27 July 2023

Student Leaders and Higher Education Institutions’ Representatives Convened for SDG Localisation in ASEAN

Prince Ernest Eugene Ronson D. Sabado, AUN Intern;

After the successful launch of the 9th ASEF Regional Conference on Higher Education (ARC9) report last March 2023, student leaders and faculty representatives convened to deliver inputs on its findings and to share best localising practices in adhering to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

ARC9's lead researcher - Dr. Manuel Antonio Lim said higher education policies in different countries depend on their needs, which drives SDG localisation.

"What we discovered is that higher education institutions (HEI) policymakers of different countries have different contexts and different needs, depending on their countries," Lim said.

"We find that universities often have a different set of missions, one way of describing it is its triple helix: research, teaching, and knowledge transfer to society," he added.

The researcher lauded the initiatives of governments to be involved in SDG implementation to provide a "common vision" in coordinating the actions of stakeholders in the realisation of the agenda.

"This is a very important finding... This is a very good sign that the government itself is taking responsibility for its part in the HEI sector for achieving the SDGs," Lim said.

The ARC9 report found that SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) were identified as the goals which are the top priorities of policymakers. 

Meanwhile, SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), and SDG 13 (climate action) are considered as the top priorities in HEIs.

Localising SDGs in ASEAN HEIs


Several student leaders cited the establishment of civic organisations, implementation of community-based awareness building, and collaboration with international organisations and field experts as mechanisms by which their organisations and universities localise SDGs.

"You need someone who has local knowledge [in the] community... There should be a partnership between an academic person as well as a local community person," Thai-Nepali student leader Manisha Nepali said.

"Students don't really pay attention [to] SDGs. We are just discussing, or just one-[on]-one discussions because they don't really have the experience, [they don’t] really see... what happens in politics, economics, and social life," Malaysian student leader Fatin Alya added.

With a focus on SDG 13 (climate change), Filipino student leader Wezam Hassan added that the presence of community-based private organisations propped the launching of sustainability programmes and other green design initiatives in his area.

He noted, however, that initiatives are mostly based on student-based partnerships and dialogue with university administrators and partnerships with their local government.

"We try very hard to get the attention of local leaders, for example, politicians, the administrat[ors] of our schools and organisation, to support us in our causes. In that way, we can implement it easier," he said.

The student leaders also raised concerns about the student community's low awareness of the SDGs which affects support and cooperation levels to ongoing SDG initiatives.

"The policymakers, the university, or the government play[s] a huge role... in creating SDG-related programmes," Malaysian student representative Terry said.

The student leader argued that student leaders face a funding challenge in the conduct of programmes targeting several SDGs.

"Students need to learn how to seek sponsorships. It is a very good experience and knowledge for them," Terry asserted.

With academic priorities being a hindrance to promoting SDGs through student organisation programmes, student leaders encourage universities to include SDGs in the curriculum to encourage students to partake in fulfilling the targets of the said goals.

"Maybe they can have SDG-related cause[s] or experiential learning on field work. Any physical programme will exactly attract more students," Terry said.

University leaders echoed the student leaders' concerns, saying it has been challenging for educators to identify whether graduates have achieved their respective universities’ student learning outcomes.

The administrators said providing academic programmes such as joint community services and classes in closer collaboration with regional and international universities, and other related partnerships are key steps to take in order to internalise the SDGs in their respective course structures and learning outcomes.

Other concerns raised by student leaders include the lack of infrastructure dedicated to promoting SDGs, as well as the volatility of smaller and independent universities to changes in support and funding structure.

Faculty representatives also highlighted the challenges in properly measuring faculty effectiveness and their interest in SDGs that hinder universities from effectively driving the localisation of the agenda.

Call for Government's Plans and HEIs' Streamlined Funding


University and student leaders said increasing stakeholder awareness should be a top priority in addressing the challenges of localising the SDG targets in ASEAN.

Faculty representatives expressed that some varying SDG priorities of governments (SDG 8 and 9) and higher education institutions (SDG 3 and 13) as presented in the ACF9 report could be framed in their respective sectors' work.

Moreover, creating annual programmes that would support the government's SDG priorities and inviting HEIs to co-drafting its plans are some of the key recommendations presented to leverage the capacities of both institutions in localising their respective SDG targets.

On the other hand, student leaders expressed their hope for universities to secure cross-border collaborations in implementing SDG-related programmes, as well as instituting a focal office in HEIs that would solely prioritise SDG initiatives. The office is said to integrate and streamline the HEIs’ funding and organisational structure in accordance with the 2030 agenda.

Student engagement programmes, taking advantage of social media through utilising influencers, and other crowdfunding initiatives were also recommended by the student leaders to boost and localise SDGs' message and curb the challenge of encouraging students to take part in these initiatives due to their lack of expertise in the said area.

The recommendations raised by the student and university leaders will be submitted to the Asia-Europe Meeting Education Ministers’ Meeting set to take place in January 2024.