Change leadership for education for sustainable development

Education at all levels is undergoing dramatic change around the world. At the macro (global), meso (national and regional) and micro (institutional and individual) levels, there are many factors that are driving this change.

At the macro level, broad political, economic, social, technological and environmental changes have influenced how nations and inter-governmental organisations behave. At the meso level, changes in national laws and public sentiment have influenced how societies and regional areas behave. At the micro level, changes in institutional policies and leader mindsets have influenced how institutional units and individuals behave.

Governance, management and administration are core functions within any organisation.

Governance is primarily concerned with oversight, strategic and financial planning, and the overall direction of the organisation. It is typically vested in a governing board. Governance is usually shared with the executive management team since there is some overlap in their roles and responsibilities.

Management is concerned with setting a clear vision, mission and core values for an organisation and then creating high-level policies and strategies necessary to achieve those aims through planning, organising, leading and controlling organisational resources.

Administration is the act of implementing the processes, procedures and tasks needed to carry out the policies and strategies of the organisation. So, all three functions need to work together.

Change leadership

In order to steer global education in the right direction, it is important that institutional leaders understand the factors affecting change as well as the nature of change leadership.

What is leadership? There are many types of leadership. Thus, leadership can have different qualities depending on the context. Nonetheless, the ability to influence others is the common theme that runs through all types of leadership. Thus, broadly defined, leadership can be described as the ability to influence others (followers) to achieve a shared vision or goal.

Leadership is a personal quality that an individual possesses. Although people tend to associate leadership with executive management, anyone is capable of exercising leadership regardless of his or her role or level in the organisation.

Leadership has emerged as an indispensable quality to drive change, which is one reason why some organisations spend resources on leadership development at all levels. Regardless of how successful an organisation becomes, without effective leadership, organisations tend to become overly bureaucratic and lack the innovative mindset needed to adapt to changes in the environment.

Education for sustainable development

Higher education has experienced several major changes in the past several decades, including a dramatic increase in the internationalisation of higher education, a dramatic increase in the digitisation of higher education and, more recently, a much greater focus on sustainable development.

As a result of these changes, higher education institutions have focused more on equity and inclusion, lifelong or lifewide learning, interdisciplinary learning and education for sustainable development, among others.

UNESCO defines education for sustainable development (ESD) as the “…knowledge, skills, values and agency [needed] to address interconnected global challenges including climate change, loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of resources, and inequality”.

In other words, ESD is a teaching and learning strategy that equips students with the knowledge, skills and values they need to promote economic, social and environmental well-being. ESD is an important part of learning for the 21st century and beyond.

Higher education institutions have implemented education for sustainable development in many ways. Many colleges and universities have integrated ESD into their curricula, either as a new course or programme or as part of an existing course or programme.

For example, York University in Canada adopted a new university plan for 2020-25 that includes a more elevated focus on promoting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including a reduction in climate change, poverty and inequality.

The International Islamic University Malaysia implemented a whole-institution approach to ESD in 2020 that focuses on ending rigid academic silos and moving towards interdisciplinary teaching and research as well as encouraging innovative thinking to translate SDGs into solving problems at the local level.

Since higher education plays a crucial role in shaping the mindsets of its students long after they graduate and in developing future generations of professionals, it is important that higher education institutions teach sustainability principles across the academic disciplines, conduct research on the SDGs and partner with the local community and beyond to implement solutions to help achieve the sustainability goals.

Professional development is an important aspect of implementing ESD across the institution. Some leaders, faculty and other staff may not be aware of ESD – or even the SDGs – so an organised effort is required to develop the competencies needed to implement ESD in a systematic way across the whole institution.

The University of Vechta in Germany, for example, spent two years training academic staff in the development of ESD competencies. A whole-institution approach is needed to increase the likelihood of programme success.

Change leadership and ESD

How do change leadership and ESD relate to each other?

Change leadership is the act of leading an institution through major disruptions and organisational transformation. In this view of leadership, change is viewed as a positive force and an opportunity for growth and transformation.

Change leaders are able to identify the factors causing the change and they are able to identify what needs changing and what does not need changing in order to best adapt to changes in the environment.

Change leaders are able to develop a shared vision for what the transformed institution looks like and then inspire action by influencing their followers and stakeholders to work towards that vision. Ultimately, the vision must be translated into clear actionable strategies and operational plans that make the best use of available resources.

Key to achieving the goals of change leadership is the engagement of the institution’s stakeholders, which not only includes institutional leaders, faculty and other staff but also leaders from outside the institution such as the government, the local community and non-governmental organisations.

People must not only understand the ESD vision, but they must also know what their roles and responsibilities are to achieve that vision. Barriers to ESD must be identified and addressed. A study on the role of universities in implementing ESD revealed that only 43% of universities worldwide have made a strategic decision to integrate the SDGs into their curricula.

In a recent study by Abhilasha Singh and Patrick Blessinger (2023), the authors examined the challenges faced by the universities in the United Arab Emirates when integrating the SDGs into their institutions.

The findings of the study revealed that the greatest challenges included:

• Determining the most impactful SDGs for universities;
• Reducing environmental footprints of universities;
• Insufficient collaboration between universities;
• Lack of SDG monitoring and reporting processes;
• Social and bureaucratic barriers; and
• Making the SDGs a priority in strategic planning.

These findings highlight the need for effective change management to help overcome the challenges faced in implementing ESD across the whole institution.

The findings also highlight the need for faculty across universities to collaborate on SDG research as well as for institutions to learn from each other on effective management practices in implementing ESD.

Finally, the findings indicate the importance of implementing ESD across the curricula as a top priority to help the world accelerate the fulfilment of the SDGs.

Patrick Blessinger is an adjunct professor of education at St John’s University in New York City, United States, and chief research scientist for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association or HETL. Abhilasha Singh is professor and vice-president for academic affairs at the American University in the Emirates in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.