Sustainability ‘must be at the core of teaching’

Future steps require a future, first-time China summit hears

March 31, 2019
Solar panels

Improvements in Chinese higher education will mean little unless the country’s universities embrace a global obligation to educate students in sustainable development, a conference has heard.

In a heartfelt address to Times Higher Education’s inaugural China Universities Forum, Gong Ke, president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, said that educators were duty-bound to infuse learners with the skills of sustainable development.

In a panel session exploring the steps required to ensure teaching excellence in China, Professor Gong said that the topic implied a focus on the future. “The question is, do we have a future as humanity? We are facing serious problems around the sustainability of humankind. If we really want a future, the only way out is sustainable development,” he said.

Citing former United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, Professor Gong said that the current generation was the first with the opportunity to end poverty and the last that could end climate change.

He said that universities had a role in both objectives, with the fourth of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals – “quality education” – mandating education in sustainability not only for the environment but also “lifestyles, human rights, gender equality…global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity”.

“The world will be a better place in 2030 if we succeed in our objectives,” Professor Gong told the forum. “But we have not fulfilled this important task as it is required.”

Sustainability’s three dimensions – economic, societal and environmental – necessitated comprehensive, multi-disciplinary solutions, Professor Gong said. “Our universities have not carried out such comprehensive education courses as required by the UN agenda,” he warned.

He said forum host Nankai University, where he is former president, had attempted to rectify this through its new Institute for Ecological Civilisation. Academics from departments as diverse as politics, law, environmental engineering, chemistry, history and information technology have jointly fashioned a course on sustainable development, which has been posted online.

Within a semester, almost 36,000 students across China have undertaken the course, with about 96 per cent completing the assessment. Nankai has also established an educational consortium for sustainable development involving more than 160 Chinese higher education institutions. “We still lack international cooperation,” Professor Gong noted.

He said that a tendency to treat science as “discretes” was hampering sustainable development education, which required a vision of disciplines as diverse as physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology and social sciences as “a chain that cannot be broken”.

“Unfortunately, today, the chain is broken,” he said. “A very important task for us is to link the chain and support sustainable development.”

Professor Gong’s four-step challenge for China’s universities starts with boosting education in sustainable development, promoting interdisciplinary collaboration and training the trainers. “We have to train every teacher to engage in the education of sustainable development and to merge [it] into different courses,” he said.

“Finally, we have to change the paradigm of teaching to unify thinking and doing.”  

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