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Article

Examining the Role and Challenges of Sustainable Development Goals for the Universities in the United Arab Emirates

1
College of Business Administration, American University in the Emirates, Dubai P.O. Box 503000, United Arab Emirates
2
School of Education, St. John’s University, Queens, NY 11439, USA
*
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2023, 15(20), 15123; https://doi.org/10.3390/su152015123
Submission received: 15 September 2023 / Revised: 7 October 2023 / Accepted: 17 October 2023 / Published: 21 October 2023

Abstract

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This study aims to explore the potential role of higher education institutions in the United Arab Emirates in driving the world’s progress toward achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The objectives of the study also include examining the challenges faced by the universities while integrating the SDG into their systems. This study adopted a mixed-method study design by conducting interviews with deans (15) and a survey with faculty members (350) of the universities in the UAE. The most pressing challenges reported were difficulties in the identification of priorities for the most impactful SDGs for universities, reduction of the environmental footprints of universities, the lack of sufficient collaboration and communication among universities, tracking the progress of SDGs in the absence of reporting protocols, impediments to participation from cultural and societal factors, bureaucratic hurdles, and political and economic influence over prioritization of SDGs in universities’ strategic planning. However, governmental change in economic and energy policy was highlighted as a favorable measure to accelerate the adoption of SDGs by the universities. Additionally, the results show that the scope of research and collaborative projects at the universities are limited and do not bring about any substantial change in society.

