Universities are missing mark teaching SDGs in business – but there’s a way to fix it

Monash Lens

In September 2015, world leaders at the United Nations unanimously adopted a new global development agenda.

  • Priya Sharma

    Lecturer, Department of Business, Law and Taxation, Monash University Malaysia

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda), which came into effect on 1 January, 2016, with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its core, is a guide to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges, including ending poverty and bringing economic prosperity, social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and peace to all countries and people by 2030.

Although a wide range of stakeholders are key agents in advancing the SDGs, it’s the business sector that will be instrumental in the success of the individual targets, through how companies operate, their innovation, and collaboration with other agents and development of business models.

The 2030 Agenda is therefore dominating the mainstream global business practice, and business-focused higher education has a crucial role in training future business leaders with the skills needed to implement the SDGs.

For example, the Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME), a United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) initiative, is governed, alongside the UNGC, by a board of experts in academia and business. PRME works with UNGC participants to help advance the SDGs in academia, and connects responsible businesses with business schools to help recruit talent with sustainability mindsets, skills and capabilities.

In 2019, the world’s first university impact ranking, published by Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, revealed a hierarchy of global institutions based on universities’ work towards the SDGs.

Despite these initiatives, business schools are lagging in their efforts. Findings reflect students’ naivety of the potential impact of individual contributions to the SDGs, and graduates lack critical thinking skills, knowledge, leadership and ethics relating to sustainability.

One of the challenges is the lack of importance of sustainability and SDG topics for students, as it’s not necessarily considered legitimate and important by some developing curricula. Deeper innovation to transform related curricula and pedagogy is absent, and there’s a lack of external stakeholders’ engagement and collaboration.

We need to explore the integration of SDGs into an undergraduate business degree capstone unit through authentic learning and collaboration with industry stakeholders.

A capstone unit is a final-year unit that serves as the culminating and integrative experience of an educational program. It’s designed to encourage students to think critically, solve challenging problems, and develop skills such as oral communication, public speaking, research skills, media literacy, teamwork – skills that help prepare them for the working world, and life in general.

Delivering an SDG-centred capstone unit is therefore timely, as it equips students for the next stages of their careers with the knowledge, ethics, tools and skills to develop a well-rounded understanding of how global challenges need to be addressed in the business context.

Authentic learning typically focuses on real-world, complex problems and their solutions, using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities and case studies, or participation in communities of practice. It’s about engaging students into full-fledged, multi-sensory contexts that nurture their learning experiences in significant, lasting ways.

Learning on a case-by-case basis

Case-based learning is the first method. Students are required to undertake group presentations on real-world cases relating to SDGs issues. A structured framework is used, where students identify the environmental, economic or social issues, evaluate the relevant SDG theories or frameworks, and apply them to the case concerned, while exploring innovative solutions. A peer-review component is included.

Such an approach is dynamic. It engages students in discussions of specific real-world scenarios. It’s learner-centred, with intense interaction between participants as they build their knowledge and work together as a group to examine the case.

It provides students with an opportunity to see theory in practice. Peer review pushes students to take responsibility and get involved in the learning process. It enhances the group members’ work and skills, and centres on developing the judgement skills of students.

Green hilly landscape overlaid with a digital representation of Earth, with sustainable development icon

Fighting for a cause

Advocacy is the second method. It’s the active support of an idea or cause expressed through strategies that influence the opinions and decisions of people and organisations. Students are required to produce a video advocacy campaign focusing on specific SDGs (eg. advocating decent work for women migrant workers under SDG).

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This learning method is enhanced through collaboration with an advocacy non-governmental organisation (advocacy NGO) that jointly assesses the task. The main purpose of an advocacy NGO is to promote a specific cause. It raises awareness and knowledge through activities such as lobbying, press work, and activist events.

Such an approach is powerful. It enables students to think critically about ethical decision-making, as well as social impacts of the SDGs. It empowers them to lead change, and is one of the strongest catalysts for quality education.

Research-based learning

A conceptual essay question is created to compare and evaluate two types of business entities (for example, social enterprise and corporations) in delivering social change under the SDGs. Workshops are conducted by these business entities, and students are required to refer to them in their discussions. Senior management from these organisations are invited to provide feedback.

Such an approach is impactful. It provides students with a deeper understanding of how actual businesses deal with SDG issues.

An interactive learning environment via industry stakeholder engagement adds richness to the learning process. Industry feedback offers unique practical insights to real-world problems beyond typical academic feedback.

These collaborations further provide direct internship opportunities for final-year students. Learning becomes an active process of discovery and participation based on self-motivation rather than on passive acquaintance of facts and rules.

From this perspective, as a source of professionally-trained specialists for the job market, business schools must stay current. At a time when the 2030 Agenda demands ambition, decisiveness and urgency, SDG integration into the business curriculum is a priority. It has the potential to inspire future business leaders to make genuinely useful contributions to their community or to a field of study, thereby adding value to modern business and society in this decade of action.

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