VIA is banking heavily on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

Picture of people at a conference.
VIA is focusing on educating their  students in UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
From now on all 20,000 students at VIA University College will be taught in circular thinking, sustainability and the UN’s sustainability development goals. 

Right now, an eight-metre-tall polar bear is making its way to Ilulissat, Greenland. It is made of papier mâché and was built by students from the early childhood education and preschool teaching, teacher and health educational programmes at VIA University College in collaboration with a group of psychologically vulnerable people in Greenland and an Italian artist group. The polar bear symbolises strength, and the project belongs under the UN’s sustainability development goal number three: good health and well-being.

In Horsens, students from the construction technology educational programme are working on solutions intended to minimise waste on construction sites and enable the recirculation of leftover materials. Here sustainability development goal number 12, responsible consumption and production, is at play.

And a week ago, a group of enterprising, young farmers attended school to further educate themselves at an elite level on eco-friendly farming. They are working with goal number 15: life on land.

The UN’s sustainability development goals are not only being taken into consideration at the university college, but are also being worked with in practice. And it is not without reason, states Dean Karen Frederiksen:

“We consider it very important that all our students are able to think sustainably when they go out and have to act as professionals in the many different industries that we educate them for. This applies to the private business sector but is at least as important in the larger welfare professions for which we educate most employees,” she says.

Professional and personal development

VIA University College has almost 20,000 students spread over more than 40 different professional bachelor educational programmes. And an additional 20,000 students attend continuing and further educational programmes annually. Having so many different educational programmes means it is a challenge to incorporate sustainability and the UN’s goals into every aspect of the educational institution,” admits Karen Frederiksen. Thus, there is room for both formal and informal action.

Some teachers have started their own initiatives – for example, building the polar bear with vulnerable citizens in order to teach students about social sustainability. Others have participated in tailor-made skill development courses, where they gain a deeper insight into the sustainability development goals and new knowledge on everything from sustainable procurement to the sensible recycling of materials and IT. As part of the course, the teachers have to develop a product, which can be subsequently used directly in their teaching.

According to Dean Frederiksen, there is a waiting list for the skill development course. Something she can well understand:

“We can see that those employees who participated in the course move forward not only professionally but personally too. This applies regardless of whether it’s a teacher from the nursing educational programme gaining insight into how to think sustainably in the caring aspect of the profession or it’s a teacher from the design educational programme getting more focus on manufacturing and materials,” she says.

Innovation-driven students

When sustainability and circular thinking become part of everyday life at such a large educational institution, the potential for changing attitudes and habits becomes equally great, according to Erik Rasmussen. He is the founder of Mandag Morgen [Monday Morning] and most recently of the international think tank Sustainia, which deals with the dissemination of large and complex agendas. Moreover, he has published a long series of reports on sustainable solutions in collaboration with the UN.

According to him, Denmark’s educational institutions are crucial if the country is to accomplish the 17 sustainability development goals and the 169 intermediate goals that 195 of the world’s nations have agreed to achieve by 2030. So in about 4,000 days.

“The sustainability development goals will be met seriously in the future at educational institutions; therefore, it’s extremely important to concentrate our efforts here. At VIA University College, I’m experiencing a commitment that I haven’t met anywhere else. At the same time, the range that many educational programmes represent makes it extra challenging to make the sustainability development goals meaningful,” he says.

Sustainia is organising a number of debates at VIA University College over the coming months. Various contributors, including Erik Rasmussen, will participate in trying to turn the sustainability development goals into attitudes and actions for students, employees and others who want to listen alike.

“The challenge of translating the sustainability development goals from the somewhat abstract language of the UN into something that makes sense to young people is great and exciting. Therefore, I hope we can spark the students’ drive and desire for innovation to do something personal when we meet at a different kind of debate,” he says.

Banking on sustainability in all educational programmes also helps put the university college on the world map. This summer, students from 11 different countries participated in a four-week summer school on the UN’s sustainability development goals. And right now, the worldwide Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is working to put circular economy on the agendas of decision-makers around the world, has taken the initiative of appointing VIA University College as a “Pioneer University”. Only eight other educational institutions in the world hold that position, including the University of Bradford, Arizona State University and the University of Sao Paulo.