1. Introduction

The United Nations (UN) formulated a global framework and agenda for 2030, envisioning transforming the world with sustainability. It derived seventeen goals, unanimously adopted and recognized as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs). These 17 SDGs collectively comprise 169 central targets of high importance that have been agreed upon by the member countries. These goals have been made to assure peace, justice, happiness, and fulfillment in life for all without fear of any threat or violence. The UN calls these goals universal actions for preserving the planet from the potential threats of climate, poverty, and inequality. The goals imply the embrace of corporate social responsibility in all regions of the world [1]. Nevertheless, Ali et al. [2] have asserted that in the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the UNSDGs have not been realized in their letter and spirit. Among them, China is more concerned about realizing these SDGs, as it is reflected in its profit-making entities, its vision, and its efforts as compared to the rest of the BRICS countries.
More attention is given in the BRICS region to the goals of ‘peace, justice, and strong institutions’ and ‘decent work and economic growth’; however, ‘quality education’, ‘climate action’, and ‘life below water’ have not received the attention they should be given in the BRICS region [2]. The UN SDGs envisage creating healthy communities that promote overall well-being. However, there has been a lack of coordination and integration among different sectors, and progress toward these goals has been slow, uneven, and limited to certain regions, as highlighted by Saxena et al. [3]. The study by Saxena et al. [3] examines the difficulties and prospects concerning the relationship between the conceptualization, implementation, and evaluation of the UNSDGs. It suggests aligning theory, strategy, and operations, and focusing on transformative learning for education, organizational learning, and leadership. It also emphasizes increasing moral courage, the wise use of power and storytelling, fostering a sense of belonging, and taking an integrated and dialectic approach to create strong partnerships among public, private, and civil society sectors. As a result, long-term sustainability beyond 2030 could be materialized, along with the emergence of new ideas and solutions.
Another aspiration of today’s world in agreeing upon the UNSDGs is to ensure corporate social responsibility. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) denotes the role of profit-making entities in being watchful of the repercussions of their operations on society and the environment. Researchers have identified various elements of CSR, including stakeholder engagement, enhancing the quality of life, promoting economic growth, ethical business practices, compliance with laws and regulations, voluntariness, respect for human rights, environmental protection, transparency, and accountability [4,5]. Therefore, organizations are gradually incorporating the SDGs into their CSR practices [6]. For instance, business schools have been integrating moral, corporate social responsibility, and sustainability concepts into their curricula for educating students, which assists in increasing their understanding, skills, and approach to addressing communal issues while pursuing their professional careers [7]. Moreover, Paletta and Bonoli [8] adopt a distinctive method in examining the role of universities, starting with the University of Bologna, in revising their courses, curricula, pedagogy, research curricula, campus management, and partnerships. These efforts were central to realizing the 2030 agenda, which explicitly takes into account the UNSDGs.
Paletta and Bonoli [8] assert that the university prepared a reporting tool to measure its progress related to the implementation of the UNSDGs, which was displayed on the occasion of the G7 Environment meeting that took place in Bologna in 2017. Similarly, in Portugal, graduate programs were representing the SDGs more as compared to undergraduate programs. These graduate programs were in the disciplines of nature and social and environmental sciences, along with the humanities [9]. Concerning the implementation of the SDGs in the UAE region, the MBR Solar Park has been archetypal in its profound ecological effect by using clean energy rather than fossil fuels, which are readily used in the region. The MBR Solar Park has contributed to a reduction in carbon emissions by 6.5 million tons. Moreover, it is expected to reveal a greater impact. The Park has also marked progress towards several SDGs, including SDGs 8, 9, 11, and 15 [10]. Despite an increase in gas production over the years, from 2010–2014 there was a substantial rise in demand ahead of economic development, a spike in demographics, and other development projects in the Middle East. Subsequently, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, and the UAE have been encountering considerable energy deficiencies, mainly in natural gas resources [11].
For instance, it has been reported that for 2011, most of the Arab nations were far behind in the generation of renewable energy resources, which was 1000 m3/capita/year, symbolizing the water poverty line. For these countries, i.e., KSA, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Yemen, reserves were not more than 100 m3/capita/year. Coupling factors such as population rise, rapid urbanization, and economic development resulted in a degenerative effect on these inadequate and scarce resources, while climate effect also had a clipping impact on these resources. All such factors led to an increased tendency of reliance on energy-intensive desalinated water [12].
More alarmingly, food security in the Middle East and North Africa region is worryingly obstructed by dwindling water resources and barren land occupation, all of which affect the availability and reliability of food [12]. The UAE ranks 35th, comparatively low, in the 2021 Global Food Security Index, and relies on imports to meet over 80% of its food needs [13]. The UAE has only achieved one of the Sustainable Development Goals, with most not on track to be met by 2030. The country has plans to invest in projects aimed at reaching 50% clean energy by 2050. However, this study has identified a lack of clear strategies for achieving these targets. Further, this study has recommended governmental interventions for inter-organizational cooperation and the collaboration of other institutions to avoid conflicting plans and successfully achieving the outcomes [14]. There is a need for the UAE to find a permanent solution for desalination to address its water scarcity [15]. In the wake of the Abraham Accords, the UAE has established a USD 10 billion investment fund for coping with the pressing issues of water desalination and agricultural development via employing the modern water technology of Israel, as the UAE and Bahrain possess limited surface water reservoirs. Hence, they rely heavily on imported basic food items. In particular, the UAE and Bahrain possess the smallest arable land. While the UAE is motivated to achieve SDG 15, significant obstacles still exist [16]. Notably, many key indicators are lacking, making it difficult to accurately measure the country’s progress. Additionally, the UAE must emphasize innovative strategies for achieving the SDGs, while also creating a sense of urgency to implement them more quickly in the climate-vulnerable region [17]. The findings of the study by Hansen et al. [18] were limited to Florida as it attempted to explore challenges and innovations in the integration of SDGs. Kestin et al. [19] published a report about the role of HEIs in the Asia-Pacific region. Pallant et al. [20] reviewed the strategies implemented by Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, United States of America, for SDG integration. It was also found that there was a minimal focus by the HEIs on four SDGs, namely, no poverty, zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, and climate actions [21]. The scope of other recent studies was limited to Italian state universities [22,23] and the Basque country [24].
Numerous studies attempted to explore the status of SDGs in the UAE. However, no study has identified the challenges faced by universities in the UAE in integrating and implementing the SDGs. Sigahi [25] also highlighted complexitiy and different paradigms in education. The same concern while asserting that despite an exponential proliferation of educational institutions in the world, the concept of sustainability has only become part of rhetoric, without concrete integration and implementation on the ground, leaving no substantial impact [25].
Consequently, the present study demonstrates the realization of the UNSDGs, the role of higher education institutions in implementing them, and the challenges along the way in the UAE. The results of this study will provide insights to the students, researchers, policymakers, decision-makers, and governmental entities that have been endeavoring to mitigate climate vulnerabilities. Moreover, the findings of this study will also be helpful as a blueprint for supranational organizations such as the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to increase collaborative efforts with educational institutions to mitigate the climate repercussions in their regions. The structure of this study will be as follows: Section 2 will be a review of the literature, Section 3 comprises methodology, Section 4 will offer results, Section 5 will encapsulate discussion of the findings, and Section 6 will consist of the conclusion.

2. Literature Review

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) were formed in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The UNSDGs were recognized as tackling the world’s most pressing issues, i.e., poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation. More specifically, the 17 goals and 169 targets envision ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring peace and prosperity for all by 2030 [26]. They were created to provide a shared vision and framework for action for all countries, including developed and developing countries, to address the social, economic, and environmental challenges encountered by the world [26]. In the following, a detailed account of these 17 SDGs has been provided.

2.1. Ending Poverty

The United Nations has a goal to eradicate poverty worldwide; however, current poverty rates are still high. Despite efforts from various organizations, recent data show a concerning picture. According to the UN, in 2013, people who had been living under the poverty line numbered 767 million, as they had been receiving wages of less than USD 1.90 [27].

