Relevance and responsibility: embedding the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals within enterprising business schools

A number of present examples, domestically and around the world, have highlighted the vulnerabilities of society, industry, and subsequently the economy of nations. Slowly coming out of the pandemic, we are now met with rising food and utility costs, political unrest, and international war in Europe. These sharply bring into focus grave concerns and challenges, socially and economically. In this blog, I focus on a number of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), how business schools should address these in their teaching, research and external engagement activities, and how these should shape the overarching objectives and vision for enterprising institutions.


Post-pandemic business schools & economic recovery

The onus is on universities to provide industry-relevant and timely education, with business schools inspiring future leaders and managers. Universities should also prepare its students to be independent thinkers, and problem-solving individuals, who are both socially and emotionally aware. This is partly achieved by creating and facilitating practical, and memorable, educational spaces and experiences. The pandemic removed this pedagogical aspect and opportunity, on campus. However, campus life is returning back to some form of normality.

The majority, if not all, of classes are expected to be in physical classrooms by the start of the new academic session this autumn. Where great care should be given to the needs of students and staff as they adjust back to university life, I believe that a refocus and reframing of business school education and delivery are also required.

The global impact of the pandemic is still a present reminder of how fragile life and working life can be, leading to a business or university’s institutional review concerning financial and operational risk assessment, developmental strategies, and reinforcing structures. A way to refocus for business schools, and its taught or research programmes, can be found by immediately appreciating the ‘end goal’ or wider purpose of courses and thematic sessions. Why is this education important? What issues and challenges are we highlighting?

There are numerous examples of existing initiatives and partnerships, involving business schools, which highlight enterprising solutions for small business and provide positive outcomes for people and communities. These networks and possibilities must also be appreciated within the classroom.

For example, twelve specific topics and areas, concerning business growth and development, are delivered through the Help to Grow: Management Course. Including online sessions and face-to-face workshops, the programme encourages industry and education to collectively address sector challenges and improve the state of UK businesses. Longstanding partnerships with bodies like UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) or Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) foster key relationships, but the inclusion of these new, government-endorsed programmes such as the Help to Grow: Management Course and funding calls provide precise remedies to opportunities and issues within the economy. It is understanding the strengths of the business school, and how they can participate in these multi-stakeholder partnerships, that is key.


Emphasising and embedding the SDGs

 Looking further afield, internationally-led consortiums or initiatives address these national, international, and global challenges, such as the SDGs project.

Over decades of consultation and development, the United Nation’s ‘Division for Sustainable Development Goals’ present 17 Goals which span critical, global issues. Of course, all SDGs are of interest to all academic disciplines within universities today.

However, I focus on five SDGs which arguably align more closely to typical business school teaching and research, and consider ways in which these can be addressed in the classroom. These SDGs are: SDG 1: No Poverty; SDG 4: Quality Education; SDG 8: Decent Work & Economic Growth; SDG 9: Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure; and, SDG 11: Sustainable Cities & Communities.


  • Societal themes & student–led activities adopting a progressive approach, where students pose important questions in society, dictates the session and attempts to educate and enlighten. When considering the power of business schools, and how they must engage with business communities, SDG-related issues concerning regeneration, war, and poverty could be directly addressed through the experiences, stories, or perspectives of session participants.
  • Inclusive & reflective case study appreciation an alternative to the first example, fundamental or essential concepts relating to business can align with the desired outcomes of the SDGs through case study examples. A common feature of business education, the further inclusion of interdisciplinary studies and external guest speakers would be a timely intervention, and inform students of the nature of business, the current state of industry and cost burdens, and what growth in the economy should look like.
  • Pragmatic community-based learning similar to the first example, raising entrepreneurial intentions or SME activity can be achieved through engaging with the community and understanding the needs and desires of society. For SDGs to be achieved and maintained, consistent and productive relationships must be evident where business schools and universities aim to prepare individuals and adequately respond to the marketplace. Likewise, industry and government, to name a few, must communicate with further and higher education to ensure that vocational or degree-level education are both relevant and timely.
  • Embedding the social reconstruction message business schools, governments, and all sectors are vital members of the current and future economy. Dealing with matters such as sustainability, smart cities, pollution, rights and duties, injustice, racism and discrimination in the workplace, as alluded to within the SDGs, must be explicitly addressed within business school curriculum, as students are educated to lead positive change and drive regional or national business infrastructure.

These are just some examples of pedagogical approaches which bring into focus domestic and global challenges, consider the reach of business schools towards their communities and sectors, and present an opportunity for change and entrepreneurial development through meaningful education. Additionally, business schools who establish research centres, incubators, or accelerators attract the entrepreneurial stakeholder and normalise entrepreneurial, creative, and innovative personalities.


Considerations for the educator

Reflecting on the above goals, continuing to centralise SDGs within day-to-day activities is therefore vital, in not only addressing these issues but contextualising them within course or programme structures.

As I have outlined in my other research, the adoption of enterprise (my own particular interest) and enterprising methods of delivery and assessment encourages pragmatic, educational engagement in the classroom and elevates the discussion of these domestic and global issues. A key product of enterprising intervention in the classroom, and university in general, is that of establishing entrepreneurial outcomes such as developing new skills, the creation of a new venture, or integrating new innovative, strategic, or growth modelling to the business. Enterprising intervention also improves the lives of individuals.

In a recent blog article, I discussed the importance of combining essential and industry-relevant teaching with progressive, enterprising approaches. Forming academic teams, mentoring and coaching, and nurturing enterprising talent all lead towards a well-rounded experience for the educator, and allow business schools to consider their resources and objectives. As I have emphasised, team-based approaches to module, programme, or any university activity from colleagues leads to a number of managerial, leadership, and enterprising qualities to emerge.


Implications for the business school

The work of business and management scholars impact all walks of life, industries, and can provide solutions to many of the societal challenges as alluded to by the SDGs. These goals should influence future business school operations and drive responsive research and consultancy activity.

Ongoing research, which acknowledges these SDGs, allows for deeper and more critical analysis of business-related issues such as productivity, growth, and globalisation to be brought to the forefront.

In addition, exploratory investigations of both organisational and social contexts also shed light on themes and topics, current concerns, and key stakeholders either directly or indirectly involved in improving the state of businesses, working conditions, industry, and communities.


Dr Robert Crammond CMBE is a Senior Lecturer in Enterprise at the University of the West of Scotland