THE 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) address serious global challenges such as climate change, inequality and poor access to education.
These universal goals seek to fuel action in areas that are critical for humanity and the planet.
With a 2019 SDG Index score of 69.6, Malaysia recently ranked 68th out of 162 countries for its performance across all goals.
To progress further, it is important to mobilise the youth, which make up 45.4 per cent of the entire Malaysian population, to contribute towards these goals.
Universities play a crucial part in implementing principles of sustainability and shaping students to be SDG leaders.
In Malaysia, universities are already making substantial efforts through education, social outreach and research to achieve the goals.
Higher Ed spoke to two universities to learn more about their contributions.
At Sunway University, the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development was established to be a hub of sustainability to promote green development and social progress through research and education.
Launched in December 2016, the centre operates under the supervision of Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, one of the world’s leading experts in sustainable development.
According to JSC director of office Karen Chand, the centre’s roles include conducting solution-driven research and educational training for students and the public.
Chand said: “While we look into all SDGs at our centre, we try to focus on areas that are of most pressing concern for Malaysia. We also work closely with other departments for our research since sustainable development is multidisciplinary.”
Leading the student community by example, Chand said: “For instance, we have a no-single-use-disposables policy at all of our events and we give out whole fruits to students to promote good nutrition and zero waste.”
Meanwhile, the Sunway Smart Sustainable Campus Committee serves to implement sustainability-related initiatives and solutions.
Sunway Smart Sustainable Campus Committee secretary Kong Phui Yi said: “Believing in continuous education, we aim to change students’ behaviour to adopt more sustainable living practices. We also engage various stakeholders including students in our committee.
Kong added that the committee had a major campaign called The Last Straw to raise students’ awareness about their daily plastic use.
“We have asked the university vendors not to sell plastic water bottles. On campus, we provide water fountains and give out free reusable bottles and metal straws to students.
“Other initiatives include using QR codes for paperless registration. To reduce our carbon footprint, we encourage the Sunway community to use the pedestrian walkway which connects the university to Sunway Pyramid and nearby places,” said Kong.
At UCSI University, SDGs are integrated into the students’ curriculum across all disciplines.
The university also developed an online platform, MySDGStep, for students and staff to garner sustainable development ideas.
UCSI SDG Secretariat executive director Norani Abu Bakar said that the university is a strong proponent of Target Seven of SDG 4.
Directly linking education to the other goals, this target ensures that all students will acquire knowledge and skills to promote sustainable development.
“We recently launched the People, Planet and Peace Track where students are encouraged to attend SDG-related workshops to learn new skills. We are also in the midst of making it compulsory for UCSI students to plant 10 trees at the minimum before they graduate.”
Highlighting UCSI’s commitment to empower students, Norani added: “Subscribing to the Education for Sustainable Development programme by Unesco, we believe that students are here in university for the transformation of life, not merely to get a degree.
“We need to produce graduates who are transformed in their cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioural areas. It is important for students to start now because they are the future. Working on the SDGs will enrich their learning experience and enable them to become global citizens,” said Norani.
AGENTS OF CHANGE
Provided with the right opportunities, university students can become the agents of change for sustainability.
With 17 goals to choose from, many student initiatives opt to contribute towards SDG 4 - Quality education - which is the key to creating a sustainable world.
UCSI University has established Youth Beyond Boundaries, a fraternity of 13 student initiatives to empower scholarship recipients.
Annually, UCSI University Trust gives out RM30 million worth of scholarships to students with excellent academic achievements and leadership qualities.
While each initiative targets different goals, YBB chief enrichment officer and mechanical engineering student Muhammad Razin Mohd Redzuan, 23, said that the network focuses on youth development as a whole.
“Aligning with Target Seven of SDG 4, we equip scholars with knowledge and skills to undertake sustainable development through a one-year Scholar Enrichment Programme.
“We will start the new scholars’ journey with volunteering to expose them to various social issues. By the end of the year, they’ll be able to understand more about the community and make social impacts with the pre-existing initiatives or create their own.