2.2. Zero Hunger

Hunger begets poverty. UN reports indicate that the number of malnourished individuals worldwide has decreased from 15% (2000–2002) to 11% in 2014–2016. It resulted in a reduction from 930 to 793 million people [27].

2.3. Good Health and Well-Being

As highlighted by the UN, though substantial progress has been made in global health since 2000, the healthcare sector continues to struggle with illnesses and widespread suffering. To achieve the SDGs, all the regions of the world must meet their health targets by 2030 [27].

2.4. Quality Education

As stated by UN reports from 2014, the goal of providing quality education possesses prime importance. Despite 63% of the world’s population of children having been enrolled in primary or pre-primary educational programs, the total enrollment ratio in developed countries was only 40% [27].

2.5. Gender Equality

The UN emphasizes the promotion of gender equality. However, there are disparities in gender equality statistics across the world due to differing definitions. Nevertheless, the UN observes deeply-rooted gender inequality across the world, which denies women and girls their rights and opportunities. From the period 2005 to 2016, 19% of women aged between 15 and 49 from 87 countries had shared their experiences of being victims of physical and/or sexual assault from their partners in the preceding 12 months. These findings specify a pressing issue that the UN’s gender equality efforts aim to wrestle with globally [28].

2.6. Clean Water and Sanitation

The UN stresses guaranteeing access to potable water and improved sanitation worldwide. As per UN reports from 2015, a total of 6.6 billion individuals had access to better sources of potable water, and people with better sanitation numbered 4.9 billion. However, the majority of those without these amenities reside in developing states [27].

2.7. Affordable and Clean Energy

As per UN reports, accessing affordable and clean energy is a basic human right, but not all people have it. In 2014, 85.3% of people around the world had electricity, leaving 1.06 billion people, mainly those living in rural areas, without this necessity [28].

2.8. Decent Work and Economic Growth

According to the United Nations, ensuring decent work and promoting economic growth is an enduring challenge for countries, particularly in underdeveloped and less developed nations, due to scant resources and population expansion. The real GDP per capita growth globally during five years (2010–2015) was 1.6%, which was higher than the 0.9% during 2005–2009. In contrast, the average annual growth rate of real GDP per capita worldwide in 2020 was negative as a result of widespread lockdowns and disruptions to global trade and commerce [29].

2.9. Industry Innovation and Infrastructure

Infrastructure and industrial advancements are regarded as the foundation of sustainable economic growth. According to UN reports, in the year 2015, air transport was anticipated to reach USD 2.7 trillion, which was equal to a 3.5% share in global GDP. This level of growth is a challenge for underdeveloped nations, particularly those that are landlocked. The reports also indicated that the share of GDP attributed to manufacturing value added increased to 16.2% from 15.3% in 2016 [27].

2.10. Reduced Inequalities

In light of UN reports, equality is a vital element for sustainable development. From 2008 to 2013, 49 out of 83 countries with available data saw the income of the bottom 40% of the population growing at a faster rate as compared to the overall average. However, the level of inequality varies across countries [27].

2.11. Sustainable Cities and Communities

Universally, population growth in urban and rural areas is inadequate and uneven. The share of the urban population has risen globally. The UN envisages ameliorating living standards through its “sustainable cities and communities” indicator. According to UN data, 54% of the total population of the world lives in cities, and this is expected to rise to 5 billion by 2030 [27].

2.12. Responsible Consumption and Production

Manufacturers are mainly responsible for sustainably produced goods, but consumers also have a role to play in sustainable consumption. To promote sustainable consumption and production, the UN has designed awareness and legal initiatives. According to some reports published by the UN, domestic material consumption per unit of GDP rose from 1.2 kg to 1.3 kg between 2000 and 2010. Total domestic material consumption also increased to 71.0 billion tons in comparison with the previous limit of 48.7 billion tons during the same period [27].

2.13. Climate Action

Climate action is a topmost priority for nations worldwide. Many international organizations, including the UN, consider climate as a key constituent to achieving sustainability in developmental projects and have included it in their objectives. This is essential, as climate impacts many aspects of human life. UN reports indicate that in 2016, planetary warming reached a new high of 1.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, indicating rapid climate change. Some countries are using sustainable energy projects to protect their climate and some have discontinued production of carbon-based energy [27].

2.14. Life below Water

Organizations such as the United Nations have established programs aiming to optimize the development and utilization of marine resources. According to a UN report, global trends show a persistent decline in coastal waters due to pollution and eutrophication. The Transboundary Waters Assessment Program found that 16% of the 63 large marine ecosystems evaluated are at “high” or “highest” risk for coastal eutrophication [27].

2.15. Life on Land

Industrialization has brought about various challenges to life. The United Nations focuses on sustainable development to preserve life on land. The loss of forests has decreased, as more emphasis has been given to plantations backed by voluntary certification [27].

