The UN:s Sustainable Development Goals must be embedded in higher education

This week started with a KI University board seminar in Saltsjöbaden. Among the posts on the agenda was a lecture given by Lennart Levi, Emeritus Professor of Psychosocial Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, and Member of the Swedish Parliament 2006–2010. In his excellent speech, Levi focused on the UN:s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the need to incorporate critical ethical reflection in higher education.

Levi’s arguments are spot on. They are particularly relevant for higher education within the realms of medicine and health. In The Lancet-UiO Commission on Global Governance for Health, which I led, we concluded that the distribution of health risks worldwide remains extremely and unacceptably uneven. The current situation – with pronounced inequities in health – is not sustainable and calls for change from the perspective of ethics and global justice.

A voice to future generations

Universities are stewards of our intellectual, scientific and cultural legacy but must also give a voice to future generations. The UN:s Sustainable development goals should inspire our research and require from us that we think anew when we structure our educational programs and when we reach out to our collaborative partners.

The SDGs demand a lot of the global governance systems that have to break away from old silos and ensure that the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability are seen in due context. Notably, it is imperative that health is not subordinated to economic goals. The SDGs challenge us to think and work across sectors and disciplines. Implicitly they ask higher education institutions to forge new alliances – alliances that might be seen as unconventional and unorthodox at first glance.

Crosstalk and collaboration

The complexity of the tasks at hand is such that we have to bolster the dialogue between academia, government, business, and civil society. In the UN Agenda 2030 it is stated that “it will be for all of us to ensure that the journey [to sustainable development] is successful”. We as academic institutions have to ensure that our study programs adequately reflect the complexity of the SDGs. After all, the universities and university colleges are those institutions that educate the candidates that shall fill the positions in the big and responsible “we” that will be stewards of the future development.

To properly embed the SDGs in higher education is a formidable task that requires crosstalk and collaboration between disciplines and institutions. Perhaps this is an issue where Swedish or Nordic universities should join forces, to a much larger extent than they do today?

As Emeritus Professor Lennart Levi stated: “When the next generation of leaders starts meeting the challenges and dilemmas they will encounter, it is our responsibility as educators that when they leave our universities and colleges, they are equipped with a working ‘ethical compass’.

I couldn’t agree more.


This blog is based on one of my previous blogs on the same issue.


Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. United Nations, New York; 2015.

The International Association of Universities (President: Professor Pam Fredman) has provided a document on Sustainable Development.


Together with my colleagues I have written and commented on some of these issues in the Lancet:

The political origins of health inequity: prospects for change.

Ottersen OP, Dasgupta J, Blouin C et al. Lancet 2014; 383: 630-667.

Paradoxes of sustainability with consequences for health

Engebretsen E, Heggen K, Das S, Farmer P, Ottersen OP. Lancet Glob Health. 2016 Apr;4(4):e225-6. doi: 10.1016/S2214-109X(16)00038-3.

The Sustainable Development Goals: ambiguities of accountability.

Engebretsen E, Heggen K, Ottersen OP  Lancet. 2017 Jan 28;389(10067):365. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(17)30152-6.


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