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Taking the Long View - Sustainability in Tertiary Education

Taking the Long View - Sustainability needed in uni education

By Gord Stewart

“Many things on which our future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity.It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. Rather, it is largely the work of people with BAs, BScs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs.”

Noted academic and environmentalist, David W Orr, made the above observation. Harsh words, perhaps, but why beat around the bush.

You’d swear he was talking about our current National Government, given their policies relating to the likes of climate change, biodiversity, and plastics in the environment. He actually penned those words back in 1994 in his thoughtful book. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect.

In spite of the good work of David Orr and other academic leaders over the years, coverage of sustainability issues remains a minor, even marginal, part of the university curriculum. Thus, it’s highly possible for students to complete a university degree and have little idea of the kind of world they are graduating into.

With hopes of change and improvement, a recent study looked at how well New Zealand universities are integrating sustainability into the curriculum and what leading overseas institutions could teach us.

Nine innovative universities in five countries were studied. Of the group, Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden has the longest running commitment to sustainability across the curriculum, growing out of a policy established there in 1985.

Now 10 years into its efforts, The University of Plymouth in the UK has nearly half its courses with an embedded or major sustainability element. At Emory University in the US, sustainability issues are now integrated into the likes of nursing, mathematics and language courses – not disciplines one would normally expect.

Macquarie University in Australia, the UK’s Nottingham Trent University and the University of British Columbia in Canada have innovative training programmes. They provide faculty members with the knowledge, skills and resources needed to integrate sustainability into what they teach.

Arizona State University in the US and Dalhouse University in Canada have taken it a step further. ASU established its School of Sustainability in 2006, while Dal opened the doors of its College of Sustainability in 2009. Australian National University has its Fenner School of Environment and Society. The three of them offer a range of sustainability degrees and diplomas.

All nine universities emphasise experiential learning in sustainability education. They use the campus and surrounding community as a ‘living laboratory’. Student internships and work placements with partner organisations are common.

Developments at New Zealand’s universities pale in comparison. The research suggests that less than 10 percent of current courses would address sustainability in even the most modest of ways.

Progress is evident, but it’s perhaps best captured in a comment made by David Blackstein of the US National Council on Science and the Environment when he said: “The glaciers are melting faster than the curriculum is changing.”

To its credit, Lincoln University has a foundation paper and second-year core paper compulsory for all students (though with changes there they are under threat).

The shining light looking ahead is Victoria University of Wellington. Last year the university created the position of assistant vice-chancellor (sustainability). A ‘Sustainability 101’ paper will soon be offered and, in time, there are hopes for sweeping changes.

Why bother with all of this? Three very good reasons: Properly embedding sustainability across the curriculum will lead to improved quality and relevance of education for all enrolled students. It will better prepare domestic students for meaningful work at home and abroad. And it will strengthen offerings to attract foreign students in a competitive international education marketplace.

As higher education faces rising costs, funding challenges, and disruptions through the likes of open online courses, a focus on sustainability could provide a source of hope and opportunity for institutional change and a renewed sense of mission.

Returning to David Orr. Reflecting on the immense possibilities, he has said, “Educational institutions committed to the real work of building a sustainable and decent human future and willing to learn what that requires of us would be exciting and challenging places. More to the point, they would equip the rising generation to see that the world is rich with possibilities and prepare them to act competently in that light.”


Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry, and non-profit organisations.


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