2.16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions

Ensuring peace, justice, and strong institutions are vital goals of the UN. Research in 2015 showed that the number of victims of intentional homicide worldwide was between 5.2 and 6.7 per 100,000 people, emphasizing the need for more effective prevention [29].

2.17. Partnership for Goals

To achieve its sustainable development goals, the UN has established worldwide partnerships, which are part of its mission. In 2016, UN reports showed that there was an 8.9% rise in net official development assistance from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Development Assistance Committee, which was equal to USD 142.6 billion, signifying a breakthrough in this regard [29].

2.18. The Role of Universities in Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are quintessential for sustainable development and implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of Agenda 2030 [30]. It is considered a vital responsibility of HEIs to actively participate in achieving the SDGs. Universities are morally empowered to support the SDGs as part of their social missions and central purposes. Progress toward the SDGs in universities requires participation from various stakeholders, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses, think tanks, and universities themselves, who bring expertise and knowledge to the table and assist governments in realizing what have become strategic goals in the wake of climatic devastation [30]. The policies and decision-making informed by academic experts and students are perceived to be more effective and consistent actions toward achieving the SDGs [31]. Universities and higher education institutions can greatly contribute to the success of sustainable development goals by providing scientific knowledge, evidence, and experience to inform policy-making at both national and international levels. They can act as a bridge between scientific and political communities to facilitate effective collaboration in decision-making and in developing a methodology, such as a framework, for implementing the SDGs. Nogueiro et al. [32] conducted a study to evaluate the significance of the Erasmus+ Programme and found that through 2030, there would be an increased relevance of quality education, gender equality, decent work, and economic growth among all the SDGs. Another recent study by Nogueiro et al. [32] investigated the significance of the Erasmus+ Programme for implementing SDGs for sustainability in HEIs. The findings articulated that through total quality management, synergies can be created between HEI goals and SDG implementation [33]. Ferguson et al. [34] also conducted a case study to examine the role of HEIs in realizing SDGs in the West Indies. The findings of this case study revealed that through a strong emphasis on SDG 4 (education), the implementation of other SDGs could be expedited. Universities are often viewed as models to follow [15,24] and are considered exemplary places to research and experiment with sustainable approaches and practices in various aspects of their operations—education, campus management, institutional policies, reporting, community engagement, and research. The potential impact that universities can have on the SDGs is extensive. Previous research has emphasized the need to recognize the benefits of incorporating the SDGs in crucial aspects of university operations such as (a) research and innovation, (b) education, (c) governance and campus management, and (d) community involvement and outreach. Adopting the SDGs should not be deemed a burden but rather an opportunity. The UN SDGs are widely supported by governments, businesses, investors, and civil society, making them a globally recognized framework. Thus, universities can leverage this support and reap benefits such as showing their impact as a sustainable institution, crafting connections with external stakeholders, growing demand for education on sustainability and the SDGs, and accessing new funding opportunities via the identification of challenges.

3. Materials and Methods

3.1. Study Design and Sampling

This study adopted a mixed-method study design by conducting interviews with deans and surveys of faculty members at universities in the UAE. The researchers have opted to employ this study design due to its robustness, incorporating both qualitative and quantitative methods to collect data and conduct an analysis in one study [35]. This study design enables the researchers to grasp complex areas of scientific inquiry with the help of statistical analysis numbers and charts. According to Rossman and Wilson [36], such studies assist in policy research to solve real-life problems with social sciences in focus while observing the world through multiple angles. These advantages surpass the benefits of other eclectic research methods, as mixed-method studies provide the perspectives of the stakeholders directly involved in policy-making in contrast to a single method or qualitative study. In the context of the present study, this approach will help to encapsulate not only the perspectives of the main stakeholders but also take into account real-life observations of faculty regarding the role of HEIs in instilling sustainability. This study employed a purposive sampling technique to recruit 15 deans from different disciplines from universities in the UAE. For survey participants, the researchers employed random sampling to recruit teachers from public universities in the UAE as a representative of a large study population. This sampling technique was employed to recruit a small and random percentage of the entire population, reflective of the entire data set [37]. A survey questionnaire was sent online to the teachers at the universities. Using Raosoft 2007, an online sample size calculator, the recommended sample size of the study was 313. A total of 380 questionnaires were sent online. Out of these, only 350 responses were included due to their complete responses.

3.2. Study Procedures

The researchers identified universities with relevant research or academic programs in environmental science, sustainability, or engineering for recruiting professors and deans who had expertise in climate change in the UAE. This helped to ensure a representative sample of perspectives on climate change in the UAE. Also, only universities having a research office or a research committee were included, so that it could assist the study procedures of recruiting participants and obtaining ethical clearance. The study was carried out from 14 November 2022 to 15 December 2022.

