Sustainability in education: Advance HE and QAA publish new guidance

The degrees regulator outlines new ways universities can teach students about sustainable futures

New guidance on teaching sustainability in university curricula has been published by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and Advance HE.

The document – Education for Sustainable Development Guidance – offers the latest advice on ways universities teach sustainability and help students develop the skills identified as “key to a sustainable future”.

The new document “aims to avoid academic debates around the concepts of sustainability”, instead arguing the UN sustainability targets “are necessary for a positive future for life on earth”.

Alison Johns, chief executive of Advance HE, said: “As students transition through higher education and take their place as global citizens, it’s vital, whatever their academic discipline or onward route in life, that they have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge, understanding and skills to play their part in ensuring a sustainable world.”

Sustainability applies to more than climatic and environmental issues. Of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 10 refer to societal and economic issues, like gender equality, good health, peace and decent work.

The guidance explicitly links to the UN’s holistic definition of sustainability for the first time and reflects the “increased urgency for everybody in society to take positive actions”.

It’s vital, whatever their academic discipline or onward route in life, that [students] have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge, understanding and skills to play their part in ensuring a sustainable world
– Alison Johns, Advance HE

It also encourages universities to include educational sustainable development (ESD) in their key performance indicators (KPIs) and to review all existing courses and accredit new ones in respect to the SDGs.

QAA chief executive Douglas Blackstock said the sector had proved it has the “ability to respond to global crises” during the Covid-19 pandemic, adding the “revamp of our Education for Sustainable Development guidance will help apply those skills to meeting the sustainable development goals”.

The guidance argues universities should help equip students with “systems thinking, anticipatory thinking, normative competency, strategic thinking, collaborative competency, critical thinking, self-awareness and integrated problem-solving competency”. It includes examples of how “learning environments, curricula, and teaching and assessment practices can be developed to support” this.

Last week, a member of academic staff at Keele – Dr Katherine Haxton – clinched the prize for staff sustainability champion at the Green Gown awards. Dr Haxton’s work to decolonise STEM subjects and develop sustainability-led modules that tackle environmental and societal inequalities – like race, gender and poverty – in chemistry were highlighted in the judges’ decision.


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