Tertiary education’s global responsibility in the Sustainable Development Goals era

Tertiary Education Futures
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The future of tertiary education
Tertiary education's global responsibility in the Sustainable Development Goals era

The Sustainable Development Goals encompass a wide array of objectives, and education itself is a pivotal goal, seeking to ensure inclusive, equitable, and quality education for all. Goal 4 aligns perfectly with national efforts in Scotland to widen participation and expand lifelong learning opportunities. However, the connection between tertiary education and the Sustainable Development Goals extends beyond this explicit goal.

In this podcast episode, we embark on an exploration of the multifaceted relationship between the tertiary education system and the Sustainable Development Goals. We unravel the complex interplay between education and the sustainability agenda, as these institutions embrace their civic mission, fostering inclusive societies and addressing global challenges through their curricula and research.

Join us as we unpack the profound significance of the Sustainable Development Goals in shaping the curricula of tertiary education, ensuring that students are empowered with knowledge and values to contribute positively to a sustainable future.


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Head of Centre for Forensic Soil Science, James Hutton Institute


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00:00 Professor Anne Anderson: This is Professor Anne Anderson. I’m Vice President for Research at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Today we continue our podcast series discussing the future of tertiary education. And we’re focusing on the link between tertiary education and the sustainable development goals, the SDGs. To explore this topic, I’m joined by Professor Lorna Dawson. Professor Dawson is principal scientist and head of the Centre for Forensic Soil Science at the James Hutton Institute, visiting professor at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and Professor in the sciences department at CESPU Portugal. Lorna has over 30 years’ experience in managing and conducting research in soil and plant interactions, in particular its application in the criminal justice system, and has worked as an advisor with the National Crime Agency, and is a trained expert witness, and most recently received the 2023 RSE James Hutton medal, which recognizes exceptional achievements in the Earth and Environmental Sciences by a senior career researcher. Well, Lorna, thank you very much for joining us today. For those of our audience who are not so familiar with the Sustainable Development Goals and their agenda, could we start maybe by explaining briefly what the SDGs are, and more particularly for this topic, why they matter for tertiary education?

01:35 Professor Lorna Dawson: Sustainable Development Goals are part of the international 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They were described by the United Nations as our natural blueprint for peace and prosperity for people on the planet. It started, adopted in 2015, providing that blueprint, as they call it, for peace and prosperity, now and into the future. And at the heart of this are what are called the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, they are indeed the urgent call for action by all countries that are developing within a global partnership, and recognize that we should be aiming to end poverty, and other deprivations. And that must go hand in hand with strategies to improve health, education, reduce inequality, and encourage economic growth, all while tackling climate change, and working to look after our oceans, our land, and our forests. If you just take the first sustainable development goal, and that goal is no poverty across the world, of no poverty, to end it in all forms everywhere. Extreme poverty, as we know, has many, many examples, which have resulted in severe problems, social exclusion, disease instability and resulting in conflicts. There are high poverty rates, which are most often found in the conflict regions. And also one of the saddest things is, it’s children that are disproportionately affected. So one out of every five children currently live in extreme poverty. Therefore, we have to ensure some social protection for these vulnerable groups, that it’s critical that we reduce poverty. So that is why that is the number one sustainable development goal. The second one is Zero Hunger, because without food, we can’t thrive and flourish. And this goal aims to end hunger, achieve food security, and improve the nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Because our food all goes hand in hand. It’s not just about food, but it’s about nutritious food.

04:04 Professor Anne Anderson: What you’ve talked about zero hunger, ending poverty, food insecurity, obviously incredibly important, nationally, and globally. But what role and relevance does tertiary education play on the Sustainable Development Goal agenda?

04:19 Professor Lorna Dawson: Linked to that question about tertiary education relates to sustainable development, goal number four, which is quality education, quality education from birth to death. So it’s education throughout life that is important. And that sustainable development goal of quality education, it aims to ensure that it’s inclusive, and quality education for all. And it’s that lifelong learning where tertiary is one part of that whole life, lifelong ability to assimilate new information, to integrate experiences. All of that is so important. And there has been major progress in that, particularly encouraging younger people to become enrolled in schools, education for girls and women with opportunities now, for many women globally as well, developing that equality. However, despite that there are still many millions of children out of school. And many women who don’t get the ability or opportunity to have the same educational opportunities as male counterparts. And that lack of quality education. And it can be due to other things such as unqualified teachers, poor school conditions, limited opportunities, and rural poverty. So that needs more investment in educational scholarships, better infrastructure of these buildings, better training of teachers, and improving opportunities of exchange. So that I think tertiary education plays a part in that, because universities can develop and create graduates that are aware of that linkage of what they’re doing, whichever subject they study, but the importance that that plays in international relationships, and also these many important issues that are voiced in the Sustainable Development Goals.