3.3. Study Tools

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with deans to gather their perceptions and experiences regarding the role of higher education institutions in realizing the UNSDGs in the UAE (Appendix B). The interviews were conducted in person and via video call and were audio-recorded. An interview guide was developed and provided to ensure that all participants were asked the same questions and to ensure that the interviews were structured. The guide included open-ended elements to obtain detailed responses, perceptions, and experiences regarding the role of higher education institutions in realizing the UNSDGs from the participants in the UAE. However, the researchers drafted both the survey and interview questionnaires based on the extensive review of the literature. The services of two academic experts were acquired, who suggested modifying the questionnaires. Acting upon their suggestions, the researchers modified the questionnaires and adopted them for the study (Appendix A). The survey questionnaire comprised a five-point Likert scale spanning Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree.

3.4. Reliability and Validity

For validity, the researchers acquired the services of academic experts. For reliability, the reliability coefficient was measured through Cronbach’s alpha, which came out to be more than 0.7 (Table 1), which signaled that the questionnaire was fit to adopt for the study [38].

3.5. Data Analysis

The data collected from the interviews were recorded and analyzed using a thematic analysis approach. The analysis involved identifying common themes and patterns in the data and organizing the data into meaningful categories. These themes included sustainability in curriculum integration, campus sustainability, student engagement, community engagement, collaboration and partnerships, governmental policy, resources, and funding. On the other hand, descriptive statistics were measured using SPSS version 27.

3.6. Ethical Considerations

Before conducting the study, the authors obtained approval from the Institutional Review Board of _____ University with IRB Number ____. Participants were informed of the study’s purpose, the data collection methods, and how the data were used. They were also informed of their right to withdraw from the study at any time and their data confidentiality.

4. Results

Table 2 presents the demographic details of the survey participants. The mean age of the participants was 45.12 ± 7.930. The majority of the study participants were male (188), while there were 162 females in this study. Moreover, the majority of the participants were aged between 54–55 years, with the majority of the participants having more than 5 years’ experience.
Table 3 presents the results of the descriptive statistics of the survey responses, wherein the participants highlighted a greater level of awareness among the students and faculty regarding the implementation of the SDGs in the UAE. Regarding the extent of the integration of SDG policies in UAE universities, the majority of the participants’ responses showed that the integration was not considerable. Despite this, the availability of adequate financial resources showed that financial resources were not a considerable challenge for the implementation of SDGs. Also, collaboration and partnership were present among the universities and different stakeholders, which was contrary to the absence of the political will of the government to accelerate the pace of the integration of SDGs while assisting the universities. According to the results, the staff and faculty are fully trained to support the university’s initiative to implement the SDGs into their systems. However, regulatory frameworks were found to be the areas to pay attention to. More importantly, the participants viewed the complexities and interconnectedness of SDGs as posing challenges for universities. In addition, the challenges recognized by the participants included the identification of priorities for the most impactful SDGs, reduction of the environmental footprints of universities, the lack of sufficient collaboration and communication among universities, tracking the progress of SDGs in the absence of reporting protocols, impediments to participation posed by cultural and societal factors, bureaucratic hurdles, and political and economic influence over the prioritization of SDGs in university strategic planning. However, the results revealed that change in governmental economic and energy policy could be a factor in accelerating the implementation and desired change in terms of the successful implementation of SDGs.

4.1. Results of Thematic Analysis

4.1.1. Sustainability Integration in Curriculum

Table 4 presents the demographic details of interview participants. The majority of the interviewees were male and aged between 46–50.
Participants said that so far sustainability has been integrated into the curriculum but further changes could be made to better align these changes with the UNSDGs. One of the participants asserted that “I support the integration of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) into the UAE university curriculum. I believe that it is important for universities to play a role in educating future leaders about the importance of sustainable development and how it can be achieved”. While talking about the need for sustainability in the curricula, another participant asserted, “The integration of the UNSDGs into the curriculum would help to raise awareness among students about the various sustainability challenges facing our planet, and provide them with the necessary knowledge and skills to address these challenges”.

4.1.2. Campus Sustainability and Student Engagement and Activism

Regarding the actions taken by higher education institutions to reduce their environmental footprints, such as energy efficiency, recycling, and sustainable procurement, participants discussed the initiatives. One of the participants vowed that “the UAE has set ambitious targets for renewable energy and sustainable development as part of its National Agenda. In line with these efforts, universities in the UAE are incorporating sustainability into their curricula, offering courses and programs focused on environmental sustainability, renewable energy, and sustainable development”. Moreover, “many universities in the UAE have taken steps to make their campuses more sustainable, such as implementing energy-efficient technologies and promoting environmentally-friendly practices such as using paper bags, waste management for… I think recycling purposes!” As part of student engagement, it was contended by a professor that “students in environmental studies departments in UAE universities likely attend seminars as part of their coursework. Seminars are a common way for students to learn about current research, trends, and developments in their field of study”.
However, one stated that “most of the students usually do not attend these seminars due to their lack of interest or the seminars do not provide useful, pragmatic and actionable insights”. Thus, it has become a challenge for universities to ensure the attendance and interest of the students in these seminars. In addition, a professor pinpointed and suggested that “although there are workshops that are more appealing to students as part of students’ engagement, there is a need to broaden the scope of these workshops in the form of their social action projects as part of their academic coursework”. More importantly, one participant highlighted that energy-efficient buildings, waste-management programs, recycling, and sustainable food options are the most important aspects to consider in campus sustainability while increasing the admission there.

4.1.3. Community Engagement, Collaboration, and Partnerships

Participants deliberated how higher education institutions engage with the community and contribute to sustainable development through outreach programs, volunteerism, and partnerships with local organizations. Participants discussed the significance of collaboration and partnerships between higher education institutions, businesses, governments, and other organizations to achieve the UNSDGs. “The students need more exposure to the industries during their coursework that must be practical but not academic only”, a participant stressed. Participants observed that “sustainability fairs must be launched and the students must be given access and resources to build small-scale infrastructural facilities such as libraries, cafeterias, and small vehicles that are sustainable and carbon-free, inside the campuses”. In the views of the participants, “allowing and encouraging such initiatives at the university level will increase start-ups in the UAE too as start-up economy is becoming popular in Israel and India”. The professors were also concerned about importing agricultural and water desalination technologies from other countries.
According to them, “it is better to look for international cooperation and collaboration rather than depending on the imported technologies as the geographical, economic and other national conditions sometimes vary and do not align with the home country”. Thus, some have called it “a challenge to persuade the concept of local problems with local solutions to over the harsh effect of climate change”; especially, “…to encourage the students to find the solutions for achieving sustainability in their country”.

4.1.4. Governmental Policy, Resources, and Funding

Participants were strong advocates of policies and the role of government in providing further space to higher education institutions in the UAE. For them, “it is the most important aspect that the government builds the state-of-the-art research institutes in the universities for ensuring the SDGs such as ending poverty, quality and scientific education, and environment; for me, it will be the first step toward right direction…” Despite some universities have separate research centers “with the collaboration of both the national and international organizations, the follow-up and implementation of these research institutes on the practical ground is not satisfactory”. “There are intellectual barriers, and lack of spirit and commitment that impede the productivity and implementation of these research institutes”. It was opined that “the government needs to initiate dialogues with universities and provide them with policy guidelines to tackle with the pressing issues of food insecurity, water scarcity, and climate-induced national disasters”.
If the focus of the government is to find local solutions through institutional collaboration, it will be a favorable and productive initiative instead of importing and outsourcing the solutions. Currently, the universities and their research centers must research sustainable agriculture and water recycling side by side with methods of water desalination, a participant highlighted. Also, “it is the need of the hour to prevent over-consumption and realize the potential and need of sustainable consumption in the UAE society as a whole”.

4.2. Strengths and Limitations

The present study determines the role of higher education institutions in the UAE in implementing and achieving the UNSDGs. This study asserts that these institutions have a critical role in ensuring sustainability takes a substantive role worldwide. This study highlights the potential weaknesses of this resource-rich region and pinpoints the areas of improvement in the views of experts and academicians while conducting face-to-face interviews for more practical observations. Theoretically, these findings add to the existing body of knowledge related to the role of educational institution in the UAE. These findings can be generalized in the context of the states neighboring the UAE due to similar geo-economic and socio-political factors. However, the sample of participants was smaller. Therefore, future studies can be conducted with the quantitative study design and a greater sample size in the UAE and other regions.

