Sustainable development: Are universities ready to lead?

Universities cannot be leaders in the drive for sustainable development and still expect to carry on business as usual. Disruption is coming no matter what and higher education institutions face the choice of whether to take the initiative and lead the change in areas such as climate justice, fighting poverty and ensuring gender equality or whether to risk becoming mere followers of social change begun by others.

This was the main message of Professor Daniella Tilbury, keynote speaker at the International Conference on Sustainable Development Goals: Higher Education and Science Take Action, organised by the Global University Network for Innovation or GUNi, in Barcelona, Spain on 5-6 March.

“I am concerned that when we talk about the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs], it is all very fluffy, we talk about things which are universally accepted as good,” said Tilbury, commissioner for sustainable development for the Government of Gibraltar, but the SDGs mean radical change and change is never comfortable, she added.

“If we do things properly, universities will have to fundamentally question their business models and we will have to look at how we change from being transmitters of knowledge to supporting change in our society,” she said.

Earlier speakers at the conference stressed the need for building a consensus for the transition to sustainability, even if this takes time to do, but Tilbury begged to differ.

Cutting emissions, disinvesting from fossil fuels

She cited ambitious moves such as the 2016 decision by the catering services of the UK’s University of Cambridge to remove lamb and beef from the menu and promote plant-based alternatives. This allowed them to cut overall carbon emissions from catering services by 10.5%, plus a 33% reduction in emissions per kilo of food bought, a recent report revealed.

“They didn’t just focus on switching off the lights; they aimed at the heart of student life,” said Tilbury.

Another example is the University of Glasgow in Scotland which in 2014 became the first in Europe to disinvest from fossil fuels, joining 13 United States universities, including pioneer Unity College and Stanford University.

All these are signs that disruption is already underway.

Rethinking not tinkering

Tilbury warned universities against taking an incremental approach to sustainable development which fails to challenge the status quo. This might be: “We are putting on a postgraduate programme on sustainable engineering, but the rest of the faculties are still using exactly the same modules and ways of thinking.”

Rather than adding on, what is needed is a total overhaul. “We need to change the classrooms, and yes, of course, we need sustainable buildings, but more than just green design, we need to stop the chalk and talk; we need to have learning opportunities which create the opportunities for critical thinking,” she said.

This also means giving activism more of a place within academia and ensuring institutions listen to student voices. “In the Global North, you tend to get greater use of terms like ‘engagement’ of students, but it is not real participatory learning because it doesn’t change the power dynamic,” said Tilbury.

She urged delegates at the conference to pay attention to initiatives such as Teach the Future, a youth-lead campaign to reorient the English education system around the climate emergency and ecological crisis.

Support for passionate academics

Campaign backers Students Organising for Sustainability or SOS-UK, an offshoot of the UK’s National Union of Students, presented ‘Responsible Futures’ at the Barcelona conference. This is an accreditation framework, based on building partnerships which aims to help educators embed education for sustainable development in their institutions.

“You can’t just do top-down or bottom-up in order to make change,” said Meg Baker, a senior project manager at SOS-UK. “We want to see peer learning so you don’t just have one passionate academic doing amazing things, but that they are supported by others.”

The accreditation cycle takes between one and three years to complete. “Then SOS-UK comes in and trains the students to audit how a university is doing,” said Baker. “Students learn a huge amount and institutions find it very beneficial.” The Responsible Futures team will now work with the International Association of Universities to develop a toolkit for universities for international use.

Limited progress

The contribution of universities over the four years since the SDGs were launched in January 2016 has so far been limited, GUNi Director Josep Maria Vilalta believes.

Many university managers, lecturers and researchers are now aware of the 2030 Agenda of 17 Sustainable Development Goals and institutions are moving to do “a kind of internal X-ray” by taking stock of what needs doing, although at varying speeds. “We need to be more ambitious, but if by 2030 we have managed to educate young people with this mindset, I for one would be satisfied,” he said.

For Tilbury, the next decade is key. “The question is – will universities continue to act as mirrors in our society, reproducing the status quo, or will they become social disruptors?” she asks.