Last week was definitely one to remember! Yes, this was the week of the NAFSA: Association of International Educators 2023 Conference in Washington D.C.
Our Founder & CEO Alejandra Otero had the pleasure to be a panelist alongside Piet Van Hove, Nannette Ripmeester and Daniel Ponce-Taylor as they explored an emerging topic which is becoming a hot-button issue in intled: SDGs in Higher Education Marketing: Essential or Just Another Ingredient?
We are aware that not everyone in our sector was able to attend NAFSA, and we saw first-hand the level of interest our talk generated, so we have decided to dive into a more comprehensive recap for our friends and colleagues.
We started by exploring the potential of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a differentiator in higher education marketing. If you are new to the role of the SDGs in the field of Education For Sustainable Development (ESD), then why not read our 5-minute crash course. We also have a short podcast on why we in education really need to step up our efforts around sustainability.
We examined the expectations of younger generations regarding social responsibility and the importance of the SDGs, which connects very closely to the rise in focus on impact rankings for Higher Education. At NAFSA, however, we focused more specifically on the role of SDGs in higher education marketing, particularly in relation to employability and student recruitment.
Our objectives here were to establish the SDGs' relevance as a sustainability framework in higher education, evaluate their marketing prominence, assess the importance of SDG literacy for the future, and generate innovative ideas for incorporating them into marketing campaigns. It all started with asking the 3 following questions:
When it comes to showcasing their impact on #sustainability, the approaches do actually vary based on the institution type.
Business schools are undergoing a transition from a for-profit mindset to a for-purpose mindset. This shift in mentality emphasizes the importance of sustainability and #socialimpact. To showcase their commitment, business schools employ full marketing tactics; leveraging hashtags, events, dedicated landing pages, and videos. They actively engage in raising awareness and promoting their sustainability initiatives. Moreover, business schools place a higher focus on preparing students for the #jobsofthefuture, enhancing their #employability in the sectors which are more explicitly connected to sustainability.
Case Study 1: NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business (CSB) - "A Better World Through Better Business". CSB's core mission is to unlock the business value of sustainability and catalyze transformative change. Founded on the principle that sustainable business practices are not only ethically sound but also beneficial for enterprises, NYU Stern School of Business' CSB engages in education, research, and industry influence. By showcasing the financial advantages of integrating sustainability into business practices, CSB equips current and future corporate leaders with cutting-edge frameworks for proactive and innovative sustainability strategies, thereby gaining a competitive edge, and making a positive social impact.
Case Study 2: RSM Erasmus - Driving business through the SDGs - this concise 7-week online program offers a valuable opportunity to enhance awareness regarding the pivotal role of business in driving the transition towards sustainable development. It provides participants with foundations to assess the efficacy of current business strategies in making progress towards the SDGs. Additionally, this program serves as an excellent stepping stone towards other comprehensive full-time programs delivered by Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, catering to an already engaged audience eager to translate their initial learnings into impactful action.
Case Study 3: Under the banner of #INSEADforGood, INSEAD has been walking the talk through various initiatives: the SDGs Speaker Series, the Business & Society Summit, their Mission To Change Podcast and Quarterly Activity Updates they provide their audience with, among others. These endeavors highlight the financial opportunities linked to embracing the SDGs. This resonant message has influenced the discourse led by INSEAD's Hoffmann Global Institute for Business & Society, advocating for business education to align with the SDGs. Engaging students and alumni in hands-on projects on demonstrating how corporate ventures that generate positive impact can also be profitable has been one of their missions on this SDG road, going one step beyond the traditional CSR route.
Case Study 4: according to a recent report from AACSB, two other French institutions have also been engaging on a hands-on approach for their students in regard to SDGs. As a matter of fact, EM Strasbourg Business School in France, offers internships to students who propose ideas on how to further advance the SDGs, allowing them to implement their plans. Similarly, Emlyon business school targets one SDG each year through its events, courses, conferences, and partnerships, equipping students from day one with the tools to address associated challenges.
In contrast, universities are tending to focus less on marketing and more on the implementation of sustainability practices across their operations, leading to a complete revamp of their operational models. They prioritize a transversal approach, integrating sustainability into various facets of their institution. As a result, universities receive higher ratings and recognition in sustainability rankings, demonstrating their holistic dedication to the cause. Moreover, they make significant contributions to the field through a substantial volume of academic research papers dedicated to sustainability. Furthermore, universities are evolving into living labs and #innovation centers that serve as hubs connecting local governments, research institutes, and businesses, thereby playing a transformative role in enhancing community-wide efforts.
