Ready to go the distance?

April 14, 2006

Students are keen to embrace a sustainable future, says Brian Chalkley, but transforming learning cultures requires a marathon effort, not a mad dash

Education for sustainable development (ESD) is an idea whose time has come.

Although there have been false dawns, a powerful combination of circumstances is at last moving ESD up the agenda. Universities and colleges' greatest contribution will be through enabling students to develop the knowledge, skills and values that society will need for real progress towards sustainability.

ESD (like key skills) works best where it is embedded in a discipline rather than externally imposed or "bolted on". In many subjects, this is not as difficult as it might seem. Two years ago, the Higher Education Academy established a project aimed at supporting, promoting and developing ESD in the curriculum. Now most of the 24 subject centres are engaged in this. Subject centres seek to raise the general profile of learning and teaching and to encourage innovation in the disciplines they serve.

In some disciplines, notably geography, environmental science, architecture and civil engineering, sustainability is often a well-established part of the curriculum. In others, however, ESD represents relatively unexplored territory and offers exciting opportunities. Already work is starting to bear fruit. The English subject centre has highlighted how the study of literature can illuminate themes such as consumerism, the value of nature and landscapes, and the relationship between eco-criticism and creative writing. The subject centre for philosophical and religious studies is promoting learning about sustainability from ethical and theological perspectives.

The subject centres have an important role to play in raising ESD's profile, in disseminating ideas and materials and in building staff capacity and expertise. Conferences, workshops, publications and websites are being used, as is liaison with organisations such as Forum for the Future, the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges and Higher Education Environmental Performance Improvement. In addition, the academy has produced ESD briefing papers for employers and senior university policymakers. It is also strengthening its links with the two new ESD Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (Cetls) at Kingston and Plymouth universities. Both Cetls have ambitious plans for achieving university-wide excellence in this field and becoming institutional models of national - even international - significance.

This surge of activity is encouraging. But ESD is a marathon, not a sprint.

Higher education has many other competing priorities so building ESD commitment and expertise will take time, and some vice-chancellors may see it as political propaganda rather than an attempt to create an informed citizenry. Moreover, despite the work of the subject centres, the scale of the challenge far exceeds the sector's capacity to deal with it.

Many questions remain unanswered. Who will deliver the funding councils'

ambitions within institutions? Who will offer guidance on the relationship of sustainability policies to teaching and learning? How will understanding be developed among university leaders, pro vice-chancellors for learning and teaching, educational developers and staff responsible for curriculum design and delivery? How will the voices of students and employers be heard?

Although the sector has made considerable progress on issues such as energy use and recycling, in terms of student learning we are at a relatively early stage. While there are pockets of good practice, we fall well short of the cultural shift required. Increasingly, universities will have to produce not only the technical specialists equipped to resolve particular sustainability problems, but also the political and business leaders and the informed professionals and citizens who can contribute to more sustainable ways of living and working. For higher education, this is both a major challenge and a unique opportunity.

Brian Chalkley is director of the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences.
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