University of Helsinki transition towards sustainability emphasizes Good Health and Well-being, Partnerships and Quality Education

A recent study on the realization of the global Sustainable Development Goals in higher education finds out that the during the recent years new initiatives in research and education at the University of Helsinki emphasize Good Health and Well-being (SDG #3) and Partnerships for the goals (SDG #17). In research, there is marked prominence of SDG #9, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. The study revealed also that four targets were hardly addressed at all and the absence of Gender Equality (SDG #5) both in research and education is surprising. The alignment of activities of the university towards sustainability has been driven by both internal and external factors.

The United Nations adopted in 2015 an Agenda2030 for sustainable development as a blueprint to building a sustainable future for people and planet. In the core of the Agenda is harmonizing economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection and the guiding principle of “leaving no one behind”. The Agenda 2030 includes action centered 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) covering social, ecological and economic dimensions of sustainability challenges that need to be tackled worldwide. The SDG framework is increasingly used as a useful tool to monitor the societal transition towards sustainability, its direction and trends and the level of efforts towards a sustainable future as aimed in the Agenda2030.  

An international trend of responding to the call towards sustainability has become prominent recently also in institutions of higher education. As in several other institutions around the globe, sustainability has become one of the key themes in education, research, outreach and campus operations at the University of Helsinki. A new study analyzed the drivers for this transition along with the realization of the global Sustainable Development Goals within the new initiatives at the University during the recent years.  

In general the alignment of activities of the university towards sustainability has been driven by internal and external factors. An internal push was created through active bottom-up pressure from individuals and both formal and informal interdisciplinary networks within the University. Also the educational reform of degree programs enabled a transition of the curricula towards sustainability. As for external drivers the changes in the national funding system that forces Universities to strengthen their research profiles and to identify focus areas created a window of opportunity for new foci in sustainability. Additionally, it coincided with topical external pressure to respond to the real-world challenge of sustainability.  

More specifically, the new study mapped the recent (2015-2018) initiatives at the University of Helsinki according to the SDG framework. It was based on new research agendas as stated in the Profi-applications (2015-2017), the curricula of the new cross-faculty Bachelor’s and Master’s programs established in the educational reform, and new operations initiatives derived from the University annual reports. The results are summarized in the following figure: 


Within research the main finding of the study is that the recent new initiatives in research emphasize Sustainable Development Goals on Good health and Well-being (SDG #3) and Industry, innovation and infrastructures (SDG # 9). The study also revealed that four targets were hardly addressed at all: No Poverty (SDG #1), Zero Hunger (SDG #2), Gender Equality (SDG #5) and Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG #6). While these are worldwide pressing challenges, only very few or no new research profiling initiatives or new multidisciplinary cross-faculty degree programs were launched to address these SDGs.  

In university education, the goal of Good Health and Well-being (SDG #3) receives strong emphasis, along with the obvious and non-surprising foci on Partnerships (SDG # 17) and Quality Education (SDG #4). However, the introduction of tuition fees for non-EU/EEC students can be seen as a counteracting mechanism in regard to the goal of equal opportunities to education, as stated in SDG #4. The fact that gender equality (SDG #5) is mentioned neither in any of the new research initiatives, nor in education, is surprising. 

The University’s own operations and actions focus strongest to Quality education (SDG #4), Good Health and Well-being (SDG #3), Reducing inequalities (SDG #10) and Partnerships for the goals (SDG #17). Strong emphasis has been on technical development of solutions for energy, electricity, and water supply.  

The analysis is beneficial as a basis for further evaluations of the developmental directions taken by the University of Helsinki. Additionally, it provides useful information for the preparation of future action plans for the University’s new strategy period (2021-2030) and working towards achieving global goals for sustainability.  

More information on the study: 

Dr. Kaisa; Tel: 0294157905 

Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) 

Original publication: 

Korhonen-Kurki, K; Koivuranta, R.; Kuitto, V.; Pietikäinen, P.; Schönach, P. and Soini, K. (2019) Towards Realising SDGs in the University of Helsinki In: Nhamo, G., & Mjimba, V. (Eds.). Sustainable development goals and institutions of higher education.