Case Study 5: Impact rankings. In contrast to conventional rankings that assess factors like research quantity, teaching quality, and staff-to-student ratio, impact rankings evaluate an institution's contribution to a sustainable future for the planet, society, and economy. Two prominent rankings, the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings (Times Higher Education) and the QS Sustainability Ranking (QS Quacquarelli Symonds), showcase a fascinating list of universities either through an SDGs lens or environmental and social impact respectively. These rankings frequently diverge from traditional academic rankings in terms of the institutions included and their geographical locations. As a result, previously unfamiliar universities have the opportunity to gain prominence, disrupting the traditional hierarchy, and reshaping the criteria that prospective students consider when choosing a university.
Case Study 6: SDGs Research Dashboards provide schools with valuable insights into the actions taken by institutions worldwide to address each of the goals. These dashboards enable schools to identify collaboration opportunities, benchmark their efforts, and stay informed about global initiatives. As an illustration, Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia has created a tool that provides visibility into the actions taken by schools worldwide, although it is currently predominantly utilized by American universities to showcase their SDGs research. Similarly, Aurora Universities in Europe has created a tool to visualize the research focus of their member universities in relation to the SDGs.
Case Study 7: The University of Surrey has consolidated its institutional operations and activities related to the SDGs in a comprehensive Sustainable Development Goals Report. Unlike mainstream, the University of Surrey has gone beyond focusing on emissions targets and biodiversity on campus. They have embraced sustainability in areas such as gender equality, equity of opportunity, innovation, and the circular economy. In essence, they have addressed the issues that matter to young people in their pursuit of a better world, in a visually appealing and very comprehensive report which is engaging for all stakeholders.
Case Study 8: The Aga Khan Foundation Learning Hub empowers development practitioners and communities by providing accessible online content on key topics. With 50+ years of experience, they collaborate to enhance quality of life and promote self-reliance in underserved communities. Mapping their offerings to specific SDGs ensures comprehensive coverage and expands their impact. By using SDGs as a universal framework, they bridge silos between NGOs and other institutions, fostering new networks and connecting learning to global issues through specific challenges.
To maximize the benefits and expertise in sustainability, both #universities and business schools can collaborate through public-private partnerships. Such collaborations would allow them to leverage each other's efforts and knowledge. By embracing these partnerships, institutions can collectively work towards a more sustainable future, combining academia, business, and the strengths of both sectors.
The role of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and sustainability in general is crucial in education marketing, student recruitment, enrollment management, and student retention, especially for individuals and market segments that prioritize social responsibility and seek to make a positive impact through their education and career choices.
One significant aspect is the influence of social media engagement, particularly among Gen Z, who are known for their social consciousness. Online #influencers such as Jhanneu, Shelbizleee and TheAmandaGorman actively participate in discussions on sustainability and promote social and environmental causes, resonating with socially-conscious individuals.
Youth-led movements also play a significant role in advocating for climate action and social justice. Initiatives like FridaysForFuture spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, have encouraged school students to skip classes on Fridays to demand action from political leaders to combat climate change. Additionally, the Malala Fund, founded by the young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, advocates for girls' education, while One Young World brings together a global community of young leaders to work on social impact initiatives.
All of these disparate personas and activities have but one framework in common to contextualize their objectives and sense of purpose: the SDGs.
Surveys and studies have revealed that sustainability and social responsibility have an influential role in decision-making when choosing higher ed institutions.
Students now consider how their studies can contribute to a positive impact on global issues, beyond simply deciding on what and where to study. At the 2022 Times Higher Education Global Sustainable Development Congress in Glasgow University, Tony Chan, President of KAUST (Saudi Arabia), said that “more and more students are coming to us asking not what they might study, or what career they might pursue, but rather how they might help to solve the issues they care about”.
A worldwide online survey by the National Union of Students UK in 2018 found that "91% of respondents believed their place of study should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development." However, only "17% rate their uni as "very good" in relation to the action it takes to limit the negative impact it has on the environment and society". In other words, there is still work to be done, as "25% of the surveyed students had never heard of the SDGs".
Digging deeper, a study by the Pew Research Center in 2021 stated that "young adults were far more concerned about climate harming them personally at some point in their lifetime than other adults were in most countries surveyed".
These findings primarily originate from developed economies, underscoring the growing significance of enhancing sustainability efforts and setting a positive example for leading economies. It is crucial for the "Global North" to address the imbalances they create, as their actions not only impact themselves but also disproportionately burden the "Global South". In addition to improving sustainability practices, support must be extended to the developing nations to mitigate the future consequences of global issues, especially considering their limited resources to move beyond meeting the current needs of their citizens.
According to The World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report for 2023, the labor market is anticipated to undergo a significant transformation, with a projected "loss of 83 million jobs and the creation of 69 million new jobs over the next five years" (Figure 3.1). Notably, Sustainability Specialists are expected to experience substantial growth in the workforce, ranking second in terms of occupational growth after #AI and machine learning Specialists, which are forecasted to be the leading occupation in generating new jobs (Figure 3.3). This highlights the urgent necessity for Higher Education institutions to integrate comprehensive sustainability practices and adequately prepare GenZ and GenAlpha for future employability success. However, it should be noted here that all jobs will be impacted by the need for sustainable thinking and decision-making.