06:22 Professor Anne Anderson: Thanks, Lorna. That’s fascinating. And so often, when we talk about the sustainable development goal around education, quite rightly, there’s a focus on the basics, the number of children who aren’t even able to attend primary school for all the reasons you touched on. But of course, the tertiary education piece and the project that we’ve been developing here at RSE and the Young Academy of Scotland, is stressing that lifelong learning point. Yet, of course, primary education is absolutely critical but if we are actually going to achieve that equality agenda, which is also part of the sustainable development agenda, we need opportunities right across the life course, from primary to tertiary, but at each stage in the life cycle, not just at age five, or at age 12, or at age 18. So thank you very much for highlighting that. That’s fascinating. In 2022 SFC published a report which showed and I think you’ve touched, started to touch on this, that about a third of Scottish universities research is directly related to progress towards the SDGs. And the report detailed different impacts and specific goals such as zero hunger, affordable and clean energy, etc. From your own experience, do you have examples where Scottish research really stands out in your mind, examples that will make a major step forward in achieving the SDGs?

07:52 Professor Lorna Dawson: Each one of the universities in Scotland undertakes research that relates to sustainable development, and it’s often in partnership also with the institutions. Now, I am the knowledge exchange lead for environment for SEFARI Gateway, which represents the six government funded research institutes in Scotland, so that’s the Rowett, Moredun, SRUC, James Hutton Institute, BioSS and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. So they work closely with the universities. In fact, SRUC is a university in its own right, and has graduates at PhD level. And we all work together in close partnership with the universities. And I, myself am a professor at Robert Gordon University, one of the universities.So Scotland is quite a small, niche country, and it always punches above its weight in terms of delivering to such objectives as the sustainable development goals and six Scottish universities in that report appeared in the top 200 in those world rankings of the universities as contributing to the United Nation goal, the goal number two, the Zero Hunger goal which I touched upon earlier, and there are many examples across SEFARI gateway institutes and also across the universities in Scotland. One of the examples was at the University of Aberdeen’s Centre of Excellence in Soil Science. I myself am a soil scientist, so forgive me for using an example from that discipline. There we see the true value of multidisciplinary research. They carried out work in international partnerships, looking at soil nitrogen, and, how that could shape global policy and practice. And in Sub Saharan Africa, in the Africa program, they showed how they could help to make agriculture and food infrastructure more productive, sustainable and resilient to climate change, linking again to another one of the Sustainable Development Goals. And in Southeast Asia a drought and resilient rice crop was identified, the link between that irrigation of the rice and arsenic that was contributing to human health problems because of the toxicity of that arsenic in the diet. So that subsequent international collaboration has helped mitigate that contamination in that rice-based diet. So, further research on that, between the balance between climate impacts on food production, and meeting global nutritional needs is ongoing. That also includes colleagues at the University of Aberdeen’s Rowett Institute, where they identified Moringa as a high protein, micronutrient and rich crop. And that could withstand drought conditions. So they are now working in Africa, growing that with the National Farmers’ Association, again in collaboration, so that they’re aiming to combat malnutrition, and stunting issues in human growth conditions in Malawi. So all of this is helping towards reaching that sustainable development goal. And also at the institute, accelerating better barley breeding, identified a barley gene that doubles the rate at which that genetic material is mixed during traditional breeding, and that has the potential to speed up plant breeding to help address economic and environmental pressures of production through breeding new and environmentally adapted plant species. So that’s delivering to the Zero Hunger goal, and also the goal eight, which is decent work and economic growth. And I think we can see, through all of these discussions, how interlinked the different SDGs are.

