New international test for HE sustainability knowledge

A key assumption at the 2023 UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development has been that higher education promotes sustainability. A new test of sustainability knowledge, reported at the New York event, will help measure the extent of that progress.

That was the focus of a side event to the UN forum, staged on 18 July by the Sulitest association – a non-profit organisation and online platform seeking sustainability universal literacy that will help to drive Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) adoption across higher education worldwide.

The organisation, based in France, already has an established sustainability awareness test that has been that has been taken by more than 300,000 people – in more than 600 institutions – in 60 countries within Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia.

Sulitest asked in a briefing document: “What do we really know about what students are actually learning about sustainability at their respective higher education institutions?

“What data do we have that indicates higher education institutions are making meaningful progress in embedding the SDGs into student curricular learning outcomes? Similarly, what role (and with what real impact) do rankings and accreditation bodies play in both nudging and requiring transformative thinking and change at higher education institutions?”

The TASK test

As a result, Sulitest has launched a testable standard of sustainability knowledge, called TASK. It measures sustainability knowledge via 112 multiple-choice questions, in English and French, completed in 80 minutes, with scores ranging from zero to 100 – providing a certificate, comparable metrics (by country and organisation), plus reliable data and indicators for sharing.

Aurélien Decamps, managing director and co-founder of Sulitest – a key partner of the UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) – said in an interview with University World News: “How do we leverage data for transforming higher education towards sustainability?”

Sulitest, he said, is delivering a metric of sustainability knowledge that will help people “to take informed decisions – whether you’re an engineer or manager or a graduate from another major in higher education. How can you measure and report on it? This is the role of TASK. We have a psychometric and robust measure.”

A report on TASK was released by Sulitest at a side-event to the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development 2023 in New York, which was convened from 10 to 19 July to support the mid-term review of the SDGs and the 2023 SDG Summit in September.

Called Advancing Sustainability Literacy for the Global Goals, the report said that TASK provides a “research-based, and online assessment process leading to an internationally recognised certificate demonstrating a level of sustainability knowledge”.

TASK, it added, is “accessible via an easy-to-use platform that provides relevant and comparable metrics for monitoring and steering education for sustainability across any educational programme”.

The report said the common assessment would aid changes to curricula and pedagogy, promoting sustainability through forging a common language of sustainability. It provided a base of common knowledge upon which a range of people and groups – such as engineers, managers, biologists and public authorities – could “communicate and use a common language as they work together to build a sustainable tomorrow”.

A key aim of TASK is to encourage decision-makers to consider sustainability constantly, in business, politics and education – including academics and university administrators.

This system was developed by a ‘TASK Force’ of experts, practitioners and researchers; external experts and researchers in sustainability; a Sulitest Impact R&D Committee; and a group of fellows, who assessed scientific literature, existing sustainability assessments and analysis. The people involved were drawn from academia, corporations, accreditation and ranking organisations, student organisations, civil society and NGOs.

Shift the narrative

Speaking to University World News after participating in the side-event, Decamps said: “Higher education has a crucial role to play in the context of SDG4 [on education, and] across all SDGs, it has a role to play for future decision makers.”

He added: “We’re convinced that most of the crises that we’re facing right now in terms of sustainability come from human decisions, often taken in a professional context, and very often by people holding higher education degrees. So, we have produced people that take decisions that hinder sustainability.

“There is a big responsibility to shift the narrative – for a new form of leadership for sustainability for higher education, transforming the curriculum to train people [to] acquire the relevant skill sets for building a sustainable future.”

TASK aims to assess students on their sustainability knowledge, before and after higher education studies, to check what they have learned. Demonstrable weaknesses could help higher education managers guide curricula and pedagogy reforms, so that they integrate sustainability concerns, also checking whether academics possess such knowledge.

The tool could also potentially be used by international rankers as they roll out plans to integrate sustainability performance into their rankings – a matter that was discussed at the HESI Forum.

Decamps argued that the tool could help encourage academics to integrate sustainability issues into their courses: “They can identify gaps within the granularity of the matrix.” He said this would help higher education institutions develop core courses on sustainability and embed sustainability into other disciplines.

Overcome change, and a pilot study

The tool, if widely adopted, might be a useful lever to overcome resistance to change in higher education: “If you want to change the curriculum at some point you will have to engage with faculty and it can be a challenge for sustainability, because sustainability [usually] isn’t a discipline.

“Academics Faculty are trained for a particular discipline; you are an expert in that domain ... so teaching about sustainability ... is a challenge ... you will have to go out of your comfort zone ... and really connect your expertise with this broader vision of sustainability.” As a result, such change takes time.

A pilot study on TASK has backed its potential.

Asked about the importance of gaining a sustainability knowledge assessment score, 28% of survey respondents indicated that found it ‘critical’ and 55% ‘very useful’. Meanwhile, 56% of respondents found using TASK ‘slightly enjoyable’ and 24% ‘very enjoyable’. Regarding its accuracy, 60% of respondents said TASK results represent sustainability knowledge ‘well’ and 25% ‘very well’. Respondents found TASK either ‘very difficult’ to complete (34%) or ‘slightly difficult’ (62%).

Looking forward, Sulitest has recruited 25 higher education institutions as partners to roll out the system and articulate their experience of the tool. They have joined a TASK change leader programme, promoting the system. At present, the institutions are mostly from Sulitest’s home country, France, but also include the American University in Cairo and the HEC Montréal business school in Canada.

Decamps said expanding the reach of this core promoter team outside France was a priority for Sulitest: “To internationalise this is a big challenge for this year.”

His organisation’s existing sustainability awareness test has a massive network that can be tapped to roll out TASK, along with Sulitest partners in HESI.

Sulitest is also planning to launch TASK in adult education and training institutions: “We know there are skills and competences that might be different from one country to another, but really the goal of TASK is to build this common language” on sustainability, said Decamps. This would aid its integration across higher education.