5. Discussion

This study highlights the significant role that higher education can play in promoting sustainability and the implementation of the UNSDGs. By integrating sustainability into their curricula, universities can educate and raise awareness of the importance of sustainability among students and the broader community. These findings are similar to the study by Boarin et al. [39] that analyzed the perceptions of university students about the role of their universities in greater sustainability. The study further asserted that sustainability integration across the universities of three regions—Oceania, Europe, and North America—varied and was dependent on their regional focus and goals. However, these findings are in contrast to the study by Ebaid [40], who investigated the views of undergraduate accounting students at universities in Saudi Arabia. They expressed their lower or limited understanding regarding sustainability, as their curriculum of accounting education was not integrated with sustainability.
Further, the present study stresses collaboration between universities, businesses, and the government to achieve the UNSDGs. By working together, universities can leverage their resources and expertise to make a greater impact on sustainability initiatives. The role of universities in conducting research and developing innovative solutions to address environmental challenges and promote sustainability cannot be ignored. By investing in sustainability research, universities can help drive progress in this critical area and make a positive impact on the world, as reported by Menon and Suresh [41].
This study highlights the importance of student involvement in sustainability initiatives. By providing opportunities for students to volunteer, intern, and participate in community outreach programs, universities can help students develop the skills and knowledge they need to make a positive impact on the world. The views of the participants are in line with the study by Hayles [42], who has substantiated the positive outcomes of an internship program as one of the ways campus-based sustainability activities at the University of Wales emboldened students to take charge of and implement real change with green initiatives.
However, it was asserted that there is still a need to promote thinking about local problems and local solutions and increase follow-up by research institutions with real change. Also, it is indispensable to initiate follow-up programs to the workshops and seminars in order to realize and observe the capacity, real change, and weaknesses of the existing systems and frameworks. However, the participants were concerned about the governmental policy of importing expertise and technology rather than developing institutional collaboration [43].
The present study has revealed that currently, universities in the UAE have been facing challenges related to funding availability, reduction in environmental footprint, and a dearth of communication and collaboration. Also, it reported the absence of any mechanism that could help to identify development of SDG adoption and rules and procedures to report progress. Implementation was also hampered by cultural and societal factors, bureaucratic hurdles, and political and economic influence over the prioritization of SDGs in university strategic planning. These findings are similar to the results of Lafuente-Lechuga et al. [44], which identified that major restructuring was needed to integrate sustainability in curricula using mathematical techniques. Also, the study by Leal Filho et al. [17] has similar findings, in which they stress increasing inter-university collaboration with more research, and revealed that students had a lack of inspiration and motivation regarding the adoption of SDGs in their learning. Contrary to the findings of the present study, Chisingui and Costa [45] have concluded that according to their thematic analysis of biology teachers, the SDGs were not integrated yet. Argento et al. [46] asserted that for integrating SDGs, joint efforts and institutional cooperation were the two most important elements to ensure. Moreover, this study encapsulated insights from deans of public universities in the UAE, who have expressed the prominent role students can play in campus sustainability through community engagement, collaboration, and partnerships of HEIs with other institutions to help ensure sustainability. However, they identified the need for a more robust and focused governmental policy, allocation of resources, and funding in this regard. This study provided insights from the stakeholders of the universities, who have suggested the ways and highlighted the needed actions, resources, and procedures that can help to integrate and implement sustainability in higher education. These findings add up to the suitability of educational literature, which has been inadequately explored and discussed, as highlighted by Alam [25]. It can be implied that sustainability must be adopted as a new focus, as it will help to employ constructive means and optimization of resources, because all over the world, HEIs have been facing a scarcity of resources and shortages of available funds. Therefore, it is high time to realize the prospects of education and sustainability interchangeably, and consider sustainability the prime focus or panacea to most of the problems and challenges originating in the governance and public spheres, with an enhanced role for HEIs.

6. Conclusions

To sum up, universities in the UAE have been facing multiple challenges, i.e., a lack of resources, funding, knowledge, rules, and policies set by the government, with an inclusive focus. Further, the findings highlighted that in the absence of the active engagement of students, it has become difficult to adopt SDGs in HEIs. Also, the level of awareness of the implementation of SDGs was optimal in the HEIs of the UAE. This study of the role of higher education in the UAE and the significant challenges faced by its universities underscores the critical role that universities can play in promoting sustainability and making a positive impact on the world by countering the identified challenges. By working together, universities, businesses, and the government can help to achieve the UNSDGs and create a more sustainable future for all. Based on the participant interviews, most UAE universities have fully or partially integrated sustainability into their curriculum. Although some UAE universities already have state-of-the-art institutions and have been receiving funding for their research work, the implementation is not enough. Similarly, in UAE society as a whole, at all the tiers of government, there is a need to encourage local solutions to local problems with institutional collaboration, rather than focusing on creating reliance on imported technologies. By realizing the needed resources and governmental responsiveness, UAE universities can perform exemplary actions and bring real change to tackle climatic impacts on the region.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, A.S.; Methodology, A.S. and P.B.; Validation, A.S.; Formal analysis, A.S. and P.B.; Investigation, A.S.; Writing—original draft, A.S. and P.B.; Writing—review & editing, A.S. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

Funding

This research received no external funding.

