South African Universities and the SDGs

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This article was written by Dr Vandudzai Mbanda. Dr Mbanda is a Senior Researcher at the South African SDG Hub, Department of Business Management, University of Pretoria.

The South African SDG Hub hosted a seminar attended by participants from academic and research institutions, government and civil society. The purpose of the seminar was to network and to get a sense of the barriers and opportunities of uptake of research by policymakers. In opening the seminar, Ms Nonhlanhla Mkhize, Chief Director of Innovation for Inclusive Development at the Department of Science and Innovation, discussed the importance of science and technology in the development agenda. She also highlighted research as key for evidence-informed decision making to understand the complexities better and find innovative approaches and timely data collection. Ms Mkhize challenged participants in academia how they have translated the SDGs into the curriculum.

The seminar was well attended, with participants from the following universities: University of Pretoria, UNISA, University Johannesburg, Stellenbosch University, UCT, UWC, Vaal University of Technology, TUT; the science councils: NRF and CSIR, National Government Departments, the Gauteng Provincial Government, the private sector, and civil society organisations.

Prof Willem Fourie, the Coordinator of the South African SDG Hub, contextualised the workshop by highlighting that the purpose of the workshop is to get inputs from the participants. This was followed by a panel discussion on how universities and science councils are integrating the SDGs into their research, teaching and learning and community engagement. The discussion was chaired by Dr Selma Karuaihe, who is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development and Associate Coordinator of the South African SDG Hub, along with Prof Godwell Nhamo, Chief Researcher and Chair for the Exxaro Chair in Business and Climate Change, University of South Africa, and Dr Kaitano Dube who is a Lecturer in Ecotourism Management at the Vaal University of Technology. The debate during the panel session indicated that even though not all universities are moving at the same pace, there is significant integration of SDGs into research, teaching and learning and community engagement; at least for those universities that participated during the discussion.

During the discussion on the SDGs and South Africa’s higher education landscape that was facilitated by Dr Dominique Mystris, Senior Researcher with the South African SDG Hub, the discussions from participants confirmed the analysis made above that universities are incorporating SDGs into their activities. Joanne Williams of Stellenbosch University said "We encourage our staff to incorporate SDGs in teaching and research”. Dr Selma Karuaihe suggested blended learning as one of the approaches that can be implemented based on case studies of where some of the new things have been introduced. Dean Faculty of Education, Prof Chika Sehoole, questioned the impact of all these emerging issues like SDGs on the capacity of lecturers and the practicality of including them in the curriculum. His worry was on the ability of lecturers to integrate these in the curriculum. De Wet Naude, Regional Director Sub-Saharan Africa of SAP (a global company), argued that SDGs should be experienced rather than taught and pointed out the need for engaging, even at an informal level. The importance of partnership was echoed by the University of Pretoria's Dean of Health Sciences, Prof Tiaan de Jager who pointed out that "our approach is transdisciplinary, we have nine faculties at the University of Pretoria collaborating in the fight against malaria. If there is no collaboration, we cannot achieve anything we plan to".

The last debate of the workshop was on the challenges that you face to either (i) get your research to policymakers’ attention or (ii) access or use research. The debate was facilitated in breakaway sessions by Dr Sylvia Croese, who is a Research Officer at the African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town. Participants pointed out many barriers that include lack of transparency and political will, lack of collaboration, academic work-load and requirement to publish high-quality work, difficulties in translating academic research to policymakers, misalignment of research and government planning and budgeting and lack of coordination structures are needed to direct how and what is required by the SDGs. The debate on the solutions to the barriers pointed to the need for collaboration within the research community and between the research community and policymakers. Also, participants argued for the need to have coordination at the national level and creation of platforms for sharing information and data. The suggestions from this discussion resonate with the presentation made by Dr Lorren K. Haywood, who is a Senior Researcher at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, based on findings from a 2018 study: that implementation of SDGs requires multi-stakeholder partnerships and needs a coordinated approach.

Some pictures of the seminar are displayed: