How the SDG Compass can help with university strategic planning

Mar 31, 2022 | Blog

The Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings will be released in one month’s time (April 26-28) at the THE Innovation and Impact Summit 2022. Our founder & CEO, Laura Tucker, along with Duncan Ross – Chief Data Officer of THE and M’hamed el Aisati – Vice-president of product management, will be sharing in detail the datasets of the 2022 rankings and the latest insights from the methodology and the emerging trends in the higher education at the summit.

It has been 3 years since the Impact Rankings were first introduced in 2019. And in the coming edition, more than 1,500 universities from 110 countries/regions will be ranked in any one or more of the 17 SDGs, alongside one overall ranking. This represents a 23% increase since last year.

As we see more and more universities submitting data for the ranking, it is time to look at how these institutions can put sustainability at the heart of their strategic planning. At the moment, THE Impact Rankings ask universities to submit data points on implementing policy and performance metrics (such as GHGs emissions and whether the universities have policies on non-discrimination against women and providing the dates the policies were created and last reviewed).

However, we are yet to examine sustainability strategies, reporting on sustainable development performance and how this is communicated with stakeholders.

To achieve this, there is no need for the sector to come up with a new tool or methodology. We could simply adopt existing tools and methodologies that are used by the business sector; for example, the Global Reporting Initiative, the UN Global Compact – Ten Principles, the SDG Compass, or the SASB. Here, I would like to focus on one of these options – the SDG Compass – and how universities can align their strategies as well as to measure and manage their contribution to the SDGs.

The SDG Compass consists of 5 steps that assist organizations in maximizing their contribution to the SDGs. It is a basic theoretical framework for organizational engagement around the Goals that recognizes ‘the responsibility of all [organizations] to comply with all relevant legislation, respect international minimum standards and address as a priority all negative human rights impacts’ (SDG Compass: The guide for business action on the SDGs).

Step 01: Understanding SDGs

The first step is very simple – know the 17 Goals, 169 targets and 232 indicators. It is essential for universities to understand why they should care about the SDGs.

Step 01 Understanding SDGs.

The reasons are pretty obvious – and do not relate to rankings. The 17 Goals envision nothing less than a significant transformation in society and the economy between now and 2030. The sector should see this transformation as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, given its major role in contributing to the SDGs by preparing lifelong learners for the challenges of the 21st Century through developing (you will realize these are no different from other sectors as mentioned by UN Global Compact):

  • A better educated and more productive workforce
  • Economic and political stability
  • More fair and just societies
  • Climate resilience
  • And more . . .

For universities themselves, contributing to the SDGs:

  • Makes a university more attractive for donors and students
  • Improves management of the supply chain
  • Improves access to public funding and endowments
  • Improves competitiveness in hiring the best faculties
  • Better reputation in the local communities, regionally and globally

Step 02: Defining Priorities

The second step focuses on identifying which goals are most material for any organization and directing their efforts to maximize the impact of those.

This step covers 3 main actions: map the value chain to identify impact areas; select indicators and collect data, and define priorities. It is essential for universities to look at their entire value chain when assessing the impact against the Goals.

A sample of a university's value chain.

Universities should look at the positive and negative impacts in the present, as well as any potential future impacts. The focus is not just on the overarching Goals but on the targets and on how far along the value chain institutions may see significant impacts. By going through this exercise with each of the 17 Goals, universities can find targets within each that they might not have necessarily expected to be there.

Step 02 Defining Priorities

The THE Impact Rankings are already positing similar questions. For Goal 2 – Zero Hunger, universities are being asked whether their catering services are purchasing produce from local sustainable sources, or for Goal 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production, whether they have ethical sourcing policies for both food and supplies.

The second part of Step 02 is the logic model. This is something universities are more familiar with, as this is commonly applied when identifying and measuring research impact.

However, it is very different when applying the logic model at the organizational level. In this approach, institutions can find whether there is a correlation between the impact of their activities and the SDGs. This allows universities to explore how they can maximize the positive and reduce the negative impact, and then start tracking with metrics.

Step 03: Setting Goals

“Goal setting builds directly on the outcomes from the impact assessment and prioritization covered in Step 02”, as mentioned in the SDG Compass Guide. This is essential to driving good performance.

Step 03: Setting Goals

The focus is this section is the ‘outside-in approach’ that is mentioned in the Guide. It takes a rigorous external reference point on which universities should base their objectives. Here, we look at science-based targets and understand what it is that we must do, and then we bring that inside and start working to get there.

For example, the UK government has pledged to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. Institutions in the UK should look at how they can contribute to this goal. A good example is the University of Manchester; they have pledged to support by setting a climate change target of zero carbon by 2038.

There are lots of opportunities in the SDGs to provide that external reference across a wide range of other sustainable development issues from health and education to inequality. The first starting point may be to look at your local community/government’s pledge to sustainable development as the University of Manchester did.

Universities looking to establish targets for their performance in sustainable developments need to look at the SDGs and match that level of ambition. Universities cannot just settle for what seems to be easily achievable.

Step 04: Integration

This is central to the challenge for universities in integrating sustainability into strategic planning. The focus of this step is to make sure that Goals are solidly anchored within the universities.

There are two key steps.

The first is to make sure the university’s leadership has a shared understanding of how the progress toward the Goals will add value to the university. Without university leadership’s understanding and commitment, it will be difficult for the university to even realize its targets through any departments and units in the university.

Step 04: Integration

In the business sector, this is done through aligning a company’s sustainability performance with senior leadership and board members’ remuneration pay. In the higher education sector, a change in mindset on how we measure senior leadership performance would be needed – perhaps no longer on how many endowments and research monies are raised but by actually integrating sustainability goals of the university into their performance appraisal. Just like in business, it is critical that if the university genuinely aspires to achieve these goals that it needs to align the incentives all through the organization towards achieving them.

The second key step is embedding sustainability goals. Here, we are looking at how individual departments and units in the universities can take ownership of the sustainability goals. Universities need to have a clear message – there are different actions that are going to be appropriate for each department/unit in order to make a reasonable contribution. It is not a job for just the Sustainability Office. It is the responsibility of all – whether you are an academic department, research facilities or administrative units. Within the departments/units, they need to understand their options and how staff can be incentivized to work on them.

Step 05: Reporting & Communicating

Step 05: Reporting & Communicating

This step is all about external reporting. But the focus is on how to ensure internally that you have something significant to talk about with your stakeholders so that the university leadership can leverage internal discussions when it is looking for greater ambition from faculties, staff and students.

The other purpose of reporting and communicating is to inspire other universities. When other universities see great things that your university is doing, you are putting pressure on the sector to step up their ambition and match yours – similar to what the THE Impact Ranking has achieved.

When talking about how the higher education sector can contribute to the SDGs and help achieve the targets by 2030, we ask the sector to be ambitious but at the same time, to be realistic in reporting its priorities through materiality. Universities should focus on what is material and not just fill up page after page of a report just for the sake of filling pages. It is important to ensure that the material you put into public is really valuable to your stakeholders and allow them to better understand the purpose and vision of your university.

This article is written by Vertigo Ventures Impact officer, Mary Ho. Read the original here.


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