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Sustainable Development and Universities: Institutionalising Sustainable Development into university curricula: Setbacks

 By Sorina Antonescu

HEIs and the greater society: where do they stand?

It is a truth universally acknowledged amongst our government representatives, economists and the mainstream media that we’re living in a time of austerity characterised by economic, social and political shortcomings. Yet, universities are seen as defiant relative to the current state of the world.

At first sight, HEIs seem to thrive; new institutions are being founded and student numbers applying for university courses are constantly on the rise; they are major local and national employers, and governments in developed and developing countries alike deem them crucial in the strive for wealth creation and GDP growth. Only a relatively few existing sources on the other hand, strive to question the fundamental role universities play in the societies that they represent. Any voices outlining the contrary, namely, that universities are in a state of crisis is seen as a notion lining on the verge of the absurd (Cullingford, 2004).

The rise of science parks on university premises and their expanding industrial links, particularly as part of their curricula and research operations, stand as testimony to the fundamental role universities play in the modern economy. At the same time, HEIs are increasingly subject to external control and government interference. In this context, it becomes imperative to ask whether the prevalent competition between universities at the level of funding and research operations, or the fact that increasingly, they are subject to external influence, has had any impact on the foundational role of a university from which stems their their ability to challenge dominant societal trends. While the points discussed so far seem to contradict any suggestion that there is a need to re-assess the role of HEIs in the modern world, it is worth prodding into their past, and touch on some of the values that a university stood for in times preceding our own. 

Historically, the role of HEIs has been to challenge the dominant issues of their times such as religious, socio-cultural, or science-related. At the same time, earlier generations were centred on answering profound questions. These centred on the pursuit of knowledge for a better understanding of the surrounding world and the power of natural elements, at a time when technological breakthroughs had yet to take advent. The purpose of scholarship was to not so much the acquisition of knowledge per se, but rather reaching the core of a problem and the subsequent attempt at finding ways to solve it (Blewitt and Cullingford, 2004; Cortese, 2003; Lozano, 2011; Davis, 2003; Lozano et al., 2011).  

Today, the hegemony of subjects is greater than ever, with new subjects, fields and areas of specialisation enriching the prospectuses of universities across the country. Yet one cannot help feeling that the presiding concern for universities lies in the accumulation of knowledge per se rather in the same way that society has an insatiable thirst for accumulated wealth as framed by an economic system where infinite growth lies at the core of human well-being and poverty eradication.

One potential factor for the changed nature of the modern day university might be found in the gradual replacement of scholarship with the drive for intensive research. The idea of PhDs are a relevant example. According to Cullingford (ibid), the notion of a doctorate was resisted by British universities until the half of the 20th century, on the grounds that it overshadowed activities central to the university, such as scholarship and teaching. This view has little relevance today when research ‘has become the defining characteristic of academics’ (ibid).

While research is pivotal to further human understanding and builds on the already existent scholarship, Cullingford (2004, p.14) highlights the possible implications of contract-dependent research which becomes a means to an end that is predominantly financial. On a less subtle note, ‘there is money in research and this is where the emphasis now lies’ (ibid). Contacts generate income and the research findings have a commercial base evident in the increased number of science parks, industrial links and in the potential for big business that results from the lucrative research findings of graduates-turned-entrepreneurs. 

Another factor that might have influenced the manner in which modern-day universities conduct their operations is the expansion of the student numbers in recent years (Cullingford, 2004). As Cotton (2003) points out, the college experience has expanded from a ‘sage on a stage’ approach to ‘a full enterprise akin to a country club resort complete with all the amenities’ (as cited in Comm and Mathaisel,2005, p.134). Comm and Mathaisel (2005) also argue that aside from instruction and the imparting of knowledge, students are on the look-out for other marks of quality such as up-to-date on-campus accommodation, state of the art facilities and the most recent innovations in technology.

The implications of this campus re-structuring and maintenance lies in the rising costs of operating, offering and in the upkeep of these facilities that enable students to have access to a stimulating environment. This reality, combined with increased cuts in government subsidies and financial packages invariably change the way universities operate, along with their means of fund procurement.

