What role for higher education in sustainable development?

The recognition that education, at all levels, can be a powerful tool in promoting sustainable development led to the concept of ‘education for sustainable development’.

Subsequently, in 2002, the United Nations declared 2005-14 as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, with the objective of integrating the principles and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning, and appointed UNESCO as the lead implementing agency.

But what is ‘sustainable development’ and what is the role of higher education in promoting it?

Sustainable development is a concept that is not new, and yet it is complex and not easy to define. In 1987, the Brundtland report from the World Commission on Environment and Development defined it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

This remains the most quoted definition, although there is continuous evolution in the way sustainable development is operationalised.

The International Association of Universities, or IAU, has been active in encouraging universities to promote sustainable development since the 1990s and, in 1993, adopted a policy statement known as the Kyoto Declaration on Sustainable Development.

Although this declaration dates back to over two decades, it is remarkably comprehensive and outlines all the fundamental issues concerning the role of universities in promoting sustainable development.

The opening clause urges universities to seek, establish and disseminate a clearer understanding of sustainable development.

The IAU has continued to maintain sustainable development as one of its key action areas and has developed an online portal on Higher Education for Sustainable Development in order to encourage higher education institutions around the world to network and showcase their activities through the portal.

Progress and challenges

As the end of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development was approaching, UNESCO prepared a report that provides a summary assessment of progress achieved during the Decade and the challenges encountered.

With regard to higher education, the report mentions that higher education institutions have stepped up their efforts to support sustainable development, have made significant efforts to address sustainability in campus operations (commonly referred to as campus greening), have introduced new programmes and courses related to education for sustainable development, and are extending the value and impact of their teaching and research to their respective communities.

Perhaps the most impressive outcome during the Decade has been the creation of networks of institutions in all the world regions – MESA in Africa, ProsPER. Net in Asia-Pacific, COPERNICUS Alliance in Europe, ARIUSA in Latin America and the Caribbean – in order to build capacity, share experiences and expand the influence of education for sustainable development.

More recently, the United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP, created the Global Universities Partnership on Environment for Sustainability – GUPES – a network of 370 universities across the globe to implement environment and sustainability practices into the curricula.

However, the report also highlights challenges. These include:
  • • the lack of a coordinated approach at all the levels of the institution to implement the necessary changes;
  • • insufficient staff development activities to empower staff to transform curricula and pedagogy towards a sustainable development perspective; and
  • • the persistence of disciplinary boundaries that inhibit the potential to address complex sustainable development issues.
Global action

The question of what happens to Education for Sustainable Development after the end of the Decade inevitably cropped up.

In 2014, after broad consultations with and inputs from a wide range of stakeholders, UNESCO came up with the post-Decade of Education for Sustainable Development Global Action Programme, or GAP on education for sustainable development, and a roadmap for implementing it.

The GAP is generic in nature and applies to all levels of education. It identifies five priority action areas:
  • • mainstreaming education for sustainable development in both education and sustainable development policies;
  • • transforming learning and training institutions by integrating sustainable development principles in daily activities;
  • • building capacities in educators and trainers;
  • • empowering and mobilising youth; and
  • • accelerating the implementation of sustainable solutions at local and community levels.
In order to mark the final year of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, two major back-to-back conferences on education for sustainable development were organised in Aichi-Nagoya in Japan in November 2014.

The first was the International Conference on Higher Education for Sustainable Development, hosted by Nagoya University and organised by the United Nations University with the support of the government of Japan and various organisations, including UNESCO, UNEP and IAU.

The conference felt that there was a need for higher education institutions to adopt a ‘whole-institution approach’, including transformative leadership, encouraging capacity development and undertaking an assessment of the institution for sustainability.

The conference also proposed that institutions engage with different types of knowledge and work with critical community groups such as youth and the private sector, and engage with policy issues.

In the ensuing Nagoya Declaration on Higher Education for Sustainable Development, participants renewed their commitment to support activities towards sustainable development, including implementation of the Global Action Programme and called on world leaders to recognise the essential role and responsibility of higher education institutions towards creating sustainable societies.

Immediately following the International Conference on Higher Education for Sustainable Development came the World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development, a major event organised by UNESCO and the government of Japan and attended by nearly 1,000 participants.

Although the conference covered the whole range of education and learning, most of the workshops and sessions were directly or indirectly relevant to higher education, such as teacher education, lifelong learning and information and communications technology.

Similarly, in the sessions dealing with global sustainable development challenges such as water security, renewable energy, biodiversity, urbanisation, etc, it was clear that the involvement of higher education institutions would be crucial.

A declaration on Education for Sustainable Development was adopted at the end of the conference, calling for the commitment to education for sustainable development of all stakeholders and inviting governments to allocate substantial resources to enable the implementation of the GAP priority actions.

From development to sustainability

Higher education has played an important role in promoting sustainable development during the Decade that has just ended, and it is vital that it continues to do so in the post-2014 implementation of the GAP. This is particularly important in view of the post-2015 Development Agenda that is currently being formulated by the UN.

Indications are that the eight Millennium Development Goals will be replaced by 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, explicitly linking development to sustainability.

A glance at the proposed draft SDGs shows that their implementation will require substantial inputs from higher education. This must be recognised by the relevant UN agencies, the governments and, as importantly, by higher education institutions themselves.

Institutions now have the responsibility, more than ever before, to integrate sustainable development into all their teaching, research, community engagement and campus operations.

* Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, or AAU, the former president of the International Association of Universities and the former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. This commentary is an adapted version of a blog by the author that appeared in Inside Higher Ed on 4 January 2015.