sector is leading the way on integrating and implementing the SDGs include:
  1. Globally: the United Nations Environment Programme created the Global Universities Partnership on Environment for Sustainability or GUPES, which now has a membership of nearly 600 universities worldwide and whose overall goal is mainstreaming environment and sustainability concerns into university systems across the world.
  2. Nationally: There is good news in Australia too. Eight leading universities have thus far become signatories to a landmark University Commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The University of Adelaide, the University of Melbourne, RMIT University, Monash University, the University of Technology, Sydney, Western Sydney University, Deakin University, and James Cook University have agreed to play their part in achieving the SDGs, including to support and promote the SDGs through their research, education and operations, as well as report on activities in support of the goals.
  3. Within university associations: For the past two decades the UK’s Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) has been providing a forum for sharing of experiences and information between colleges and universities, disseminating good practice on environmental issues, campus greening and curriculum greening. The initiative has expanded its reach to help universities and colleges plan, design and implement context-specific tools for improving social responsibility and environmental performance through a holistic institutional approach. 

Change is afoot, and we can be encouraged that we are inching our global footprint towards an increasing awareness of sustainability. Universities are making some efforts to join this movement, however there are many opportunities for them to take on a greater role.
Patricia Garcia, AO, is a Visiting Scholar with Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney working on peacebuilding and humanitarian practice issues.
Aimé Saba is a PhD student in the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney working on SDGs.
Jane Fulton PhD University of Sydney 1998 (Sociology/Anthropology); 2006-2016 at UNDP Water and Ocean Governance.


  1. This is an excellent analysis which both identifies a key aspect of the learning opportunity/challenge and illustrates the complexity/scale and scope of a green transformation of everything and everyone, everywhere. And as if the 2030 SDG targets
    (and 300+ indicators) were not challenging enough there is the additional 2050 factor of existential climate change and the Paris 2 degree target (which was inadequate even as it was set) . Our education contribution at SUNx (Strong Universal Network is to try to create a graduate training and lifetime learning system for communities, through the vector of Climate Resilient Impact-Travel ~ measured, green 2050 focused. We will certainly take on board the strategies outlined here and welcome partnership interest.

  2. There is some momentum, a guide just out (link below) is a ‘how to’ on SDGs and Universities in the Australia/Pacific region -


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