Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Education for Sustainability in Universities: Challenges and Opportunities for Change

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Education for Sustainability in Universities: Challenges and Opportunities for Change

Article excerpt

Universities are facing what are arguably the biggest changes and challenges to the sector in its history (Altbach, Reisberg, & Rumbley, 2009; Ernst & Young, 2012). Among the challenges cited are: globalisation; increasing numbers ('massification') and diversification of students, and the subsequent changes to the objectives of university education; financial pressures and changing economic situations, including privatisation of higher education; the changing nature of knowledge and thus changes in the ownership, dissemination and creation of knowledge; and the pervasive impacts of technology (Altbach et al., 2009; Andrade, 2011; Biggs & Tang, 2011; Ernst & Young, 2012). It is within this context that sustainability educators are arguing for a transformational change of university curricula to contribute to more sustainable futures.

More than 20 years since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, and following the United Nations Environment Program's Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014), we do not need to revisit the case for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in universities. Rather, we are left to wonder why, after all this time and discussion, ESD, or Education for Sustainability (EfS) (1) does not have a more prominent position in the curricula of universities. In 2011, Tilbury commented that, worldwide, 'the majority of the universities engaged with sustainability are preoccupied with the greening of the campus' (p. 19). Specifically considering the universities' curriculum, Tilbury went on to conclude that '(t)here is evidence to suggest that HE (higher education) does not understand the true nature of the challenge. ... Curriculum and pedagogy, which are at the core of HE experiences, need to be transformed if universities and colleges are to make a meaningful contribution to sustainable development' (2011, p. 24), although some specific local instances of progress were acknowledged. Also reflecting on the status of EfS globally, lack of curriculum action was noted by Sterling and Maxey (2013, p. 6), who commented that:

   (f)or many universities ... the overarching context of
   sustainability ... is simply not recognised. ... (greening campus
   operations) is valuable and necessary, but not sufficient, and
   often only marginally influences curriculum and learning--long
   recognised as the most intractable part of the university's

Moving to the institutional scale, Katayama and Gough (2008, p. 421) find that:

   Commitment to sustainable development at the university level does
   not guarantee uniformly committed teaching and the existence of
   committed teaching is not associated with increased institutional
   commitment in any very clear way.

While these conclusions refer to their study of British universities, indications are that the situation is similar in Australia (Christie, Miller, Cooke, & White, 2015; Lang, Thomas, & Wilson, 2006). So, while there may be interest from universities, there is no clear evidence that EfS has been absorbed across the suite of educational offerings at any Australian university, or that EfS is an influential player at a majority of our universities. This is not to dismiss the impressive changes that have been achieved by many individuals (noted by Christie et al., 2015) in operations and academic areas, and the moves by universities to engage with EfS. However, in the light of assessments of the status of EfS and its rate of implementation, the factors that influence this implementation require analysis. Those who have been involved in promoting EfS for some time are likely to feel frustrated or worse at the low level of change that has been achieved to date. Newcomers to the EfS territory, who are passionate to see change, may be perplexed as to why EfS is not central to their university. We are also concerned at the slow rate of change, yet when we look at the complexities involved with introducing change into universities, it is commendable that some have achieved even subject/course level change. …

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