11:45 Professor Anne Anderson: Thanks, Lorna. And I think that point about the interrelationship between the SDGs, but also, I think your point and collaboration is a really interesting one. One of the themes that emerged from our work on the futures of tertiary education project was very much the value of different forms of collaboration across different types of institutions. And I think those international collaborations to drive forward that research agenda, which is based on expertise in Scotland, and in the international partner countries, is really the way forward. So thank you for reminding us of the importance not just of how, in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as you know, our slogan is knowledge made useful. And there can be few better examples of knowledge made useful, than really starting to make inroads to those food security, zero hunger, environmental sustainability goals. So that’s wonderful to hear. However, the progress is supposed to be achieved by 2030. And of all that are many examples of good things happening nationally and internationally against the SDG agenda, there’s still quite a way to go. And we’ve only got seven years left. What more could or should be done, in particular, in terms of the tertiary education sector could contribute, that would speed up progress and make some of those goals more achievable?

13:13 Professor Lorna Dawson: Well, I think this links perhaps to one of the goals that was mentioned in the report, the importance of focusing the research on industry, innovation and infrastructure, so SDG9. And one example of that would be vertical and controlled environment agriculture. We have researchers who have gained funding from Innovate UK, that’s both James Hutton Institute and SRUC, to develop the sensors to further advanced vertical farming, by accurate non-invasive measurement of the crop stresses, and how that relates to the quality of the food nutrition. So there’s a consortium that have been developing these expert sensors and companies such as Intelligent Growth Solutions. So working together with industry, we can hopefully develop real inroads to the Sustainable Development Goals. But one of the goals, Sustainable Development Goal 4, it calls for the equal access to tertiary education, including university, when we talked about this earlier. But universities have another important role, and that is as a driver, for the achievement of the full set of the goals. So they have a role in human formation, knowledge production and innovation. University, as we know, as an institution has a long, long history, originally as an educational establishment later in knowledge creating and the research function. And more recently, the third mission: engagement. Universities have to use that to better develop people that go out there, bring back knowledge and integrate that in a transdisciplinary way and encourage through that almost tricuspid way, policy, industry and research, and co-construct ways to tackle these problems, right from very beginning, break down silos. Break down the silos of departments, break down the silos of policy departments, make sure that everyone is involved at the very beginning, when deciding what are the best routes, what are the best research projects. We still also need to encompass the immediate ways to tackle the next problems that might come around the corner, we need the midterm research. But we also, we still need to encourage the blue skies research thinking, that is so important. We don’t know what the next problem is going to be. We don’t know what the next COVID type problem that we’ll have to deal with. So we still need to have universities as that place where people can think without constriction, without having to see an immediate impact of what they’re doing. So it seems like university will have to deliver everything in the future, I’m afraid, but it is that, it’s that safe place where people can explore opportunities and explore innovation. And think, literally out of the box, to not know what we’re going to have to deal with in the future.

16:26 Professor Anne Anderson: Lorna, that’s fascinating. And I think this notion of interdisciplinarity breaking down silos, again, very strongly came through from our stakeholders in the work we did on the TEF project. And you also touched on, in terms of making more rapid progress to the SDGs, those intersectional collaborations, universities working with industry, but still leaving space for that blue sky thinking. So that’s really interesting. But we know that universities and tertiary education institutions more broadly, don’t only do research, vitally important though that is, could you maybe think or talk to us a little bit about how the teaching curricula across universities and colleges and other tertiary providers, what examples of best practice you’ve come across in that sphere, helps Scottish tertiary education contribute to the SDGs?

17:20 Professor Lorna Dawson: In terms of teaching, we need to document the wide range of activities relevant to sustainable development, particularly to integration with our secondary schools, primary schools, and as well as linking to industry and stakeholders within policy. We need to think more again, it’s bringing in this lifelong learning, that if you can spark an idea in a primary school child, that… it can be the arts, it can be law, it can be engineering, it can be biological sciences, it doesn’t matter what that discipline is, but spark the excitement when a child is young, and then spark the teachers’ enthusiasm, and work in partnerships. The other way that I think is vitally important is the Erasmus type exchanges that go on because that gives university students the opportunity to see what it’s like in other countries, in other contexts, where their discipline, where the subject they’re studying, can be applied, but in an issue where there are different political, different economic, different social situations, and to bring that learning back to their home country. So I think those types of exchanges, the exchanges with teachers, with governments, so parliamentary exchanges, and also exchanges with different countries, to look at how their particular discipline that they’re studying, is viewed in different countries, I think that is so important. And that whole being of university, a place, not just of learning for their subject matter, but of the wider learning of society, and how in life, it’s multiple subjects that come together and multiple experiences. And we must get away from the single subject focus that sometimes subjects were taught in the older days. Now, there’s much more opportunity to go across the curriculum when studying a particular subject. And I think that is so important. 

