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The role of higher education in addressing sustainability

A new UN commissioned sustainability report, Higher Education’s Commitment to Sustainability: From Understanding to Action, focuses on the transformation of higher education towards sustainability and the role of the sector in building sustainable communities.

In this extract from her opening chapter, Professor Daniella Tilbury addresses questions about global commitment and progress in the higher education sector.

A history of higher education reveals that universities and colleges have been at the forefront of creating as well as deconstructing paradigms. They have led social change through scientific breakthroughs but also through the education of intellectuals, leaders and future-makers.

Professor Lord Stern of Brentford, an opinion leader in climate change, connects these important roles to addressing sustainability challenges of our day. Higher education, he argues, can change the world through training and expanding young minds; researching answers to challenges and informing public policy; showing its own understanding and commitment through careful campus management; and by being a responsible employer and active member of the business and local communities. In an era of globalisation, universities and colleges also have an impact through their global procurement, offshore partnerships as well as through the education of national and international students. Their potential influence on economic development, poverty alleviation but also health and community building should not be overlooked.

This catalyst potential needs grounding, however, in a context where universities and colleges are currently seen as contributing to the sustainability crisis and reproducing the paradigms which underpin our exploitative relationships with people and environment.

The literature argues that sustainability challenges the current paradigms, structures as well as predominant practices across social sectors including higher education. It is therefore not surprising to discover that universities and colleges that have committed to sustainability are struggling to meaningfully contribute to it.

In practice, it is relatively simple to initiate projects which address key sustainability issues but these tend to engage minority groups, failing to reach the core of staff, students and stakeholders or indeed influence the culture of the institutions. Equally the commissioning of a new sustainable building or development of specialist course in the area is providing some opportunity to shape minds and practices but attempts to mainstream this agenda across higher education has so far failed to have impact.

To make sense of this challenge, one needs to appreciate that sustainability is more a journey than a checklist as worldviews pervading thinking and practice need to be questioned. It engages universities and colleges in a quest for interdisciplinarity, participatory pedagogies, “real world” research as well as the opening of institutional boundaries so that the notion of sustainable communities is extended beyond university and college walls. The difficulty is that these need to occur in a connected way. The systemic complexity of this agenda challenges university silos, corridors of power as well as the criteria and processes of decision-making.

Furthermore, sustainability is underpinned by democratic and participatory processes of change; cross-departmental (and faculty) teaching and research; as well as a redefinition of the teacher student, the leader-employee and the academia-community relationships.

In other words, the transformation of a university towards sustainable development requires a realignment of all its activities with a critically reflective paradigm which also supports the construction of more sustainable futures.

This is an edited extract of Professor Daniella Tilbury’s opening chapter for Higher Education for Sustainability: A Global Overview of Commitment and Progress. The chapter reviews teaching and learning, campus and community engagement, leadership as well as research activities, drawing on key research evidence from the literature and reflecting on the trends evidenced in the regional reports, to identify pathways for the future action.

The full chapter, with references, can be accessed at: Tilbury, D. (2011). Higher Education for Sustainability: A Global Overview of Commitment and Progress. In GUNI (Ed.), Higher Education in the World 4. Higher Education’s Commitment to Sustainability: from Understanding to Action. GUNI: Barcelona. (pp. 18-28) (pdf).

The fourth volume in a series published by the Global Universities Network for Innovation (GUNI) in collaboration with the United Nations University, the report includes papers by 85 authors from 38 countries and provides a map of how the regions are advancing this agenda. The regional picture is complemented with national and local case studies of experiences on thematic areas.

GUNI’s mission is to strengthen the role of higher education in society, contributing to the renewal of the visions, missions and policies of higher education across the world under a vision of public service, relevance and social responsibility.

More information about the book…


User comments

  1. Tim says:

    Excellent opener summarising some of the key issues that all kinds of institutions – not just universities – struggle with in coming to terms with the revolutionary nature of sustainablility philosophy and action. I am about to present a talk about some of these exact issues so am pleased to hear Prof. Tilbury also espousing ‘cultural shifts’ and what for me is acutally trans-discplinarity. Sadly I do not have time to be reading the whole report but I would be interested to know, given the above critique, what are we going to be doing about it? I always find its easy to spot the problems but far more difficult to solve them.

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