GLOBAL: Universities and sustainability

Universities are making sustainability a priority in their curricula. Food security, rapid urbanisation and climate change are just some of the complex issues that have hit societies across the world, making it imperative for universities to tackle these problems.

Dalhousie University in Canada and Stellenbosch in South Africa are among the many higher education institutions across the planet to have recognised the importance of sustainability education and added it to their curricula.

"In this century, an understanding of sustainability is critical for all of us in leadership roles," said Professor Deborah Buszard, associate director of research and outreach at the College of Sustainability at Dalhousie University.

Buszard was speaking last week at the annual Association of Commonwealth Universities conference of executive heads, held in Cape Town from 25-27 April and titled Universities and the Millennium Development Goals. She said universities had a vital role to play in meeting the MDGs, one of which was ensuring environmental sustainability.

Speakers stressed that sustainability was about more than the environment - it referred to people, including the four billion who make up the world's poor. Universities needed to empower their students to help the 'bottom billions' transform their quality of life.

At Dalhousie, more than 140 academics study sustainability across nine faculties, and there are environmental academic programmes in six faculties. The courses are for undergraduates, but the university is looking to create a graduate programme in the future. "We thought that if we want to make a change, we need to start at the undergraduate level first," said Buszard.

Stellenbosch has gone the other route, and only offers sustainability as part of a doctoral degree. The Centre for Transdisciplinary Sustainability, Assessment, Modeling and Analysis, in the faculty of economics and management sciences, admits 70 students per annum. Students complete three primary modules and a research project.

Sustainability practices start in communities, making community outreach a huge component of the programmes at both universities.

In Halifax, Dalhousie's hometown, if a community is facing the development of a gold mine, for example, they approach the College of Sustainability to help them come up with an environmentally sustainable approach. "People are already coming to us with issues, and we currently have more projects than we can possibly handle," said Buszard.

Issues of urban development, globalisation and population growth span numerous areas of study, so a multidisciplinary approach is key.

At Dalhousie, a degree in sustainability is available as a double major with any other undergraduate major, such as psychology or biology. The doctoral programme at Stellenbosch can be taken through faculties as diverse as theology, engineering and health sciences.

"We have an unusually strong collection of academics doing research on sustainability in seven faculties," said Professor Mark Swilling of the School of Public Management and Planning at Stellenbosch. "This programme helps to bring them together so they can co-supervise projects."

But a degree across disciplines has challenges. Generally, there's still a level of disciplinary 'apartheid' at universities. "The segregated nature of academic study at universities poses barriers to innovative interdisciplinary research and programmes," said Buszard.

There are other, more practical reasons for a multidisciplinary approach. Sustainability is still considered something of a buzzword, and universities have been reluctant to give it the same status as more traditional academic disciplines.

This has meant sustainability programmes at Dalhousie and Stellenbosch work within existing undergraduate and PhD structures. At Dalhousie, the second subject determines the type of degree awarded. So if chemistry is chosen as the second subject, the student completes a BSc degree. In the faculty of management, the programme is taken as a major for a bachelor in management.

The reason is mainly financial. "We had to design something that would bring in money," said Buszard. "So we wanted the programme to be available to all undergraduates." It is clearly working. In 2009, 300 students enrolled and the programme generates CAD3.6 million a year.

At Stellenbosch, a student receives a doctoral qualification from the faculty in which he or she is registered. Swilling said the university had not yet fully embraced a sustainability agenda in structural terms, so there was no choice but to work within existing faculties, at least for now. "In five years, we can say 'look, it's worked, so let's change it'," he said.

Swilling argued that the issue of sustainability was especially important in the Africa, with its rich stash of natural resources, widespread poverty and rapid urbanisation and development challenges. The university approaches sustainability from a southern perspective and violence, poverty, gender, food and water are just some of the areas tackled by students.

And it seems students are seeing the value in such a degree.

At Dalhousie, 60% of new students said the programme was their primary reason for choosing the university. Buszard said it is a model that can be transferred to other institutions.

"We're walking the walk, not just talking the talk," said Buszard.

And so should universities the world over.