Acknowledgments

The authors are very thankful to all the associated personnel in any reference that contributed to this research.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Appendix A

  • SQ1: The level of awareness regarding the SDGs
  • SQ2: The extent of integration of SDGs
  • SQ3: Availability of financial resources
  • SQ4: Collaboration and partnership
  • SQ5: Availability of data and metrics to measure progress
  • SQ6: Alignment between academic progress and research
  • SQ7: Training of staff and faculty
  • SQ8: Awareness and engagement of students
  • SQ9: Regulatory policy and frameworks
  • SQ10: Complexities and interconnectedness of the SDGs
  • SQ11: Identifying priorities for the most impactful SDGs
  • SQ12: Reducing environmental footprints
  • SQ13: Lack of sufficient collaboration and communication
  • SQ14: The absence of reporting protocols
  • SQ15: Government’s lack of will as a barrier
  • SQ16: Cultural and societal factors
  • SQ17: Bureaucratic processes’ impact on agility and responsiveness
  • SQ18: Political and economic influence over the prioritization of SDGs
  • SQ19: Impact of change in the economic and energy policy of the government

Appendix B

Interview Questionnaire
  • What is the role of sustainability integration in educational curricula of HEIs?
Sustainability 15 15123 i001
2.
What role can students play in campus sustainability?
Sustainability 15 15123 i001
3.
How are community engagement, collaboration, and partnerships of HEIs with other institutions helpful in ensuring sustainability?
Sustainability 15 15123 i001
4.
Highlight the potential role of governmental policy, resources, and funding in this regard.
Sustainability 15 15123 i001
----End of Interview----

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Table 1. Stability Coefficient.
Table 1. Stability Coefficient.
Cronbach’s AlphaN of Items
0.78719
Table 2. Demographic details of the participants.
Table 2. Demographic details of the participants.
ItemsFrequencyPercent
Age
32102.9
33133.7
34174.9
35123.4
3692.6
37144.0
38133.7
39133.7
4082.3
4182.3
42133.7
43144.0
44113.1
45144.0
46123.4
47102.9
48113.1
49123.4
50144.0
51123.4
52144.0
53154.3
54195.4
55195.4
56154.3
57133.7
58154.3
Total350100.0
Gender
Male18853.7
Female16246.3
Total350100.0
Years of Experience
5.021461.1
6.0216.0
7.54914.0
8.06618.9
Total350100.0
Table 3. Descriptive statistics.
Table 3. Descriptive statistics.
ItemsFrequencyPercent
SQ1Disagree14240.6
Agree236.6
Strongly Agree18552.9
Total350100.0
SQ2Neutral22163.1
Agree5014.3
Strongly Agree7922.6
Total350100.0
SQ3Strongly Disagree41.1
Disagree31088.6
Agree3610.3
Total350100.0
SQ4Disagree32893.7
Agree226.3
Total350100.0
SQ5Strongly Disagree3911.1
Disagree23065.7
Neutral267.4
Agree5515.7
Total350100.0
SQ6Strongly Agree102.9
Strongly Disagree29885.1
Disagree205.7
Strongly Agree226.3
Total350100.0
SQ7Strongly Disagree10.3
Disagree29484.0
Agree3911.1
Strongly Agree164.6
Total350100.0
SQ8Disagree6017.1
Agree6418.3
Strongly Agree22664.6
Total350100.0
SQ9Strongly Disagree6919.7
Disagree18352.3
Agree6418.3
Strongly Agree349.7
SQ10Neutral15243.4
Agree6017.1
Strongly Agree13839.4
Total350100.0
SQ11Agree29283.4
Strongly Agree5816.6
Total350100.0
SQ12Agree5214.9
Strongly Agree29885.1
Total350100.0
SQ13Disagree174.9
Neutral4412.6
Agree18252.0
Strongly Agree10730.6
Total350100.0
SQ14Neutral8223.4
Agree7320.9
Strongly Agree19555.7
Total350100.0
SQ15Disagree257.1
Neutral4713.4
Agree27879.4
Total350100.0
SQ16Disagree15243.4
Neutral15544.3
Agree4312.3
Total350100.0
SQ17Neutral82.3
Agree298.3
Strongly Agree31389.4
Total350100.0
SQ18Disagree41.1
Neutral318.9
Agree236.6
Strongly Agree29283.4
Total350100.0
SQ19Strongly Disagree3.9
Neutral205.7
Agree4713.4
Strongly Agree28080.0
Total350100.0
Table 4. Demographic details of interview participants.
Table 4. Demographic details of interview participants.
AgeFrequencyPercent
46–501067
51–550533
Total15100
GenderFrequencyPercent
Male1280
Female 320
Total15100.0
Years of ExperienceFrequencyPercent
12–160640
17–210320
22–250640
Total15100
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Singh, A.; Blessinger, P. Examining the Role and Challenges of Sustainable Development Goals for the Universities in the United Arab Emirates. Sustainability 2023, 15, 15123. https://doi.org/10.3390/su152015123

AMA Style

Singh A, Blessinger P. Examining the Role and Challenges of Sustainable Development Goals for the Universities in the United Arab Emirates. Sustainability. 2023; 15(20):15123. https://doi.org/10.3390/su152015123

Chicago/Turabian Style

Singh, Abhilasha, and Patrick Blessinger. 2023. "Examining the Role and Challenges of Sustainable Development Goals for the Universities in the United Arab Emirates" Sustainability 15, no. 20: 15123. https://doi.org/10.3390/su152015123

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