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Adopting Sustainability Development Goals for research must go beyond ‘SDG washing’

Professor Cam Donaldson, Pro Vice Chancellor and Vice Principal (Research) and Yunus Chair in Social Business & Health at Glasgow Caledonian University, explains how his institution has put into practice a research strategy led by Sustainability Development Goals.


In February 2017, Glasgow Caledonian University became the first university to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), issued by United Nations in September 2015, as the framework for our research strategy.

The ‘Common Weal’ has been in the DNA of Glasgow Caledonian since the establishment of our predecessor institution, Queen’s College, in 1875. We do not need a vision as it is embedded in our Coat of Arms. Thus, for the University for the Common Good, the SDGs were a gift.

One way to look at the relationship between tertiary education and the SDGs might be to merely retrofit current activities to the SDGs, much like current league tables on social impact. For us, we want to get beyond such ‘SDG washing’. We see the SDGs as providing the strategic architecture for forward planning. As we enter the ‘decade of the SDGs’, it is useful to reflect on what this might mean, especially in relation to the wider institutional context and operationalising an SDG-led research strategy.

What does an institution-wide approach to the Common Good look like? 

First of all, it might have a Chancellor known for their humanitarian ethos, and, in the case of Muhammad Yunus, our Chancellor from 2012-17, they may even be an SDG Ambassador. Yunus is one of only three people ever to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and to have appeared in an episode of the Simpsons! That can make succession planning very difficult, but I think you’ll agree that, in terms continuing our humanitarian theme, our Vice Chancellor and architect of our Common Good strategy, Professor Pamela Gillies, pulled off a major coup in persuading current Chancellor, Annie Lennox, to succeed Yunus.

Of course, most universities aim to produce ‘global citizens’ in addition to a high-quality formal education. Through the work of our Glasgow School for Business & Society, our University became a PRME (Principles of Responsible Management Education) signatory in 2012, and, in 2013, the first Scottish university to join the UN Global Compact. The Compact calls on companies to align with universal principles of human rights, fair employment, environmental sustainability and anti-corruption, whilst the corresponding mission of PRME is for business shools to transform management education, research and thought leadership in line with the SDGs.

Glasgow Caledonian is one of only 30 members of the global PRME Champions Group in recognition of our leadership role in this major initiative. This is further reflected in our accreditation as an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, bringing us into a network of around 50 like-minded universities worldwide, going beyond the curriculum to enhance access, mobility and student participation. These accreditation largely reflect how we work with students on our campuses in Glasgow and London.

Internationally, in the US, Glasgow Caledonian has become the first oversees university to be granted degree-awarding powers, the distinctiveness of our offer, in terms of Fair Fashion and social business, getting us over the line in creating Glasgow Caledonian New York College. In Dhaka, we created the Grameen Caledonian College of Nursing, training local nurses from impoverished backgrounds to western standards. The College runs as a self-sustaining social business and has now transferred to local ownership and leadership. GCU is also a founding partner in the African Leadership College, accrediting and delivering the initial undergraduate programmes in business, computing, social sciences and psychology; training ethical leaders of the future.

Operationalising the Research Strategy

As a new PVC Research, I was nervous about refreshing our research strategy along these lines. As well as saying that the SDGs would guide us, it would, inevitably, mean moving resources around. However, our institution-wide approach and especially our staff, made it easy. Staff were excited  to have their work viewed in terms of what they were contributing to the SDGs; the most ambitious and comprehensive statement of global needs ever issued.

Reflecting the research strengths of three Schools (our other two are the School of Computing, Engineering & Built Environment and School of Health & Life Sciences), we address the SDGs via three societal challenges of inclusive societies, healthy lives and sustainable environments, and, within these, populating research themes and groups with relevant staff.

Cross-School and cross-disciplinary working is further promoted through our set of prestigious Research Centres, all of which are thematic and subject to a new Approval & Renewal Process. Currently, six such centres have been approved: BEAM, which examines Built Environment and Asset Management for the Goals; Centre for Climate Justice, developed out of an initial collaboration with the Mary Robinson Foundation; Centre for Living, which covers most of our health research; SMART Technology, which is trying to enhance technology for the Goals; the WiSE Centre for Economic Justice which originated from our continuing strengths in research on gender equality; and, finally, our Yunus Centre, which is built around evidencing the ideas of our (now) Emeritus Chancellor about microlending in the UK context as well as assessing impacts of social enterprise on health and well-being.

In the case of our Yunus Centre, the thesis is that acting directly on one SDG, such as poverty or good jobs, can result in impacts on others, such as health and wellbeing. This ‘multiple hits’ approach is entirely in line with UN thinking, the SDGs having provided us with a more-holistic framework for improving lives, and the opportunity for all sectors of society to collaborate in this great venture of our times.

In our view, these initiatives represent the new thinking and evidence that academia can offer the SDGs going forward; but they require imaginative leadership and a whole-institution approach to maximise social impact.

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