And we regret the process of our age … (ILiKETRAiNS)

By Prof Stephen Martin. Epic tales of floods (climate change), knowledge, wisdom and uncertainty set the context to this ambitious CD recording by the Leeds based indie group-ILiKETRAiNS.

Released at a time when the world’s leaders were struggling to come to terms with the impact of widening global austerity, major conflict zones and catastrophic and unpredictable weather systems in virtually all parts of the globe, the tracks explore what this might mean for humanity.

How do we respond to “tipping points”, when situations move from stability to instability as human activity crosses planetary boundaries, such as elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations leading to climate change? Is there a path towards more resilience, adaptation and renewal in the face of such unprecedented and accelerating change around the world? And what does this mean for Universities and the students enrolling in the 21 Century? Some high profile academics – the “apostles of change” – argue, for the most part convincingly, that education for sustainable development (ESD) can and should play an important part in developing the competencies and attributes of those who we need to “see the Deep”- meaning they who can begin to critically analyse and reflect on the meaning of sustainability and how they might contribute to resolving our increasingly un-sustainable world.

The cataclysmic effects of climate change are already wreaking havoc in our” global garden”

In itself sustainable development is not new. According to Genesis, Creation was launched with a statement of sustainable development policy; man was set in the garden “to work it and take care of it”. But whilst man has responded impressively to the first part of this commission, he has taken much longer to grasp the implications of the second. Indeed it is only within the last decade or so that the complexity of sustainability has become better understood. As I talk to people who grasp some of the urgency surrounding the impact of our current un- sustainable lifestyles, I am constantly reminded that there is still scope for scientific and public disagreement about probabilities, timescales, and detailed causation and response. And yet the cataclysmic effects of climate change are already wreaking havoc in our” global garden” (see: The Climate Reality Project; 24hourly reports on climate change from numerous locations around the world.

It is tempting to cast education in the role of prophet or evangelist

Many have argued that our universities have a key role to play in moving us to a more sustainable future. But in defining the contribution our universities can play it important not to claim too much. It is tempting to cast education in the role of prophet or evangelist, charged with achieving a radical shift in society’s values. This view, however, entails some controversial assumptions about the role and purpose of education; and quite aside from the issue of principle, it is far from clear what such an approach would achieve in practice. The prophet’s usual fate, after all, is to be ignored. Values and attitudes-individual, industrial, public-are all moulded by many influences (for example, Government policy and the media). To say this is not at all to suggest that the University sector’s treatment of sustainability issues is not a significant strategic issue.

If the 2.5 million students currently enrolled in UK Universities graduate with the skills and attributes to help society become more sustainable, then they will have undoubtedly contributed. And it is right that universities should seek to lead this agenda.

However, as has been stressed by Lord Browne’s recent review of funding in higher education, they must maintain due contact with the aspirations of their clients. These aspirations were recently confirmed by a series of national surveys,* commissioned by the Higher Education Academy in 2010, 2011 and 2012 of nearly 15,000 university students which found that almost 80% believe that sustainability skills are important for their future employment.

But all of this raises some important questions:

For example are our universities systematically creating the conditions that offer under graduates the context, understanding, skills and values that will prepare them for the challenges we face in creating a more sustainable future? And do the 180,000 academic staff have the expertise and capabilities to create these conditions? We currently have no real mechanism for assessing this in any meaningful way. Even though the Higher Education Funding Council for England( HEFCE) undertook a strategic review of sustainable development in HE in England in 2007 which covered some aspects of teaching and learning this is outdated and unlikely to be repeated with the current emphasis on budget cuts.

The Melbourne Model

The Higher Education Academy has initiated an ambitious but relatively small scale pilot with 8 universities called the Green Academy – A Curriculum for Tomorrow, which aims to promote new approaches to the curriculum. It is fundamentally aimed at achieving what are described as “Graduate Attributes for the 21 Century” after a radical curriculum restructuring programme carried out by the University of Melbourne- which became known as the Melbourne Model. Harvard, Hong Kong and Yale have undergone similar reforms along with a small number of universities in the UK: Aberdeen, Manchester and Southampton. The Melbourne Model is based on 5 well defined graduate attributes: Academic Excellence; Knowledge across Disciplines; Leadership in Communities; Attuned to Cultural Diversity; and Active Global Citizenship.

International learning experiences

Two of these attributes directly focus on international learning experiences. Graduates of the University are expected to have an understanding of and respect for social and cultural diversity and value different cultures. They are expected to accept social and civic responsibilities and be advocates for improving the sustainability of their environment and have a broad global understanding coupled with a high regard for human rights, equity and ethics. Interdisciplinarity is emphasised especially where complex issues require more than one discipline to resolve them. This is exemplified by 2 programmes:

  • An Ecological History of Humanity;
  • Food for a Healthy Planet.

Throughout their undergraduate programme students benefit from exposure and experience of more than one way of knowing and seeing the world. Another good example is provided by the University of British Columbia whose courses seek to achieve four graduate attributes whereby the graduate demonstrates:

  • holistic systems thinking;
  • sustainability knowledge;
  • aware of, and integrates across, intellectual constructs;
  • acts to create positive change.

Given the current pressure on graduate employment and limited future job prospects, preparing future graduates for these uncertainties as well as those of global sustainability –is an essential element of a university learning experience and one which the University of Worcester is committed to supporting and leading through its programme of professional and academic development. Without this kind of support future generations of graduates are in real danger of becoming displaced from society and losing their capacity as global citizens.

Prof Stephen Martin
Former Chair of the HEA Education for Sustainable Development Advisory Group and Co-Founder and President of the charity-Change Agents UK.
(Established in 1996, Change Agents UK is an environmental education charity that drives projects with young people, graduates, business and communities working and learning together for a sustainable future).

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9 years ago

A summary of a broad and complex set of issues but made easy to follow. I particularly like the last section from University of British Columbia. It is quite the contradiction that the IT industry for example has systems thinking embedded in their knowledge core but it is an industry, particularly the consumer side that persists in planned obsolescence. It is more about the individual will to engage in positive change. In all the bad news of the recession, how do you create that?