Embedding HE sustainability in criteria for accrediting degrees

A core role of universities is to produce quality graduates for the economy and society, with the knowledge and skills they need to secure a job and to succeed. In today’s world of climate chaos and global challenges, the imperative that graduates also make a positive contribution to the world has driven a global movement towards ‘education for sustainable development’ (ESD).

The pressures for higher education to pursue sustainability come from multiple sources, including within from students and researchers, increasingly joined by university leaders. Externally, pressures are also being exerted, including by professional societies and associations, and academic service agencies.

One of these is ABET, the American quality assurance provider that operates globally in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. ABET – a partner of University World News in a series of special reports on ESD – is helping steer universities towards education for sustainable development by embedding sustainability in the criteria it uses for accrediting degrees.

ABET says a key aim is to encourage the graduation of a generation of STEM professionals who are highly skilled as well as cause-driven and purposeful, wanting to help people and the planet.

An existential issue

The result of embedding sustainability in accreditation criteria is that sustainability is part of the curriculum for all students in engineering and the applied and natural sciences who are on ABET-accredited degrees. They number some 200,000 STEM graduates globally each year, a significant ESD impact.

To date the organisation has accredited more than 4,500 academic programmes in 895 institutions in 40 countries. Further, the accreditation process helps to ensure that sustainability topics are introduced early in a student’s collegiate experience.

ABET CEO Dr Michael KJ Milligan told University World News: “The quality of a student’s educational experience,and their exposure to sustainability that is incorporated into the curriculum design process, is critical to developing solutions to our most pressing environmental, social and economic challenges.”

The current generation of students is entering a world with substantial problems and challenges. There is climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, and global problems with clean water and sanitation, poverty and health and many more – indeed, all of the areas covered by the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Scientific, technical and professional skills must be harnessed to tackle SDG-related problems, and the importance of soft skills and interdisciplinary approaches to solving these problems has increasingly been recognised as critical. Soft skills include qualities such as ethics and values, critical thinking and communication, and teamwork and creativity.

This is self-evidently an existential issue. “Today and tomorrow’s problem-solvers, including scientists and engineers, will be tasked with finding solutions that are not only technical but also aimed at nothing less than ensuring humanity’s and the world’s survival,” argues Milligan.

The criteria and values

The accreditation criteria and standards that ABET develops and that academic programmes need to include in their curricula and teaching and learning activities, are non-prescriptive, broad and achieved through a thorough and consensual process, ABET stresses. Thus, academics have flexibility in integrating ABET criteria – such as sustainability.

ABET has four commissions that set criteria for different STEM areas. While criteria are similar in many ways across STEM areas, there are also differences, hence the differing criteria.

The commissions decide what improvements or amendments need to be made to the criteria, which are continually updated and improved. They are comprised of people drawn from academia, industry and the public sector, who are elected. The approach strives to be democratic and inclusive, the agency says.

ABET also has programme evaluators who conduct peer-to-peer style evaluating, visiting university programmes and seeing how they square up to the accreditation criteria. There are 2,500 volunteers who support the assurance activities.

The concept behind embedding sustainability and ethics criteria in STEM curricula could be seen by some as akin to the Hippocratic Oath, which obliges physicians to uphold a code of ethics to the benefit of humans and health. This recognises that professionals do not only need technical skills, but must also apply ethics and values that advance the welfare and well-being of people and communities.

“Today, the thought that students might not be exposed to issues around sustainability seems almost ludicrous,” says ABET’s Special Advisor Neil Gaught, who is a sustainability expert and author. “It sems obvious that graduates need to understand, when solving a problem in their professional lives, that the solution not only works technically but also advances the long-term sustainability and interests of communities and the world.”

The sustainability journey

The sustainability journeys of many organisations globally, including universities and higher education service and governance groups, have been profound. Mostly, they have been on the road for the past decade. Sustainability has been a game-changer.

ABET was founded in 1932. The 2008 financial crisis turned into an identity crisis for many non-profit and other groups as there was pressure everywhere to save money and simplify processes, along with more ideological pressures from politicians seeking political gain. ABET was looking and feeling rather old fashioned.

During 2014-15, the organisation undertook exhaustive research to explore its core purpose and value to society. ABET represents the gold standard in accreditation, perhaps especially in engineering. While value has always existed in this, it was not being well articulated and clarity was needed.

“The idea that emerged was the need to be confident about the future. To do the right things for the right reasons, for the benefit of people graduating from universities in STEM fields. We are now clear about our core purpose and what the value of it is,” says Gaught.

The paradigm shift this has required for ABET and other organisations that have travelled along the road to sustainability has been profound – and often difficult. This is particularly so in the private sector, where companies must balance making money for shareholders with doing the right thing.

A decade ago, few leaders of organisations talked about social issues. Today, in fast-changing world, pressure from their stakeholders means they almost all have to. One of the drivers of change has been young people growing up in a world that does not look or feel right to them. Another driver has been the need for organisations to attract the best and brightest, who now expect sustainability to be core.

What stands out for Gaught about ABET, and is also the case for some other agencies and associations that support higher education, is that it provides an opportunity to make a very practical and positive difference to the next generation.

“That is literally what we are doing. Students who go through ABET-accredited programmes know that they are getting the information and skills they need about sustainability. The university is doing the same thing as well. So, a double win.”