A leading role for universities in sustainability in the Gulf

An international team of researchers is investigating how higher education in the Gulf is advancing sustainability and climate mitigation. Currently, says Oman’s Dr Khalaf Marhoun Al’Abri, there are scattered efforts and some specialists, but lack of policies and leadership hampers sustainability efforts.

Al’Abri, an associate professor of education systems and policies in the college of education at Oman’s flagship Sultan Qaboos University, believes that holding COP28 in the Gulf could boost higher education’s involvement in sustainability.

Education authorities, education specialists at the Gulf Cooperation Council and UNESCO offices in the region, higher education institutions and academics are participating in COP28 around education for sustainability. The global climate summit is being held in the United Arab Emirates from 30 November to 12 December.

Perhaps ironically, given how difficult it is to obtain support for social science research in the region, Al’Abri tells University World News that he and colleagues have been inundated by requests for information on education and sustainability and COP-related topics. Adequate response has been impossible, since the knowledge required would take years of research.

An extremely useful aspect of COP is the gathering of people and panels who are engaged with sustainability, providing expert knowledge about the topic, including the roles of higher education in supporting climate mitigation and sustainable development.

“Experiences and knowledge from elsewhere, interacting with local actors and ideas, can be enlightening,” says Al’Abri. Much of the activity is outside of but related to COP28, such as the 2023 symposium of the Gulf Comparative Education Society, held in the UAE from 1-3 November on sustainable education, at which Al’Abri was a key speaker.

The research project

Earlier in the year, from 11 to 13 July, scholars from across the region met at the Gulf Research Centre, University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, to discuss research they are undertaking as part of a project on “The Leading Role of Gulf Higher Education in Achieving Sustainability and Addressing Climate Change”.

The project’s co-directors are Al’Abri and Dr Elizabeth Buckner, assistant professor of higher education in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada. The research meeting discussed a dozen commissioned papers and brainstormed the topic.

The research ranges across the six Gulf countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – and from macro to micro perspectives that look at what universities are doing regarding education for sustainable development, how they might help governments to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and how they can lead climate action.

Globally, the workshop abstract points out, “higher education systems are being called on to support worldwide efforts to achieve sustainability and combat climate change. These global trends are also affecting Gulf universities, who are now embracing this new mandate.”

However, says the project research description, Gulf universities face the particular challenge of being located in countries that are the highest per capita carbon emitters in the world, as well as the general challenge of a concept of sustainability that remains “abstract, complex and multidimensional”.

It continues: “Sustainability has become a buzzword that is used by policy-makers, scholars, scientists, journalists and the public alike, due to its impact and significance. Scholars have worried that this will increasingly result in ‘greenwashing’ – meaning commitments to sustainability that are not substantiated by action. These concepts have received significant attention from higher education researchers globally but less so in the Gulf region.”

Some early research impressions

While Al’Abri was on sabbatical at the University of Toronto, before returning to Oman at the end of August, he worked with Elizabeth Buckner, who is also interested in education for sustainability. With COP28 coming up in UAE, it was a good time to produce research on higher education and sustainability in the Gulf.

A call for papers attracted around 50 ideas and proposals, from which about a dozen were selected. The papers explore how universities and higher education systems are engaged with sustainability within their missions of teaching, research and community service.

“We ended up choosing participants from across the Gulf countries. We wanted to look at higher education systems overall, at the institutional level and sometimes programme level, and also at different topics such as education for sustainable development, for climate change, for environment protection, for global citizenship,” says Al’Abri.

The project leaders are currently reviewing the papers, and once they are completed the research will be published by Springer as an edited book, hopefully next year.

The researchers are finding that there is much still to be done in the region in terms of higher education advancing sustainability, Al’Abri tells University World News.

“What we can see now is scattered efforts, I would say, and also sometimes work from specialists. But reading the papers and being from the region, I don’t see much. I wouldn’t generalise, but at least in the public universities.”

In the private sector in the Gulf, there are (especially) international universities that have sustainability efforts under way. “But in public universities or private institutions owned by investors from the region, this is less the case,” says Al’Abri.

“We need to see more. We are one of the regions in the world that is really dependent on oil. Universities have a big role to play in advancing sustainability, and they have the intellectual capital to make a difference through research and teaching.

“But in the end, you also need policies and systems and efforts from the top leadership, of the higher education system overall and of universities, to support sustainability efforts. It’s not enough to be kind of interested in climate change, or in an area that you want to research.” Alongside strategies and frameworks, financial and technical support is needed.

There are major efforts, such as the Center for Environmental Studies and Research at Sultan Qaboos University, which conducts research into areas such as air pollution. “But I feel like we need alignment – we need to work intentionally towards climate change – towards all those hot topics in the world’s sustainability agenda,” Al’Abri argues.

He is walking the talk. Research he published this year, for instance, has shed light on the incorporation of global citizenship principles and concepts in schools and education policies in Oman – global citizenship is Al’Abri major research interest.

In future, he intends turning what is learned in the research project into action on the ground: he is seeking funding for a project that will research and promote sustainability and climate mitigation activities in universities across the Gulf.

Al’Abri says researchers in the social sciences “have the ideas, we have the thoughts”, but governments and universities remain more interested in supporting sciences and engineering. Just being able to do research is an uphill battle. Indeed, neglect of social sciences continues – globally – despite there being wide acknowledgment that sustainability will not be achieved without the contributions of all fields of knowledge.

It is frustrating for researchers to spend months producing research proposals that six months later are turned down, Al’Abri said. “We have to compete, but here in this region, maybe 90% of research projects supported are science-based.” He is looking at ways for his research project to produce not only research but outcomes such as training or student activities around sustainability, to make supporting it more attractive.

Higher education in Oman

Oman’s higher education system comprises two public universities and dozens of private institutions, and enrols around 35,000 students. The country’s population is nearly five million people, around 40% of them expats mostly from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, according to the Oman Daily Observer.

The flagship public Sultan Qaboos University was pledged to the country by the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and the first students were enrolled in 1986. The university is generously funded by the government and has nine colleges and a full range of undergraduate and postgraduate studies. The second public institution is the University of Technology and Applied Sciences.

Sultan Qaboos University is fortunate to have strong human resources in terms of researchers, says Al’Abri, as well as good facilities, laboratories and equipment. “We have been able to work in different areas of sustainability, and have the centre for environmental studies as well as other research centres, for instance in water, which are related to sustainability.

“Higher education in Oman is now trying to go regional and global through rankings and other means. But until this moment universities are serving local and national systems through research.” However, these efforts are dispersed and isolated.

“What Oman needs now is an institutional movement and framework for the inclusion of sustainability, climate change and related topics, through an action plan or an executive plan that sets and monitors targets,” says Al’Abri.

Within universities there should be systems – such as ‘buddy’ networks, sustainability centres and committees – that support wide and deep engagement with sustainability issues. “If we don’t do much at universities, I don’t expect society to be responsive to sustainability efforts.”

Sometimes, work around sustainability must fit in with what already exists. For example, Al’Abri researches SDG 4 and SDG 4.7, which covers education for global citizenship. “Because of my personal interest, I also try to impact upon programmes here.”

‘Global citizenship’ is an elective course, not only for the education department but for all interested students, and they come from all colleges – from medicine to engineering. “What is needed,” Al’Abri concludes, “is more intentional embedding of sustainability across the curriculum and institution”.

Intentional action by education systems and universities could kick-start a far more impactful role for higher education in advancing sustainability across the region.