Roadmap for sustainability education and research in ASEAN universities

A roadmap for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to introduce sustainability education into universities by 2015 is being finalised, with an outline for teaching and research across the region presented to top officials during a meeting in Bangkok earlier this month.

Policy-makers in fast-growing ASEAN countries are focusing increasingly on sustainable development, which requires a balance between economic growth, social development and environmental protection.

But this needs to filter down to academic research and teaching, particularly as universities are taking on a more important role in tackling global and regional challenges, according to Norizon Mohammed Nor, director of the Centre for Global Sustainability Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang.

Nor presented an outline of the plan at the Bangkok meeting of officials of the South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation, SEAMEO, on 4 April. It was prepared on behalf of Malaysia’s Ministry of Higher Education a year after a SEAMEO meeting in Vietnam in March 2011 proposed a new ASEAN agenda on sustainability in higher education.

It is important to draw up a roadmap for universities in the region, Nor told University World News. “Universities in ASEAN countries have a very fragmented administrative structure, making it difficult to implement intergovernmental policies. Different departments have different ideas on sustainability.”

The roadmap comes ahead of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – the Earth Summit – due to take place in Rio de Janeiro in June, often referred to as Rio+20 as it will be 20 years after the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

The UN has launched a programme for sustainable universities and research in advance of what is expected to be one of the largest gatherings of heads of government in over a decade to discuss sustainable development.

The ASEAN roadmap will be “an important step in bringing sustainability principles and practices into the entire fabric of educational systems across the ASEAN region,” Nor said. He added that too often governments had focused on environmental research and education, without relating it to development.

“It is high time for the universities to play a role. They are doing the research, they are the experts,” he said.

Countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore already focus on sustainability in both teaching and research, sharing with other universities in the region. But it is more difficult to make changes in poorer countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia. “We cannot assume there will be the same approach in all countries,” Nor said.

The roadmap will be important for universities to focus research on the ‘bottom billion’, Nor added, referring to the world’s poorest people.

In some cases this may mean reorienting research.

ASEAN countries are already involved in regional research clusters to target major problems in health and medicine, agriculture and food security, energy, environment and biodiversity, and social sciences.

But research needs to resolve sustainability problems facing society. “New knowledge is needed to solve new problems,” he said.

The roadmap was not just about research but also about including a “sustainability mindset” across all levels of education, Nor added. At universities this meant making undergraduate teaching less theoretical and more attuned to society.

The roadmap will be one of the main areas of SEAMEO activities for 2012. A more detailed implementation approach will be presented at an ASEAN meeting on 8 May in Kuala Lumpur.

“The next step will be to invite all the ASEAN members to make a commitment and endorse it so that we can come up with a comprehensive action plan that can start from next year,” Nor said.

The ASEAN countries include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.