19:35 Professor Anne Anderson: I think it’s a really interesting discussion because when we were doing some of our work, getting views of stakeholders around the tertiary education project, that linked to some of the project based interdisciplinary challenge led approach that happens in the school sector, at least a question mark about the extent to which that is fully embedded in tertiary education, and how that’s the bit that inspires people. The reason they want to learn engineering or chemistry, or whatever the subject, is to address a real-world problem. And the Sustainable Development Goals are a prime example of the top real-world problems out there. And your thoughts about how the international experiences of young people in tertiary education can fuel that enthusiasm and excitement about how they’re learning, how their curricular experiences could potentially make a real difference in the world, I think that’s a really interesting way of thinking about how tertiary education as a learning institution, as well as a research institution can move these important questions forward. I suppose, the big final question I wanted to explore with you in the time that we have Lorna is what’s the future of tertiary education, particularly in the framework of this UN agenda?

20:59 Professor Lorna Dawson: I think it’s critical that Scotland should capitalise on this national research, the strength that we’ve got in Scotland, to help us deliver on these outcomes, we should be improving our wellbeing and addressing child poverty. And we should be carrying on with this just net zero transition we are delivering to at the moment. One good example of collaboration looking towards the future was the example of farming for 1.5 degrees, and by focusing on sustainable food production, in that changing climate, taking into account the community resilience, and also social justice. So that was working with external stakeholders such as NFUS Scotland and Nourish Scotland. They produced a report and they brought in witnesses, and the general public, to help [find] ways to reduce greenhouse gas emission from agriculture as one of the main target emitting sectors, and transport and different energy, so this just transition. To continue to find ways of creating employment, to keep communities thriving, as well as achieving these climate change objectives. So for example, we need more collaboration across universities, colleges, and institutions to help achieve real impact from the evidence base that we’ve been building up from a long history of long term solid, resilient, well cited research that, that plays in that to science to medium term, or indeed visionary, and they all have their part to play. Hopefully, the tertiary sector will keep that freedom of thought and develop clever ways to achieve the SDGs. But we should be bringing in art, the law, engineering, artificial intelligence, medicine, food and nutritionists working with doctors to find best ways to stop this food malnutrition, not only malnutrition in developed nations, but the obesity problem that we have here in Scotland. So we need to be bringing the right people together and coming up with novel solutions, new food production methods, considerations also about communities thriving, making sure that employment is there as high on the agenda, and multiple disciplines coming together for multiple solutions. There won’t just be one solution to these multiple Sustainable Development Goals. They’ll come through a diversity of pathways, but we need to work together, co-construct, and perhaps we should focus on cross cutting themes for the Sustainable Development Goals, clean water, nutritious sustainable food, through fair and equitable partnerships. One of the most important goals then I think, is Sustainable Development Goal number 17 – Partnership. And that’s what we need to do is we need to make sure that we’ve got effective partnerships, we need to be co-constructing right at the beginning now, with the short time as you said that we’ve got left to achieve them, revitalise the Global Partnerships for that sustainable development, to cope with these external factors: climate change, biodiversity loss, this economic instability, global insecurity. We need to achieve that through strong global partnership and cooperation, real cooperation, action beyond the national borders, that’s the most effective way to mobilize, redirect, unlock that transformative economic power that we need to deliver from the private sector to the public sector. So that together we can deliver on those Sustainable Development Goals.

24:52 Professor Anne Anderson: Lorna, thank you very much for that. And I think what’s really interesting there is the way that you drew together the challenges that the SDGs present in the UK and in Scotland. In other words, this isn’t all about there are problems over there. We need that collaborative approach. We need that multidisciplinary approach, that challenge led educational research agenda, to do the work we need to do within Scotland to achieve our ambitions. And those ambitions are actually very well aligned with the SDGs. It’s not just a problem overseas. So thank you very much for that very interesting contribution.