Written by Jim Lusted, Learning Designer
I recently attended a workshop hosted by Northampton Students’ Union (SU) and facilitated by the National Union of Students (NUS) where SU staff, academics and student representatives were introduced to a project called the ‘Greener Curriculum’. This is certainly a more catchy title than the more commonly used term Education for Sustainable Development – shortened to ESD – which represents an area of activity gaining increasing prominence across the HE sector.
What is sustainability?
At the start of the workshop we were asked to define ‘sustainability’. Most of us immediately came up with environmental issues such as recycling, creating less waste, energy efficiency and so on, but we were also encouraged to consider the social and economic aspects of sustainability that we might not immediately recognise. This makes up what has been termed the ‘3 pillars’ of sustainability, or the ‘triple bottom line’ of people, planet and profit.
This holistic approach is reflected in the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were adopted in 2015 to commit nation states to take action not only on high profile ‘green’ issues like climate change, but also concerns such as social equality, poverty, protecting life (human and non-human), and ensuring a quality education for all.
Education and sustainability
These are all unarguably worthy causes, but what role might universities play in promoting sustainability? The workshop asked us to consider this in relation to our own circumstances at Northampton. The NUS defines ESD as ‘education that aims to give students the knowledge and skills to live and work sustainably’, and their vision behind ESD is to ensure students leave higher education being part of the solution rather than the problem when it comes to tackling some of the big issues mentioned above.
The NUS have commissioned research that shows that two thirds of students want to have sustainability issues embedded into their programmes:
“Sustainable development is something universities should actively incorporate and promote.”
Students want to engage with the big challenges of our times through their studies – be it environmental, social or economic – and they want to explore ways they positively influence the world around them.
Education for sustainable development @ University of Northampton
As the workshop progressed, many of the participants noted the apparent similarities between the guiding principles of ESD and the ideals that underpin Northampton’s status as an AshokaU ‘Changemaker’ campus. Indeed, one of the manifesto commitments of a Changemaker campus refers explicitly to sustainability:
“Operating in socially and environmentally conscious ways to model changemaking for students and other institutions and contribute to the vitality of people and the planet”
We felt that Northampton might be particularly well suited to embedding ESD into the curriculum when channelled explicitly through the Changemaker agenda. This academic year, as part of the UMF assessment review, all modules have been required to articulate revised learning outcomes, including some directly attributed to Changemaker values. This gives teaching staff a real chance to reflect on how they are embedding such values into their curriculum and where they are providing students with opportunities to explore some core principles of sustainability in their studies.
Embedding ESD in the curriculum – some ideas
We were given a number of useful resources and tips during the workshop to help consider how and where ESD could be embedded into teaching practice and curricula. Firstly, although some courses may be more aligned to ESD principles than others, like the social sciences (indeed, courses like Geography are likely to have sustainability as a core topic), we were encouraged to consider how every subject has the potential to include ESD perspectives. A really useful A-Z guide, called #sustainabilityAtoZ has been produced by the NUS to showcase examples across the breadth of academic disciplines where ESD has been embedded into programmes. Similarly, a website called www.dissertationsforgood.org.uk has recently been set up by the NUS as an attempt to try to bring together dissertation students with local and national organisations – with a view to creating dissertation topics and projects that can have a direct impact on the ‘real world’.
The future for ESD
It seems like many of the big issues facing the HE sector at the moment – debates about ‘value for money’, student satisfaction, graduate employment and so on – lend themselves to ESD being given ever higher profile in future higher education policy and curriculum design. Our workshop discussed several examples of universities across England who had undertaken big reviews of their own university wide curricula (much like our UMF review) to better align graduate attributes and skills more closely to ESD principles such as social responsibility and impact. With all this in mind, I expect we will be hearing much more about the idea of a ‘greener curriculum’. I personally really welcome the renewed interest developing a social conscience among students through their studies, and at Northampton in particular I see a real opportunity for us to creatively explore the ways in which ESD values can help bring the ‘Changemaker’ agenda into our teaching at the University.