Yet, the underlying changes in the ethos of modern-day universities cannot be reduced solely to aspects of finance without taking into account the ‘focus of control’ (Cullingford, 2004, p.14). The fact that universities receive funding from the state continues to apply despite wide-spread cuts in infrastructure and basic social services across the rest of society. What has changed however, is the expansion of state interference in university affairs. One example involves the implementation of the 1988 Educational Act that swept away bodies such as the Universities Grants Committee that were purposely founded to isolate HEIs from political control (ibid). The Quality Assurance Agency is one instance of what Cullingford (ibid) refers to as a ‘command structure’ of direct control, a symbol of direct government involvement in shaping university curricula. He sets as an example the curriculum for initial teacher training, which despite being the pièce de résistance in the portfolio of many universities, is no longer under university control. This fact runs contrary to the principles outlined in the Robbins Report (1963) which stressed the importance of maintaining the immunity of universities against external forces that could otherwise lead to the diminishment of what some may call the unique privilege of HEIs to challenge the dominant trends of our times.

In light of what has been discussed so far, it is imperative to consider the consequences of such factors and the ways in which these might impact on the ability of HEIs to implement and embed sustainability into their curricula, research, operations and outreach.

At a first glimpse, universities seem to thrive, unhindered by the external world if the number of student output, patents and publications is anything to go by. At the same time, the need to work in sync with the demands of wider society and provide their students-turned-customers with an optimum environment for absorbing knowledge, leads HEIs to become increasingly subject to external controls whether these take the form of investments, inspections, independent agencies, government grants and or other financial packages. All these various factors contribute to the conception of the modern university as increasingly concerned with student employability, careerism, and securing income at the cost of complying with government directives.

  1. SD: Identifying the reasons behind its apparent impracticability in the context of HEIs
  2. Misconceptions around the notion of sustainability and SD

Incorporating sustainability into a university system presents a number of challenges in terms of its implementation in the context of education, research, operations and outreach. The nature of the challenges is two-fold.

The first one is structural and rests primarily on the conservative approach of universities to learning and teaching (Cortese, 2003; Mathaisel and Comm, 2005; Lozano et al., 2011; Didac Ferrer-Balas et al., 2010; Filho, 2000). Higher Education (HE) is organised into highly specialized areas of knowledge and traditional disciplines (Cortese, 2003; Lozano et al., 2011), making it what Comm and Mathaisel (2005, p.134) refer to as ‘one of the most immutable of institutions’. This is also summarised by Blewitt and Cullingford (2004, p.1) who observe that

For good or ill, universities are notoriously conservative creatures despite their apparent liking for internal restructuring. The dominance of disciplinarity remains important in the intellectual organisation of teaching, learning (the cultural reproduction of knowledge) and, perhaps, also research funding. As new areas of learning and research emerge, (…) disciplinarity remains the locus of attention and the intellectual axis for comprehending contemporary developments.

At this point it is worth looking into what Blewitt and Cullingford call ‘internal restructuring’ which mainly captures the increased specialism of subjects and their division into fields of science that have emerged over the years. To a large extent, the ever increasing hegemony of subjects has been possible due to the increased ability of technology and scientific understanding, to prod into areas of infinite depth within the field of physics, chemistry, and medicine but also within linguistics, sociology and other social and science-related fields.

Where universities have remained conservative rests in their tendencies to self-replicate which involves a reliance on reductionist thinking, the kind that can be found in Newtonian and Cartesian models (Lovelock, 2007). Lozano et al. (2011, p.10), define reductionism as ‘the analytical dissection of a thing into its ultimate component parts, followed by regeneration through the re-assembly of its parts’. This runs contrary to the notion of holistic thinking which is explored in Skyttner’s (2001) General Systems Theory and which also happens to be one of the key elements that form the base of a sustainable university framework.  As Cortese (2003, p.16) points out

Interactions between population, human activities, and the environment and strategies, technologies, and policies for a secure, just and environmentally sustainable future are among the most complex and interdependent issues with which society must deal. These issues cross over disciplinary boundaries.

While this may well be the case, the current learning framework of universities lacks the degree of cross-disciplinary collaborative aspect to its learning and teaching that is required to instil a sustainable mind-set for visionary and innovative leaders, business people, economists and other prominent roles in society whose ability to think, act, form links and foster solutions beyond their designated fields is so urgently needed to trigger system-wide behavioural changes.

