Campuses lag in researching sustainable cities and communities

Data shows that universities globally are underperforming in research towards SDG 11, although Oceania is ahead of others

November 10, 2023

Universities have a long way to go in research on sustainable cities and communities, a Times Higher Education analysis has revealed.

Analysis of data provided by 860 institutions that participated in the 2023 THE Impact Rankings for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11, which tracks progress towards sustainable cities and communities, showed that research around these themes was lagging globally.

Research was one of three main groupings that universities were evaluated on, the others being arts and heritage and sustainable practices. Data showed that, globally, universities performed strongest in arts and heritage, which includes policies such as giving the public access to university spaces like libraries and museums, as well as expenditure towards the arts.

They performed worst in research, according to a THE report, produced jointly with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC).

Universities’ research performance in sustainable cities and communities was measured against metrics of research excellence or the publications that appear in the top 10 per cent of journals, the quality of output based on citations, and the scale or volume of output published.

Across metrics the global average for research scores was 48 out of 100, compared with 61.6 for arts and heritage.

Ria Dunkley, senior lecturer in geography, environment and sustainability within the School of Education at the University of Glasgow, said it was “unsurprising” that universities performed better in arts and heritage because of their historical emphasis on arts and heritage practices. In contrast, she said, sustainability science was a “recently emergent field”.

Another factor, she added, was that sustainability challenges in cities and communities demanded “a transdisciplinary approach”, which required working with stakeholders “beyond academia and across academic disciplines”.

It is not easy to develop and coordinate these transdisciplinary programmes in a university setting, she said, adding, “Funding for such programmes remains imperative, and is perhaps a shared struggle for those working to achieve the SDGs in a learning context.”

This type of research was often also “undervalued” within traditional frameworks, said, Martina Linnenluecke, director of the Centre for Climate Risk and Resilience at the University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) business school.

Research and publication outcomes in top-tier publications were still linked to traditional disciplines, which meant a “potential lack of incentives and recognition for scholars working on broader interdisciplinary issues”, according to Professor Linnenluecke.

The data analysis across regions showed that universities in Oceania performed above the global average, with a research score of 82, followed by Europe and North America at 57.

Australia had seen challenges from climate change “first-hand” in recent years, said UTS’ Professor Linnenluecke.

She said local challenges, such as the bushfires and widespread flooding across the east coast of Australia, had raised the awareness of climate issues.

However, in addition to these local elements, Australian universities had also done the work of integrating SDGs, climate change and the environment into their “research priorities”, according to Professor Linnenluecke.

At New Zealand’s universities, too, themes around sustainability had become “normalised as a research agenda”, according to Janet Stephenson, research professor at the Centre for Sustainability at the University of Otago.

However, Professor Stephenson said that the regional challenges were not reason enough for academics.

“As academics, our role is to use available scientific evidence – not just the evidence from our personal experiences of climate change – to shape our research agendas, and there is overwhelming evidence as to the massive problems we face with climate change, resource depletion, pollution and other unsustainable outcomes of our current economic system.”

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