Teaching to transform the world

Education for sustainable development is a new concept for many in academia – but 83% of students think it should be part of all courses. We look at why, and how, higher education institutions are embedding sustainability in the curriculum

The need to integrate sustainability across higher education has long been a priority. Yet for some institutions, it still remains an abstract idea. What is clear is, the further ingrained sustainability becomes in education, the more equipped we are to come up with solutions that address our most pressing sustainability challenges.

UNESCO’s Alexander Leicht, chief of education for sustainable development once succinctly summed up the value of sustainability in the curriculum: “Education for sustainable development (ESD) allows everyone to acquire the knowledge, skills and values that empower them to contribute to sustainable development. Higher education plays a crucial role in this regard.”

But what does it actually mean to embed sustainability into a university curriculum, and why is it so important?

“It is more than 15 years since the first dedicated sustainable development undergraduate degrees were established in the UK, and although standalone courses and modules are still being developed, we need to focus on transforming existing and new curricula to ensure all students receive an education for sustainable development,” explains Rebecca Petford, a programme manager at EAUC.

“By having the ability to recognise the links between environmental, social and economic aspects of any given challenge, students have the chance to play a part in creating a better world. The recently published QAA and Advance HE education for sustainable development guidance was specifically developed to support this process.”But ESD is not just about tweaking curricula to include environmental or sustainability topics.

“It’s about preparing students for sustainable development by introducing critical pedagogy and transformative learning in a way that is relevant to their subject of study. In addition to developing essential knowledge about sustainability themes, and relevant skills, all students should develop a core set of competencies,” says Petford.

“These competencies can be strengthened in any discipline with the UNESCO key competencies for sustainability: identified as systems thinking; future thinking and critical thinking; the ability to be strategic, and to collaborate and use integrated problem-solving; self-awareness; and the ability to reflect on norms and values.”

It’s not just about preparing students for ‘green careers’, says Rebecca Petford


Most importantly, she notes that ESD requires preparing students for a complex world and that it is most effectively developed through alternative teaching and assessment practices. These include collaborative, enquiry-based, playful and problem-based learning or storytelling.

“Education for sustainable development has the potential to be transformative for students. It can introduce new ways of thinking, being, and interacting with the world – which can change how students interpret the world and future challenges. Every graduate from a UK university should leave with the knowledge, skills and competencies to not just survive but to thrive in the face of the many crises humans will face in their working lives. The interlinked climate and ecological emergencies are likely to drastically impact them, and students need to be prepared for the environmental, economic and social challenges these emergencies, and our responses to them, will bring.”

“Every graduate from a UK university should leave with the knowledge, skills and competencies to not just survive but to thrive in the face of the many crises humans will face in their working lives” – Rebecca Petford, EAUC

The need to embed a sustainability agenda in the curriculum is not just being pushed by higher education institutions or the academic community, but also the customers they serve.

“Students are demanding sustainable development to be incorporated into their teaching and also the practices of their institution,” says Petford.

In fact, a recent 2020 NUS Skills Survey showed 83% of students thought sustainable development should be actively incorporated and promoted across all courses, and 91% thought their institution should actively incorporate it.

Petford asserts that individual teaching staff can, and should, take action to introduce ESD in their own teaching.

“According to Advance HE’s ESD Guidance, education for sustainable development is best achieved when it is part of an institution’s strategic priorities and policies, included in course validation and review, central to staff and student induction and appraisal, articulated within quality assurance and enhancement processes, supported by staff training, and linked to both research and sustainability activities on campus and in the wider communities the institution engages with.”

Recycling Covid-19 waste is one of the sustainability challenges graduates can help solve


Success stories

There are now many UK institutions working to map where sustainability issues are being addressed within existing courses or modules, to identify good practice and expand the learning opportunity.

Using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to initiate discussions about where different sustainability topics are already being touched upon, some institutions are also looking at where the opportunities are to link topics already being discussed to additional SDGs, according to Petford.

Successful examples of sustainability being implemented in the curriculum are evident right across the UK.

At The University of Manchester, Dr Simeon Gill, a lecturer in fashion technology management, has embedded sustainability in his teaching by exploring unwanted denim. During his course, students are given the opportunity to understand the deconstruction of garments first-hand, as well as materials requirements, manufacturing techniques and possibilities for reuse. Working alongside industry and factories, students get to learn more about the production, and see the process of reclamation to reuse from start to end.

UCL is another example of an institution that is successfully embedding sustainability into the curriculum. It claims that, by 2024, every student will be able to learn about sustainability at UCL either through their course or extra curriculum. It also runs what it calls a Living Lab, that encourages students and staff to research and solve the university’s sustainability challenges, from
the climate emergency to energy use and plastic waste. As part of this programme, students have access to testing facilities, environmental research expertise and data to help them collaborate, create and trial innovations that could tackle real-world issues.

While over at The University of Plymouth, scenario-based learning for sustainable materials management and waste disposal has been successfully embedded into its nursery and midwifery curricula.

However, there is still some way to go for many institutions, when it comes to sufficiently embedding sustainability into new and existing curricula. For many in academia, ESD is still a very new area with many in the teaching profession unsure of how to implement sustainability education within their existing course subjects.

Students are demanding courses that incorporate sustainable development


Raising awareness

“One of the key challenges is a lack of awareness and understanding within course development and teaching staff,” says Petford.

“Sustainability leads within universities report that often course coordinators don’t see sustainability issues as relevant to their subject. However, environmental, social and economic factors are relevant within all disciplines, and sustainability challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss will affect the way everyone has to work and live in the future. So, it is vital that students are encouraged to consider their discipline through a sustainability lens,” notes Petford.

Another obstacle has been the lack of time for researching, developing and delivering what is sometimes regarded as additional sustainability content.

“It is highly likely that some sustainability content is actually already being delivered and just needs to be made more explicit” – Rebecca Petford, EAUC

“Although some time will, of course, need to be dedicated to developing alternative pedagogical approaches which develop ESD competencies, and considering the links between sustainability and core curriculum areas, it is highly likely that some sustainability content is actually already being delivered and just needs to be made more explicit to learners.”

A further challenge, that stems from higher up, could be perceived as a lack of interest or push from senior leadership teams to encourage action on ESD, according to Petford.

“Teaching staff are usually free to develop their curricula without senior approval, but when senior support is required to progress activity further it is important to consider the different ways which this can be sought, including through relevant committees, and also by encouraging student representatives to champion requests for ESD from within the student body.

“Individual staff members can also sign up to and promote the SDG Accord to help demonstrate their own commitment to deliver on sustainability within their work, and perhaps show the strength of commitment from teaching staff from across the institution.”

Keeping up the momentum

As demonstrated by Plymouth, Manchester, UCL and many others, great strides are being made.

“Several universities in the UK are taking major steps to embed education for sustainable development in the curriculum for all students, and with the recently published guidance from Advance HE and QAA, and the case studies demonstrating good practice which are soon to follow, we expect the momentum to continue to grow.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that UK universities can quickly adapt their teaching and assessment methods when necessary, confirming that modifying teaching and assessment methods to promote education for sustainable development could quickly be achieved. But the pandemic has been a double-edged sword to some extent.

“Some institutions slowed action on sustainability, both on campus and in the curriculum, and it is important that both recover and continue to accelerate,” warns Petford.

“The focus being given to ‘green recovery’ is fantastic, but we need to make sure that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. It is not just about preparing students for a few ‘green careers’. All students need to leave university with an understanding of the sustainability challenges we face, the skills to do this within their chosen field, and the competencies required to be an actor for positive change in an increasingly complex and volatile world.”

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