Uchechukwu Okere asks: is education on sustainable development still an optional extra in higher education institutions?
The greatest contribution higher education institutions (HEIs) can make to society is to equip learners with the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute solutions to the world’s problems. Sustainable development has come to represent the future we all want – one where global challenges have been dealt with through collective effort. Fortunately, the major drivers of higher education agenda, such as employability and the desire to offer a transformational education, provide a rationale for education on sustainable development.
People seek higher education for multiple reasons, including passion for a subject and intellectual stimulation, but preparing people for work is also a significant factor. This is widely acknowledged by professional bodies, employers and students. Pressure from these stakeholders has resulted in HEIs taking active steps to equip students with subject-specific knowledge for different job roles and the ‘soft’ skills needed for career success.
“It would be a lost opportunity if HEIs did not intentionally equip learners with the skills to change business culture”
Employers increasingly want graduates who are capable of sustainable practice. This is an important progression from the not-too-distant past, when some professions did not think they had much to do with sustainability. HEIs must go beyond equipping students for traditional employment – they must embed in their curricula the knowledge, skills and attributes required for sustainable practice. All students should be encouraged to appreciate the implications of sustainable practice in their chosen field.
Many students will consider sustainable professional practice an important part of their education – especially as their age group is probably the most vocal when it comes to sustainability issues.
Of the four purposes of education identified by Stephen Sterling – socialisation, vocational, humanist and transformational – the latter resonates with many people involved in higher education. The opportunity to be part of a system that equips learners with the tools to make transformational changes is one that many consider a calling, and motivation to remain in the system.
In addition, consider that the most significant impacts on our society and environment are caused by businesses through unsustainable supply chains, poor resource and environmental management practices, unethical trade and employment laws and so on. HEIs supply the future workforce of these businesses – it would be a lost opportunity if they did not intentionally equip learners with the skills to change business culture. We must ask whether we are truly offering transformational education if our students cannot or do not know that they can contribute to an equal and sustainable future.
Many programmes equip students for sustainable development, but without the use of relevant terminology, students may not have the confidence to put themselves forward when presented with opportunities for sustainable change. Deliberate focus on education for sustainable development will focus students’ minds on sustainability challenges in their fields of study, and help them think through complex solutions. For many HEIs, embedding sustainability across the curriculum is now a given – the rationale for all institutions to follow suit is strong.
Dr Uchechukwu Okere is academic lead for environmental management, University of Derby Online Learning.