How green is your campus? Have you switched the lights off when you leave? Did you consider the environment before printing that email? Is sustainability really being taken seriously at your university?
Universities are well placed to help society address the challenges of sustainability. They have considerable power to shape thinking and to develop new ideas about how to tackle issues such as the climate crisis, global health, food security and green energy, and develop ways to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
As large and complex organisations, there are many ways that universities can choose to operate sustainably, for example, through divesting in carbon intensive industries, or managing their buildings and estate to reduce carbon emissions and increase biodiversity. Many institutions promote sustainability through their policies and encourage sustainable behaviours among students and staff (eg low carbon travel plans, plant-based food options and waste management policies). Sustainability is increasingly being integrated into institutional values and framed as a competitive advantage to recruit students and staff.
Teaching sustainability, sustainably
There are also clear efforts across the higher education sector to develop teaching about sustainability, too. Today’s students are keenly aware of the scale of sustainability challenges they face. They know that an awareness of sustainability is essential for many graduate roles. Many institutions have responded to this by embedding sustainability into their learning and teaching strategies, for example, requiring all taught programmes to address the SDGs.
For some disciplines, sustainability fits naturally (eg environmental science and geography). In many other disciplines (eg law, drama, languages), innovative thinking is required to contextualise sustainability within the subject matter and fit it into already-congested curricula. Careful thinking about how to frame sustainability issues in a way that aligns with the discipline and feels integrated, rather than bolted on, to the curriculum is important for the student experience.
In our research, we have seen excellent examples of embedding sustainability: examining the legal perspectives of airport expansion or critically exploring literature on environmental crises. The publication of guidance, including that from Advance HE and QAA, is aiming to stimulate wider adoption of approaches to teaching sustainability, and providing a starting point for those thinking about how to teach sustainability in their disciplines. We have also seen sustainable ways of teaching being implemented, such as using computer tools rather than fabrics for fashion design or reducing carbon emissions by developing virtual fieldtrips.
What works – and how?
Whilst thinking about sustainability is evident throughout higher education, what is largely missing in the sector is joined-up, strategic thinking at the whole-institution scale. There are some organisations that promote such approaches, including the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) in the UK, and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in the US. However, there remains many missed opportunities for academics, professional service colleagues and students to co-create learning opportunities that deliver valuable sustainability-focused outcomes. This is often because many sustainability activities take place in institutional silos of our own making, prompting us to reflect, for example:
- why don’t colleagues in the estates team typically engage with those teaching about sustainability assessments?
- why don’t academics routinely engage with local communities to develop authentic assessments on sustainability challenges in the local region?
We do know that good practice exists and successful strategic approaches to sustainability do exist in the sector. To support different institutions in different contexts develop their own effective sustainability strategies, we need to know:
- how good practice comes about
- how silos are broken down
- how small-scale projects can be scaled up and how top-down thinking shapes meaningful change
- how can institutions embed sustainability at the heart of their values and mission
- what tools can be used to design strategic approaches and measure success.
There will be no one-size-fits-all approach, of course, but exemplifying success in different institutional contexts will help progress sustainability throughout the sector, for the benefit of students and society. Many of these questions have been asked in other contexts – such as improving equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) – and we are confident we can learn from these experiences to guide efforts to embed sustainability.
We look forward to your participation in this Tweetchat, and look forward to hearing your examples of good practice and creative thinking!
Dr Iain Cross is Associate Professor, Education Development at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). He leads the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching and has wide interests in higher education including teaching about climate change, authentic learning and decolonisation. Connect with Iain on LinkedIn Twitter or Orcid.
Dr Alina Congreve is an independent researcher, with interests in including sustainability in higher education. Alina develops and delivers training and professional development to a wide range of higher education and professional organisations including universities and Vitae. Connect with Alina on LinkedIn or Orcid.
Sustainability Symposium 2023
Join Advance HE at the Sustainability Symposium 2023: Top-down or bottom-up? How do we ensure all our graduates become sustainable citizens? on 29-30 March 2023 to discuss issues in sustainability in higher education, while considering how we can encourage students to become more sustainable citizens. Learn more