PurposeThe purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how universities can play a pivotal role in implementing sustainable development goals (SDGs). It recognises the advantage that universities have in responding to social challenges through their functions and operations, mainly through research and innovation and academic prowess. Not much guidance is available on how they can contribute to SDG implementation. The research is a case study of the University of South Africa, a distance education institution. It showcases how its science campus in Johannesburg has incorporated SDGs in its operations.Design/methodology/approachData were collected through interviews with campus operations managers and sustainability office managers, a survey with environmental science honours students was conducted and observations of the Unisa Florida campus environment were undertaken to establish practices that contribute towards SDG implementation. Document analysis assisted in complementing the data collection process. Data were analysed by aligning practices with SDG indicators.FindingsThe research revealed a number of practices that align with SDGs in teaching, research, community engagement and campus operations management. Unisa is however challenged by financial limitations and as an open distance education and learning (ODeL) institution, it struggles to involve students in these projects. The paper concludes that while the most obvious contribution of universities to SDGs is towards quality education (SDG 4), higher education, including distance education institutions, can play an active role in implementing other SDGs as well.Research limitations/implicationsThis research was limited to one institution, Unisa, owing to time limitations. While this might seem like the research was too selective, it was intentional, as the aim was to research a distance education institution. The research targeted staff involved in campus operations at Unisa’s Florida Campus, which is located in Johannesburg. Interviews were limited to students pursuing BSc Honours in Environmental Management. This was a methodological decision to contain the research, but making sure that the targeted respondents were the most informed. Individual case studies are often critiqued for being insufficiently representative to allow generalisations to other contexts (Jupp, 2006). This applies to this research in terms of “populations and universes” (Yin, 2003, p. 10), but generalisations to “theoretical propositions” (ibid) are possible.Originality/valueThere are few studies in Africa which researched implementation of SDGs in universities, let alone in ODeL institutions. The research revealed the challenge of involving students in sustainability practices in distance education institutions and serves as a testimony that such institutions can still have successful projects on and off campus. It suggests involving students in applied research based on the current sustainability projects on and off campus.
International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education – Emerald Publishing
Published: Jan 1, 1
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