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Environmental and social sustainability – who is leading whom?

26 Mar 2021 | Kim Ansell and Dr Catherine Hack Kim Ansell and Kay Hack reflect on the role of higher education institutions in developing a sustainable future

With the imminent publication of the revised guidance on Education for Sustainability (ESDG) from Advance HE and the QAA, Kim Ansell and Kay Hack reflect on the role of higher education institutions in developing a sustainable future, through teaching policies and practices, the agency of students and the knowledge, behaviours and values of their alumni.

A 25-year-old man from Brisbane has successfully sued one of Australia's biggest super funds over its handling of climate change, forcing it to commit to net-zero emissions for its investments by 2050.” (ABC news, Australia)

It’s difficult for institutions to foresee who might challenge their practices, and so it’s important that everybody in an HEI adopts a self-reflective approach, challenging themselves to be open and transparent with all stakeholders about their policies, practices and behaviours if they aspire to sustainability for all. Achieving systemic change requires sustainability to be more than a series of strategic activities; it requires a broader lens that encompasses all of the institution activities, but few universities adopt a whole-of-institution approach to sustainability.

The revised guidance on Education for Sustainable Development (ESDG) was written against the backdrop of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)  and illustrates how the SDG’s can provide a trigger for authentic and transformative learning experiences, designed to help educators prepare graduates for the environmental, economic and social challenges the world faces. However, the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, have also been a catalyst for stimulating wider discussions about the societal and environmental role of universities. SDGs foster integration and networking which can only be achieved by making sustainability for everyone. They are integrated and recognise that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that sustainable development must balance social, economic and environmental concerns. Similarly, the EAUC Sustainability Leadership Scorecard promotes a whole institution approach from estates to teaching and learning, from student engagement to research with the EAUC Green Gown Awards recognise examples of good practice

SDG 4 Quality Education

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

SDG 8 Decent work and economic growth

Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

SDG 16 Peace, justice and strong institutions productive employment

Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Institutions can contribute to sustainable development through, the formal and informal curriculum, research, consultancy, estates/facilities management, governance and engagement with employers, partners and the community. This is education beyond teaching. So do educators fully recognise this opportunity to inspire, educate and develop generations of students who will take their learning and their experiences of sustainability thinking and behaviour into their everyday lives and to their future employers?

Professor Neil Marriott, (former) Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Winchester shares his view of integrating the formal and informal.

“We learned the value of the hidden curriculum. It is one thing to learn about climate change in the classroom and a quality education can influence, directly or indirectly, all of the SDGs. However, if your university is living its values then it will be deploying resources from sustainable sources and managing ethically. For example, zero waste to landfill, recycling or upcycling resources, reducing carbon footprint, increasing use of renewable energy, etc. These direct actions have a subliminal impact on the values and actions of students that can be powerful and life changing but not a direct part of their classroom-based education.”

At the University of Worcester, second-year students on all business degree programmes can opt to include the ‘Responsible Business’ module.  Those students audit the universities environmental and social responsibility practices and have the opportunity to propose development strategies. Holding the university to account and relating their learning to the role they will be playing in society is a vital skill for future employers, and an opportunity for the university to let students demonstrate leadership.  Students also get exposure to working with mission groups such as NUS’s Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS) UK and have access to the universities environmental management system, creating transparency and trust. But more than that Katy Boom director of sustainability from Worcester says that “students challenge our way of thinking to enable us to cocreate a different future”.  This has been so successful that students are now getting the opportunity to help external organisations embed environmental management systems for audit purposes, whilst the employers and sustainability practitioners are invited guest speakers on -university programmes.

Sustainability competencies, as explained in the guidance, develop ways of thinking, being and practicing that are vital graduate attributes for the 21st century. So how do educators bring sustainability into teaching in a way which is inclusive and accessible, and changes thinking and behaviour?  How can teachers create an equal sense of ownership around sustainability that speaks to, involves and benefits all?

The behaviour of graduates, how they live, learn and work throughout their lifetimes will have a persistent impact on the environmental and social challenges the world is facing. The competencies – the skills, attributes and values – graduates develop through the formal curriculum, as well as in extra-curricular activities and engagement with the local community can help them contribute to a more sustainable future, transforming their thinking so that they have a positive impact throughout their lives.

The global higher education sector has a pivotal role and responsibility in protecting the planet through academic endeavours, estates management, ways of working and how they behave in their ecosystem. Universities are starting to articulate to all their stakeholders how they are approaching sustainability through their values, strategy and actions/behaviours. This requires a strong narrative that demonstrates that everyone has a role to play in developing sustainable futures for all.

Kim and Kay facilitated a session on sustainability at the Advance HE Governance Conference 2021: Evolving Governance which took place on 18 November 2021. Find out more.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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