Universities for Impact: Sachs highlights Critical Perspectives in Education, Cooperation and Complexity

Jeffrey Sachs, the Jeffrey Cheah Honorary Distinguished Professor on Sustainable Development at Sunway University, President of SDSN and Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General, has called on universities to embrace their role as unique solution-builders for society’s complex problems.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs addressing Delegates at the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit 2024 held at Sunway University in Malaysia on May 1, 2024.

New Programmes

In the face of short term urgencies, Sachs emphasised the unique place of universities to “gather knowledge, to search for truth, to create innovations in technology and in social institutions, and to look ahead”. To support the training of students in creating the desired technologies and pathways, Sachs pressed for the setting up of new programmes to enable students to concentrate on sustainable development in their studies.

“Sunway University is one of the great pioneers of that in Asia and the world,” Sachs remarked, referring to the provision of a dual track option (in-person and online instruction) for students throughout the world to qualify for a Masters in Sustainable Development Management (MSDM).

Interdisciplinary Engagements

“We need interdisciplinary research, which bring together earth scientists, engineers, economists, psychologists, and other specialists in the behavioural scientists, ethicists, philosophers.” Sachs reported that, from his prolonged engagements in the past quarter century with researchers leading interdisciplinary efforts from Harvard University, Columbia University and Sunway University, a large number of researchers have now acquired the ability to speak in the languages of other disciplines.

Universities are setting up interdisciplinary research centres to convene experts for policy-oriented research. “The problems of sustainable development are so complex, so interconnected, so systems based, that we need the universities to engage in actual problem-solving research”. These solutions require researchers to consider particularities at various scales, that of a locality, of a country and of a region.

Regional Conveners

Academics naturally create knowledge networks as part of their research. These cross-country and domestic collaborative relationships can over time be harnessed to convene key experts for solutions building from multiple sectors. Sachs explained, “universities play an inimitable role in convening stakeholders across sectors, from the government sector, the academic, scientific and research sectors, the business sector and civil society.”

Sachs highlighted the work of the ASEAN Green Future project at Sunway University, which brings together research teams in the ASEAN countries to work on the individual national transformation to green energy, and on the unification of national electricity transmission systems, so that each of the countries and the region as a whole achieves decarbonisation of their power generation systems.

Learning and Networking for the SDGs

Sunway University hosts the SDG Academy of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN-SDSN), which has the largest global online repository of publicly accessible interdisciplinary high-quality courses on a wide-range of sustainable development issues.

Sachs also highlighted the work of the Networks Team operating out of the Asia Headquarters of the UN-SDSN hosted at Sunway University, which mobilizes universities in the Asia-Pacific region to initiate and collaborate on SDG-focused research projects, teaching programs, and policy activism.

Universities are Pivotal to Meet the Complexity of Current Times

“The complexity of our situation is beyond normal politics, beyond normal government …  [This extreme complexity requires] the universities to play a novel, innovative and central role [in problem solving].” He is much encouraged by that universities across Asia are embracing the challenge of achieving the SDGs in the near future.

Sachs ended his message by calling for the Summit of the Future, which would be held at the United Nations in September 2024, to set a common intellectual framework for collective wellbeing.

Sachs was speaking on the topic of Sustainable Development Goals in Asian Universities as part of the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit, which was held from April 29 to May 1, 2024 at Sunway University, Kuala Lumpur.