Bridging the Gap between Practice and Policy to Enhance HEIs’ Capacities for Localising SDGs

The ownership of the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by local authorities and communities, civil society and the scientific and academic community is vital to the realisation of goals. Many countries promote partnership and local implementation at the national level as a policy and action plan. Furthermore, local authorities and communities at the local level need more concrete practices to implement the SDGs.

According to Phase I of the project ‘Development of a Framework for the Local Implementation of the SDGs‘ (a joint project supported by ProSPER.Net), Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) can play a key role in this endeavour by supporting local authorities and communities through educational and research activities. Based on the achievements and the lessons learned from Japan, India, the Philippines and Thailand, Phase II of the project emphasises the exploration of a wider range of existing practices including methods and methodologies of collaboration between HEIs and communities.

Initially, the research framework was developed among participating institutions. Based on the experiences during Phase I of the project, it was found that most of the projects were conducted by individual researchers rather than on behalf of the institution. Hence, community engagement was not implemented by institutional capacity and institutionalising the initiative should be emphasised. In order to enhance institutional interest and engagement, two separate versions of the questionnaire for both institutions and individuals were developed. Apart from the ProSPER.Net member institutions, more participating institutions are involved, especially HEIs leading RCEs in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, by the time of data collection, the COVID-19 pandemic caused many cities to lock down, as well as the closure of institutions and mobility of people. The majority of participating institutions could not conduct face-to-face surveys as planned. Only Chulalongkorn University has transformed the survey approach to an online mode with web conferencing applications provided by institutional support. Therefore, 21 survey responses in Thailand became preliminary results and served as the pilot data collection for further in-depth exploration. It was found that a gap exists between researchers’ community engagement practices and  institutions’ policies. Although community engagement is one of the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of every HEI in Thailand, it was underscored in comparison with others. By researchers’ evaluation, the publication achievement has higher prioritisation than academic service including community engagement. Nevertheless, by organising formal contact to each HEI in Thailand, some university administrative board members have paid more attention on community engagement issues as an effort to achieve global SDGs collectively. Furthermore, the individual researchers felt they were more supportive, since the project perceived their community engagement works as an important part of SDGs achievement.

By the revision of the designed survey, additional questions about provision of support and/or incentives at the institutional level as well as the separate sets of questions regarding the situation before and during COVID-19 were included.

The ongoing project is collecting more data from three other countries with the expectation to obtain more insight during the pandemic about significant shifts in focus and/or in the way the researchers/institutions engage with communities.