By contrast, the individual learning and competition that arises from increased subject specialism and monodisciplinarity in HE generate professionals focused on career-building, self-protectionist ideals, rendering them ill-prepared for cooperative efforts (ibid). As long as learning remains fragmented and the faculty unresponsive to other learning approaches except the ones which rest on long-established incentives such as tenure, research and professional practices (Cortese,2003) interdisciplinary collaboration remains challenging to implement within university curricula, research, operations and outreach.

The second factor that renders the process of embedding sustainability at the university level problematic is that of misconception among faculty and academics, facilities staff and the student body on what the process (or processes) of sustainable development entails in the context of HEIs (Filho, 2000).

The next step is then to identify and look into some of the contradictions affecting the implementation of sustainability and sustainable development in HEIs.

a) Sustainability is too broad and abstract a field

This view stems from overusing the term, especially in political rhetoric. It covers everything and nothing at the same time, unless it is narrowed in scope in order for it to become accessible in size, realistic in outcome and practicable when implemented. One example is contextualising sustainability to HE activities that in turn are divided into teaching, research, and outreach to local communities or campus policies. Such policies would involve re-thinking the supply chain and investing in better means to store and reduce consumption of paper, water, electricity use and other primary resources used in the well-running of the institution.

b) There is a lack of formally qualified personnel in the field and sustainability is not a subject per se

The first misconception stems from the conservative notion that a university job is proof of one’s formal qualifications and as such, practical and operational experience come in second; as to the latter, there is a tendency to undermine its importance by not being formally recognised as a field in itself but rather as an optional component that can be embedded in other disciplines. Such is the case at the level of British undergraduate programmes. One concrete example is undergraduate degrees in Chemistry where modules such as ‘The impact of Chemistry’ – which explores the impact of chemistry on individual lives and aspects of society - are not compulsory but rather subject to individual student interest in the area. The other side of the debate is, of course, that by acknowledging sustainability as a field in itself, it becomes simply yet another form of specialism, another domain that stands alone in its own right and independent from the rest of the more traditional disciplines. This last point was briefly discussed by Dr A. Owen, a member of the University of Leeds’ Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) whilst answering one of the questions I raised during a seminar on January 26, 2015 that celebrated the SRI’s 10th anniversary.

c) Sustainability is too recent a field or it is a fashion

This is particularly relevant for southern and eastern European countries as well as in developing countries where sustainable development is perceived as a nascent field of action (Filho, 2000, p.16). As such, it is being treated with the caution and slowness of pace deemed necessary until its success becomes a real and practicable outcome and possibly, until it has been tried and tested by other HEIs where the process is already ongoing. The need for western universities to take the lead in implementing, practicing and standing as a model for other educational institutions across the globe in modelling a sustainable framework for university curricula, operations, research and outreach has never been more urgent, in a world that needs holistic thinkers and visionaries eager to extend their problem solving skills across discipline boundaries.

It is important to point out that while such misconceptions might pose a real obstacle in some university contexts to adopt a sustainable mind-set, they mainly originate from people's degree of knowledge background, experience, perception, values and context (Filho, 2000, p.16). Such a consensus is therefore subject to change as individuals become increasingly informed and through the use of rewards and incentives at work and elsewhere, gradually adopt a sustainable mind-set that is mirrored in their daily activities and which would, ultimately, form part of a new-belief system, a system that emphasizes the collaborative aspect of an equitable and fairer society.

For example, in terms of an individual’s knowledge background and experience, their openness to innovative ideas in SD is subject to previous training as well as their past experience in dealing with environmental and social affairs. As for a person’s values, perceptions and context, these are also subject to their ability to think holistically in terms of the interrelatedness of environmental factors with economic, political, and socio-cultural. At a first glimpse, the degree of complexity underlying wide-system interactions leaves many institutions not so much unwilling, but rather unable to identify the epiphenomena or the causal links between them, that would enable HEIs to tackle the challenge of sustainability proactively.

In the next article, the aim is to look exclusively at some of the advantages that HEIs have in institutionalising sustainability into their multi-layered activities. This will be achieved by highlighting the current systems of HEIs in more depth and attempting to identify the means by which they can adapt, expand, re-structure or become innovators in creating a working framework at the heart of which lies the concept of sustainable development. The aim is to look individually at their curricula, operations, research and outreach and understand how these can become breeding grounds for revolutionary action through the use of relevant examples and case studies.  



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