As a result, institutions now have a new competitive advantage by being selected by students based on criteria beyond the traditional factors of education quality, affordability, location, or subject of studies. This presents an opportunity for #governments to galvanize their actions on sustainability as a nation. Joint public-private #partnerships can recognize the importance of sustainability and work together to integrate the SDGs into curricula and global citizenship activities, educating students and society about global challenges and engaging them in sustainable development efforts.
An excellent example of this is the GALLANT project in Glasgow, in which the University of Glasgow has developed a “living lab” to research and test solutions to support the local government and council to improve the sustainability of its community. Students are actively involved in helping to solve tangible problems like air quality, barriers to active travel, and resistance to circular economy initiatives.
It is important to note that awareness and engagement levels may vary across regions, socioeconomic backgrounds, educational contexts, and global exposure, but this is indeed why the SDG goals and indicators are regionally adaptive.
As the countdown to 2030 continues its rapid pace, it is crucial that we come together to empower both ourselves and our institutions in order to make a significant contribution to a sustainable future. We've therefore brainstormed on 10 actions that we recommend institutions to implement as they walk the talk:
1. Align institutional values and strategy with the SDGs: Ensure that the core #values and overall #strategy of the institution are in line with the SDGs, demonstrating a commitment to adopt sustainability as a macro lens for all decision-making processes. Embed sustainability as an integral part, to the point of infusion, becoming inherent and essential rather than an add-on.
2. Understand socially and environmentally conscious students: Focus on engaging with socially and environmentally conscious #students to better grasp their expectations and encourage them to advocate for sustainable initiatives, inspiring others to join their cause, and actively supporting the learning and development this requires.
3. Embed sustainability practices institution-wide: Go beyond mere rhetoric by incorporating sustainability practices throughout the entire institution. By actively implementing these practices, the institution can avoid being perceived as engaging in #greenwashing. This is an essential element of culture building as the institution grows towards becoming an agent of transformative change.
4. Showcase sustainability efforts: Promote sustainability initiatives on various platforms such as social media, events, websites, and conversations with current and prospective students. This visibility helps raise #awareness and encourages #engagement in sustainable practices. Storytelling is key here, and marketing professionals will find that there is broad scope for creativity and also for student-lead communication.
5. Integrate the SDGs into the curriculum: Incorporate the SDGs into the #curriculum and educational programs, providing students with practical skills and knowledge related to sustainable development. This prepares them for future careers aligned with sustainable practices.
6. Encourage sustainability training for staff: Offer sustainability and SDGs-related training to #staff members across all areas of expertise to empower them with knowledge and tools incorporating sustainability into their roles, thus fostering a better world. This also facilitates institution-wide culture building.
7. Raise awareness on a changing employability landscape: Inform potential students about the evolving job market and the importance of being prepared for the jobs of tomorrow. Position the institution as a bridge to a sustainable future by aligning its programs with the changing #employment landscape. The focus should be more on skills and not necessarily knowledge related to specific professions as the future is highly uncertain.
8. Foster partnerships for social impact: Accelerate social impact and leave a lasting legacy by committing to specific SDGs and fostering #collaboration between the public and private sectors. Embrace SDG 17 (Partnerships) to enhance community cohesion and drive sustainable change.
9. Inspire through purpose-driven actions: Inspire altruistic audiences by taking long-term actions that have a meaningful impact on society. Incorporate SDG targets into initiatives attracting entities for funding, developing case studies, organizing intra/entrepreneurial challenges, and implementing project based learning.
10. Include sustainability metrics in student recruitment/enrollment: Make a commitment to measure the impact of sustainability and the SDGs in student recruitment and enrollment. Move beyond traditional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as the number of students recruited, revenue generated, and academic achievements, to integrate sustainability impact measurement metrics in budgeting and goal-setting processes.
In the realm of higher education marketing, sustainability integration should go beyond engaging younger generations and be prioritized as an essential collective ingredient. Interpretations of sustainability vary among individuals. From a marketing perspective, we should unite all aspects, break down silos, and build our communication around the comprehensive framework of the SDGs, which goes beyond popular themes like climate or environment, encompassing all our activities. Embracing this shared #vision empowers us to proactively strive towards the creation of a more promising future. It's important to acknowledge that this endeavor is not a sprint, but rather a marathon, with layers of development happening each academic year as we build upon the previous successes. Let us unite in our preparation and training, as we strive together for the grandest race towards a sustainable world of international education!
So, do you still doubt if SDGs in Higher Education Marketing are Essential? Get in touch, and we'll be glad to share our thoughts and exchange ideas with you. We at geNEOus are here to help you explore the practical steps towards integrating the SDGs into your international marketing and student recruitment practices.