Sustainability is a purpose of education – Charles Hopkins
“The original intent was looking at education for sustainable development as a purpose of education, public awareness and training,” he tells University World News from Kuala Lumpur, where he is based for a few months, some of it at International Islamic University Malaysia, whose rector, Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, is also a renowned expert in education for sustainable development (ESD).
One of the findings of Hopkins’ work in ESD has been “conceptual fuzziness”. This impedes the implementation of ESD across the education sector, along with factors such as a lack of recognition of higher education’s role in sustainability and universities working in disciplinary silos. There are also a lot of disparate developments in ESD – and in such a scenario, leadership is key.
Hopkins has been involved with ESD since its beginnings. His journey began with the presentation of a paper in 1986 to the Brundtland Commission – the World Commission on Environment and Development – which was charged by the United Nations with steering the world towards the goal of sustainable development.
His UNESCO Chair in Reorienting Education Towards Sustainability, based at York University, was established in 1999. It was, says the university, “the first one of its kind in the field of education for sustainable development and the chair’s involvement in seminal decisions in the evolution of ESD continues”.
At first the focus was on teacher education. However, Hopkins explains: “Teacher education is greatly affected by what schools want in graduates. It is hedged in by graduation criteria and the syllabus is provided by ministries of education, and significantly limited by the capabilities of teacher education institutions.”
So, Hopkins and colleagues changed focus. “Now we are looking at reorienting education itself.”
ESD – Not an ‘adjectival education’
Hopkins participated in writing the first implementation plan for the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. He was part of a group of around 10 experts who were exploring roles for education in sustainable development. They looked mostly at four things.
The first was access and retention and quality education, so that there could be development. The second acknowledged that the most educated countries often leave the greatest ecological footprints. “So, we needed to reorient the purpose of education to include sustainability as an outcome of education.”
The third aspect was public awareness and understanding. Democratic governments cannot operate without the support of the public, since the main goal of governments is to remain in power. And the fourth aspect was training, “where we do know how to do things better”, Hopkins says. “How can we embed sustainability into the workforce or into how we live our lives.”
The way higher education is structured is not conducive to ESD. Mainly, educators think about core disciplines and then there can be add-ons. “What we call ‘adjectival educations’ – peace education, environmental education, driver education, anti-drug education.
“In the minds of many people, we can create sustainability education and try to stick it on,” Hopkins tells University World News. “It remains that people are looking at ESD as a leap too far. They prefer just to do greening, or something along that line.”
Research over 25 years has shown Hopkins very clearly that “no one can do it all. We need to have leadership to bring the many and various initiatives together. Social justice people don’t see themselves as environmentalists, and people involved in nature study don’t see themselves as creating better built environments, and so on. We’re looking at what we can learn with and from indigenous people.
“There are many things going on, in many different sectors. But how do we bring that together into something major that is in fact already going on?”
The education for sustainable development movement is now aligning with the transforming education movement, also led by the United Nations. The UN Transforming Education Summit was held in September 2022. “The questions are: are we transforming education, or are we transforming the student, or are we transforming society? Or all of it? And how do we go about doing that?
“At best, we sort of know what we want to move away from. But we don’t have a clear vision of what we’re going towards,” Hopkins explains. Many schools say that cannot tackle sustainability when they are working on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores and going back to the basics and catching up from COVID-19. But Hopkins is hopeful, as he sees many more schools embracing sustainability than there were a few years ago.
Drivers of sustainability
“In a way, higher education has its own PISA – the university rankings. Now Times Higher Education and QS are coming out with SDG [Sustainable Development Goal] related impact rankings. That completely turned my own university – suddenly, sustainability has become central, part of university branding and marketing,” says Hopkins.
So, the impact rankings are a sustainability driver for higher education. But there are tens of thousands of universities around the world and only around 1,500 involved in international rankings, so their impact is limited.
“The big driver, beyond the rankings, is student interest. And professors themselves; many of them are finding that researching and writing on sustainability is current and encouraged, and that’s important. I wish there was more funding for research that was linked to sustainability, because research funding is a huge driver of what goes on in higher education, in research universities anyway.”
And so today, more and more universities are getting on board with education for sustainable development, in one way or another. Another part of the reason for the interest is because of widespread recognition of the Sustainable Development Goals. Most people had no idea what Agenda 21 was – the first sustainability implementation plan that ran from 1992 to 2000. The Millennium Development Goals that followed were targeted at a handful of developing countries, and momentum slowed.
“One of the drawbacks is that governments are not recognising the leverage of universities. About 8% of the world’s population are university graduates. But that 8% will be 80% of the shapers of the future. They will be the politicians, the private sector leaders, the leaders of religious organisations, creators of culture,” Hopkins says.
“We need higher education to step up to the plate, but there is no place for them at the table.”
There has been some progress in that regard, with an academic group recently established as one of the major groups gathered around the United Nations sustainability movement, which adds an academic voice to debates and a formal way for higher education to submit thoughts to the UN on sustainability. Other UN linked groups, such as the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative and the United Nations Academic Impact, have also evolved.
This year, the UN called on the major groups to get organised and come up with a clear message, as it cannot deal with the plethora of messages.
“We need to have consistent messages from universities that we need to figure out – messages that we can relate to our own governments at least. In our provinces, it would be very wise to have a university presence, to inspire back to the university what the real issues are that government is facing. So that within the university, we could try and come up with solutions,” Hopkins continues.
“A fundamental problem is that we can’t solve the sustainability problem by refining what we’re currently doing. We can get better at teaching mathematics and so on. But within the worldview that we have now, and our human relationship with the Earth, we need to move on from disciplinary approaches to the world. In the university, people in the same faculty hardly know one another, let alone together creating new knowledge.”
In the 1990s, when UNESCO first started engaging with education for sustainable development, people had realised that global sustainability issues are complex, intertwined and interwoven. Droughts in Africa turn into mass migration, which turns into racism in Europe.
“So we need to move to transdisciplinary, meaning, yes, we bring the disciplines together, but we also bring them together with the real world.” So, it is not just disciplines talking, but also practitioners, all talking about real-world solutions in a complex reality where there is instant feedback.
That kind of complexity can be replicated on a university campus, which is a microcosm of society, says Hopkins. “My university has 55,000 people. We know exactly how much water we use, how much energy we use – we know a tremendous amount of detail. It could be a living laboratory.”
Education for sustainable development is just a different worldview. It does not need a lot of money, but it does need some resources to research problems and then offer solutions or scenarios for the real world, locally or nationally. “That transdisciplinary approach could be done within universities. How could we set up these kinds of think tanks? That’s the kind of innovative thinking that we really need.”
Returning to the question of a sustainability vision, Hopkins uses the analogy of a bus driven by looking in the rearview mirror. People can see what they are driving away from. They know what has to stop. But that casts sustainability in a negative way, that hints at people having to give something up.
What is needed is recognition that achieving sustainability needs everybody – “no one can do it all, everyone can contribute something”, as Hopkins puts it – and a new perspective on the world that sees what the future could look like.
For education, sustainability is a purpose to be designed and implemented all the way from pre-school to post-secondary and lifelong learning. It is a purpose with an outcome, in need of a vision. “Every discipline could be asked: ‘Are you relevant to the future of the planet? Why should students take your course?’ People need to come up with how they are relevant.”
And then there is another question of leadership. “Is the next vice-chancellor going to understand that one of the great outcomes of this institution is creating a more sustainable future?”