Sustainable universities: Much more than estate management

Sustainability is an increasingly important endeavour for universities, for students and the wider higher education sector. This concern is not limited to estate management, but wider governance practices and what, as well as how, we teach.

The content and structure of curricula have been addressed through the concept of sustainability education, although there are different forms that this can take. At its simplest, education for sustainable development (ESD) seeks to embed sustainable development into pre-existing higher education practices.

More advanced is education for sustainability literacy (ESL), through which individuals are equipped with skills considered necessary to aid society in its transition towards a more sustainable future.

More than estate management

Since the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-14), ESD has become ubiquitous in the higher education sector. Meaningful progress has, however, largely been limited to issues of estate management.

Climate change strategies are primarily concerned with reducing an institution’s carbon footprint, for example, through measures such as improving the energy efficiency of buildings, reducing staff travel and introducing vegetarian-only catering.

Important as this is, it is a relatively superficial way for a university, and indeed any organisation, to engage with sustainability education.

More ambitious would be to develop cross-faculty, interdisciplinary courses that allow for a holistic appraisal of global challenges and the respective merits of different solutions so that students are better able to address them in their post-university lives, in accordance with ESL.

Achieving this is not simple. Extra-curricular courses can be resource-intensive and require significant buy-in from a range of key stakeholders (academic, professional services and management) if they are to be delivered at a scale that provides all students with an opportunity to participate every year.

Pursuing ESL in mainstream courses may be more feasible in terms of resources and staff workload, but is contingent on there being suitably qualified and willing individuals to run genuinely interdisciplinary courses.

Other potential obstacles include faculties and schools applying incompatible credit weightings (for example, if law offers 10/20 credit modules but geography offers 15/30 credit modules) so that students cannot opt to pursue courses from another department and courses that contain a substantial compulsory content so that student discretion over module selection is limited.

Such problems should not be insurmountable for an institution that is committed to reforming how it engages students with ESL.

The SDGs

The latest manifestation of sustainable development as a policy concept is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Adopted in 2015 as an agenda “for people, planet and prosperity”, the SDGs comprise 17 goals and 169 sub-targets, covering issues as diverse as poverty, biodiversity protection, gender equality and infrastructure.

Quality education is addressed in SDG 4, with Goal 4.3 promoting equal access to affordable higher education and 4.7 calling for all learners “to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development...”

While SDG 4 is the principal education goal, it is not the only one to which higher education, and sustainability education are relevant. Instead, higher education may be seen as a prerequisite to the achievement of most, if not all, of the goals.

To give just one example, a clear means of freeing someone from poverty (Goal 1.2) is to provide them with access to higher education.

A person’s ability to successfully engage with higher education has been linked to whether they can afford sufficient nutritious food (Goal 2.1), which is in turn connected to a person’s education and corresponding capacity to lift themselves out of poverty.

Are the SDGs sustainable?

The interrelated and circular nature of the SDGs requires a nexus-thinking approach to their implementation. In other words, thought must be given to how the pursuit of one goal may impact, positively and negatively, on the pursuit of others.

While this is acknowledged in SDG literature, it has arguably yet to become common practice and this raises questions over whether the way in which the SDGs are being implemented, at global, national and institutional levels, constitutes genuine sustainability.

These two broad themes – the challenges of reforming higher education along ESL lines, and the extent to which the SDGs deliver genuine sustainability – are the focus of a new project that I am co-leading.

Taking inspiration from the lived experiences of University College London, in line with the “dig where you stand” research philosophy, we are exploring how sustainability is, could and should be pursued in the higher education sector.

In addition to formal research outputs, our aim is to produce a student-led action plan for sustainability, assisting students with not only taking greater ownership of their higher education experience, but with engaging with their institution to effect positive change as well.

Central to this project is a conference that will bring together key stakeholders involved in sustainability education at institution-, department- and module-levels, as well as incorporate an essential student voice.

As much about knowledge-generation as it will be presentation, by sharing ideas, best practices and experiences in sustainability education from around the world, the event will help to establish new networks for people working in this field and inform our own research.

Ultimately, we aim to establish a blueprint for sustainability action that fosters connections between individuals and the geographical and epistemological communities centred on universities, while also delivering on higher education’s potential to inspire radical societal reform.

Dr Rob Amos is assistant professor in environmental law at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom.