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Educating Earth-literate leaders

March 1, 2003 12:00 AM
By Stephen Martin and Rolf Jucker in Challenge

Stephen Martin and Rolf Jucker argue for the Higher Education sector to embrace sustainability

Amongst the many serious issues facing higher education (HE) and the new Secretary of State, it is a fair bet that sustainability will not be one of them! Charles Clarke acknowledges that HE is a "potentially controversial issue" for the government, but then so is the challenge of how society handles the destructive effects of human activities on the Earth. Whatever else one might think about the success or failure of the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, it is clear that political leadership the world over is incapable of rising to the challenges of sustainability. And yet in all likelihood most of the hundred or so world leaders who attended will have a higher education degree, often from one of the world's most prestigious universities.

This raises some serious questions. Why is it that those people who contribute most to wreaking havoc on poor communities and the Earth's ecosystems are those with BAs, MScs, and Ph.D.s and not the 'ignorant' poor from the South? Why is the illiteracy amongst the world's political class about how the world works as a physical system, about the necessary policies for sustainability and the economics suitable for a planet with limited resources so widespread? Why is it so rare that we encounter in our leaders the qualities needed to enable sustainability: humility, respect for all forms of life and future generations, precaution and wisdom? And, more worryingly, on the basis of their performance, what hope of improvement is there for future leaders?

The fact that the higher education sector is seriously failing society by producing leaders incapable of addressing our most pressing problems should trigger some critical consideration about the fundamental role of HE in society, based on three key assumption:

First, if HE is the nursery of tomorrow's leaders and educates most of the people who develop and manage society's institutions, then the sector bears 'profound responsibilities to increase the awareness, knowledge, technologies, and tools to create a sustainable future', as the Talloires Declaration (signed by many of the world's university leaders) stated in 1995. This clearly implies that graduates of every discipline (whether as engineers, teachers, politicians, lawyers, architects, biologists, bankers, managers, or tour operators, etc.) will need a sound working knowledge of sustainability.

Secondly, universities the world over are regarded as the centres of the most advanced knowledge. They should, therefore, through their teaching and their institutional practice embody role models for the wider society and be microcosms of best practice for the future.

And lastly: 'Higher education institutions are allowed academic freedom and a tax-free status to receive public and private resources', says Anthony Cortese from Second Nature, the leading US institution in education for sustainability. In exchange for this privileged position society rightly expects from universities that they contribute as much as possible to the solution of society's problems.

Add to these reflections the facts that sustainable development is now a mainstream policy issue in the UK and the EU and that there is an increasing demand for graduates with a broad interdisciplinary training in sustainable development and problem solving. Does this not suggest that we should develop strategies on how to turn the HE sector into sustainable institutions?

Such strategies would need to be concerned with all aspects of HE and find answers to the following questions:

How is the ecological footprint of these institutions shaping up to sustainability criteria?

Is the sector promoting education for sustainable development across the curriculum?

Do the Colleges and Universities fulfil their role in communities and promote sustainable development through outreach and collaboration with industry?

What value has the research done in HE when considered in a sustainability framework (i.e. does it contribute to solving the most urgent problems or does it boost unsustainable practices)?

Finally, what do the graduates of these institutions do in the world? Are they contributing to the building of a sustainable society or are they, as one leading commentator says, 'part of the rear guard of a vandal economy'?

There is no question that the HE sector needs to embrace sustainability as urgently as the political and economic sectors and society as a whole. Undoubtedly, there is some good work already under way: the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) has been a pioneering group in the UK, as has the Forum for the Future through its HEPS (Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability) programme. The funding councils are increasingly considering sustainability issues, partly as a result of pressures from bodies such as the Welsh Assembly. A number of professional bodies are beginning to include sustainability criteria in their accreditation procedures for degree programmes. Universities UK and SCOP (Standing Conference of Principals) have just established a committee on sustainability in Higher Education, which met for the first time in early October. This might be the opportunity for leaders within the sector to take this agenda forward.

What we really need is a review of the situation in the sector and a strategy to achieve effective change in mainstream educational thinking, policy and practice. We should not only determine where the sector is at present, but also engage as many institutions as possible in the review process, making sure that it is driven by their needs. A lot of expertise has been built up over the past decade, even though it might only be visible in small pockets of good practice. To multiply these efforts we need co-operation and partnership, not only between HE institutions, but also with industry, local authorities and society at large.

This bottom-up approach has to be complemented by Government commitment to a sustainable HE sector, and there is no better way of doing this than linking funding to performance measured against sustainability indicators. Why is the health sector asked to deliver 15% energy savings but not HE? When Charles Clarke starts to ask our Vice-Chancellors and Principals tough questions about sustainability, we might just stand a chance of making a difference to the education of our future leaders. After all, as Minister of State for Education in 1999, it was he who stated that "It (sustainable development) needs to be at the core of the education system".

Stephen Martin is vice-chairman of the Institution of Environmental Sciences and a visiting professor at the Centre for Complexity and Change, The Open University. He is also a member of the Professional Practice for Sustainable Development (PP4SD) Initiative.He was the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Tewkesbury at the last election

Rolf Jucker is responsible for making the University of Wales Swansea more sustainable and has recently published 'Our Common Illiteracy: Education as if People and the Earth Mattered' (2002).