“For instance, in a workshop with Hands of Hope, we conducted a refugee simulation to give new scholars more understanding about the refugees’ journey,” said Muhammad Razin.
Linked with YBB, Hands of Hope is a long-term voluntary project which addresses SDG 4 and 10 (Reducing Inequality).
Hands of Hope president and UCSI actuarial science student Yap Li Xuan, 21 said: “Our mission is to sow seeds of change for underprivileged communities through education.
“There are 170,000 refugees in Malaysia and they do not have access to formal education, healthcare and legal employment.
“To address their education needs, our volunteers teach refugee children fundamental subjects like Science and English as well as music and vocational skills. The volunteers will visit the centres on weekdays in-between their classes.”
To date, the initiative has served eight learning centres near the campus in Cheras. Aside from classes, they also conduct workshops and fundraising events.
Yap said: “Our annual workshop, My One-Day Uni Life, aims to provide students with vocational skills and inspire them to pursue higher education. This year’s entrepreneurship-themed workshop exposed students to profit calculation and a marketplace simulation.
“To raise funds, we will be hosting the Charity Musical Theatre: 1973 Miles next month which will be performed by refugee children.”
Working with refugees has been an eye-opening experience for Yap.
“While teaching the children, we learn about their dreams. They shared with us that they want to be doctors and teachers, not to be wealthy, but to help the needy. As UCSI students, we should use our privilege to spread awareness about their education needs.”
In line with SDG 4 to promote inclusivity and equal access to education to all, including people with disabilities, Sunway University will be offering a sign language class for students and staff.
The class is the brainchild of Psychology student, Raenuga Indran, 21. She thought of starting the class while talking with a friend at Starbucks Bangsar Village II.
Being a regular at the outlet manned by deaf employees, Raenuga said: “To communicate better with the baristas there, I’ve learnt a few basic signs such as hello and thank you. I find it sad that many customers show their ignorance by speaking loudly to order their drinks.”
She also attributed the idea to Thriving in the Dark workshop organised by Sunway Youth in Sustainable Development in collaboration with a non-government organisation, Dialogue In The Dark.
SYSD adviser Jeremy Lim Jiang Shen said: “The experiential workshop aimed to create empathy with the blind. It enabled students to carry out daily activities in the dark, giving them an opportunity to reflect on their experience.”
For Raenuga, the workshop brought about questions of inclusivity.
“There is lack of awareness among Malaysians about disabilities. The country also has a shortage of counsellors and clinical psychologists who can communicate in sign language.”
Before the 10-week class commences on Sept 19, Raenuga conducted a survey to gauge the interest of the university community.
“Aside from learning the Malaysian sign language, we tell students and staff that they can bridge the gap with the hearing-impaired community.
“After extensive research, we engaged an instructor who is hearing-impaired from the Young Men’s Christian Association Kuala Lumpur. We did not negotiate the rates as we wanted to empower the instructor,” said Raenuga.
The employment is in line with SDG 10 which strives to reduce inequality by empowering the social and economic inclusion of persons with disabilities.
“We would love to continue the class as a semester programme. After it ends, we hope the participants could practise their skills and teach the sign language to others.”
Target Six of SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities) aims to reduce environmental impact by looking at waste management and solid waste collection in particular.
Following this goal, Sunway Student Volunteers member and psychology student Pratima Tamang, 21 has been participating in monthly street clean-ups.
Held at SS14 and SS15, Subang Jaya, the Earth Warriors project is conducted with the non-profit Great Heart Charity Association to address irresponsible garbage disposal.
Pratima said: “Aside from SDG 11, another primary goal of ours is SDG 12 as we encourage people to reconsider and reflect on the plastic waste they dispose.”
“We aim to create awareness and leave a lasting impact among the local communities about improper waste management and plastic usage.
“After each clean-up, we’d measure the waste collected and sort through it for recycling. Then the data is posted on our social media.
