University leaders need to put ESD on their agendas – Study

The commitment of senior university management at higher education institutions to ‘education for sustainable development’ (ESD) is critical for its effective implementation and delivery in the university environment, with the ultimate goal being the fostering of sustainable citizenship among students, according to a recent study set in Malaysia.

The study entitled “Narratives on Education for Sustainable Development in Malaysian Universities”, published in Sustainability on 31 August, acknowledges higher education institutions “as powerful forces of positive societal change”.

The authors of the study are Sharifah Intan Sharina Syed-Abdullah and Nur Aira Abdrahim in the faculty of educational studies at Universiti Putra Malaysia, and Iryna Kushnir from the Nottingham Institute of Education at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom.

They note that ESD aims at the “balanced development of the environment, both economic and social”. To achieve this, ESD “should be delivered in a way that calls for a commitment from people from all walks of life. Higher education institutions are important in preparing citizens to contribute to achieving this aim.”

The study gathered data through in-depth interviews and four focus group discussions with 16 sustainability experts from five public universities in Malaysia, renowned for their education provision and research in the field of sustainable development.

The universities were chosen because they were ranked the highest in sustainable-related rankings, such as the UI GreenMetric ranking and impact rankings at national level. Three of the institutions were recognised as Regional Centres of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development by the United Nations and one institution had a long-established sustainable development centre.

Among the five universities chosen, three were categorised as research universities while the other two were comprehensive universities.

Four approaches

The study revealed four key approaches that have been used to implement ESD at Malaysian higher education institutions: the organisational adoption approach, the competitive approach, the continuity approach, and the transformative approach.

Organisational adoption is when an organisation or community decides to commit and initiate an ESD evidence-based intervention in their settings. A competitive approach is when ESD learning activities are organised in the form of a competition to encourage students’ participation.

A continuity approach is when ESD learning activities are realised within or across existing formal curricula or implemented within one of the core courses which is compulsory for all students at the institution to enrol and pass.

A transformative approach is when the curriculum is oriented towards helping students to develop sustainable competencies that are required for developing sustainable and thinking citizens or environmental citizenship as well as establishing a sustainable campus.

The study argues that the discovery of the four approaches “has enriched the literature by listing some of the best approaches based on empirical data from a single study”.

It notes that two of the four approaches – the continuity approach and the competitive approach – are novel and rarely discussed in the existing literature.

While the findings indicate the critical roles of the whole academic community working in synergy and taking a systemic approach, the study notes that “the bottom line is the effective implementation of ESD in these universities in [higher education institution] senior management, given the hierarchised and centralised control”.

Implementation of ESD in higher education institutions is difficult where there is low community awareness of its importance and where the ESD agenda is not prioritised by senior management, the study argues, and calls on the senior management of higher education institutions to “recognise the importance of ESD and make it a strategic priority”.

Measures to promote ESD

To make senior management aware of the importance of ESD, relevant information and evidence on the benefits of ESD to their institutions must be provided, according to study.

“It is critical to convince them [university senior management] that ESD can assist institutions in meeting their sustainability goals while improving their reputation and competitiveness in a rapidly changing global environment,” the study notes.

For example, the study indicates that involving external stakeholders in discussions with senior management, such as global sustainability experts and community leaders, is one way to provide a broader perspective on the importance of ESD and its potential impact.

“We can create a shared vision for a sustainable future and drive institutional change toward sustainability by making senior management aware of the importance of ESD,” the authors note.

“Setting clear targets for ESD implementation, providing resources for staff training and development, and ensuring that ESD is embedded in the curriculum and campus operations are all ways to accomplish this.”

The study also indicates that instructors at higher education institutions need the competencies necessary to execute ESD efficiently.

It says several strategies could be considered to support instructors in levelling up their teaching skills and competencies for ESD. These include professional development opportunities for instructors to improve their knowledge of ESD principles and how to incorporate ESD into the curriculum, creating ESD-related learning outcomes, and engaging students in sustainability issues.

According to the study, relevant teaching materials must be available for instructors. These include case studies, simulations, “and other teaching resources that demonstrate the application of ESD in higher education settings”.

Best practice guide

Higher education expert Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a professor at Cairo’s National Research Centre, told University World News the study provides “important take-away messages” to higher education policy-makers and decision-makers seeking to promote education for sustainable development which, he said, is considered “a powerful force in producing the skilled human resources needed to drive sustainable development”.

He said the study could be considered a starting point for the development of a “guide for promoting university education for sustainable development” where best practices of research, teaching and campus management on sustainability within universities and higher education institutions across the world are collated, analysed and shared.

“This guide will help in promoting collaboration, joint research and teaching projects. It could offer exchange options for faculty, staff and students along with fostering inter-institutional learning with regards to management issues,” Abdelhamid said.