“Through the months, we have garnered a lot of support from the local communities including young children. They started to join us in our clean-ups. We also observed that the amount of waste has decreased significantly in the two areas.”
The key to sustainable living is to conserve and protect the environment.
Since 2016, UCSI Aquatic Science Students Association has organised a programme called Towards Zero Waste - Feel and Heal to expose underserved rural communities to repurpose food waste into compost.
Aimed to realise SDG 4, 12 (Responsible consumption and production) and 13 (Climate change), the project recently won the Highly Commended University title in the UN Environment’s International Green Gown Awards.
AQSA vice-president Luc Desire Julian Severe, 24, said that the project allows students to put what they have learnt in class into practice.
Severe said: “In subjects such as Aquaculture, Facility and Design, we learn to make the filter to convert waste into nutrients. This project enables us to have some hands-on experience.
“We started with an Orang Asli community in Gombak. We installed an aquaculture and aquaponics systems there allowing them to keep the river clean and sustain their food demands,” said Severe.
Aquaponics involves breeding aquatic animals and growing plants in water.
AQSA adviser Jason Lim Lai Huat said: “We discovered that the community was throwing their organic waste into the river where they also do their chores. The detergents they use were also harming the river inhabitants. With the aquaponics system, the waste is filtered and converted into edible nutrients and fertilisers.”
The project was recently extended to a primary school in Batu Pahat, Johor.
“At the school, we use their food waste to produce compost, from which the students can grow vegetables such as spinach,” said Severe.
Lim added: “Our goal is to not only educate the schoolchildren. We want them to educate their parents as well. We teach students to throw food waste into a composting bin and encourage them to bring home some compost to grow plants. From what we have observed, it has been successful as now the parents have started composting.”
In line with SDG 12, Raenuga and her team members organised a Help a Bra Out campaign early this year in partnership with lingerie brand Neubodi for their Community Service course at Sunway University.
She said: “We aimed to raise awareness that bras are reusable and recyclable. Neubodi helped us to process the bras and some will be transported to Nepal and African countries where there are breastfeeding mothers and girls who can’t afford the undergarments.
“We collected 70kg of bras in three months. The number is more than what Neubodi has collected previously.
“Throughout this campaign, we had people poking fun, making jokes and taking the issue lightly. So we made it a point to educate people that donating the clothing item can help underprivileged women and the environment,” said Raenuga.
To propel the SDGs forward, it is not enough to engage the youth as they must be committed as well.
Severe said: “Since the goals are set for 2030, the younger generation should be the ones leading sustainable development growth and addressing concerns such as climate change. It is our responsibility to educate the public about the importance of the SDGs.”
Raenuga views SDGs as a guide for the youth to make the world a better place.
“The 17 goals serve as a framework for young people to identify their interests and passions and which cause to advocate for. The Community Service Subject is also one way to spark some interest among students to give back to society.”
Highlighting the role of social media to inspire others, Raenuga added: “The youth today are driven by the fear of missing out. Once I posted about a clean-up event on Twitter, and 40 strangers came to help us. They just need the first experience. Once they feel the intrinsic reward, they will keep going.”
Muhammad Razin said: “The youth need to have the initiative to undertake sustainability-related efforts as this is going to be our world in the future. Being in university is the perfect time to start as we get to meet people from different backgrounds.
“However, most students prioritise their studies and social life and this can limit our impact. To counter this, we try to instil a mindset of learning and growing, so that students will feel like they are developing themselves while working on the goals.”
He added: “UCSI has been very encouraging and the SDG office has provided us with guidance and amenities. This helps us as students to discuss our ideas better and to network with others.”
Pratima suggests that sustainable initiatives should provide an easier path to entice the youth
“A two-hour clean-up session in the weekend is more appealing than a five-hour session. Once they experience how fun it is, they will return.
“Reflection is important. After each activity, we’d ask the new participants about the sustainable changes that they are willing to make. We have received answers like ‘I won’t use plastic containers anymore’ or ‘I will stop using plastic straws.
“There’s still a long way to go but small changes are happening,” said Pratima.