2015 marked the outset of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which, alongside ‘Agenda 2030’ agreed on by the UN General Assembly, put the issue of sustainable development on the map. Nevertheless, not all subject areas have been equally impacted by the introduction of the concept of sustainability and by its adjacent endorsement. The Higher Education sector, for instance, has only recently started associating itself with the matter through the recognition of the issue of sustainability. In this sense, more than 600 universities worldwide have triggered the process of signing a plethora of international declarations such as the Talloires Declaration, the Halifax Declaration, the Bologna Charter and the Copernicus Charter for Sustainable Development. The sum of all of these statements of commitment were crowned by the development of the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) just before the Rio+20 Conference.
What is HESI?
HESI has been used by higher education institutions as a platform to share their deepest concerns and latest implementation practices concerning the principle of sustainability. Noteworthy torchbearing stakeholders such as policymakers, scientists and, indubitably, the academia have used HESI as a medium through which they can accomplish their four major objectives, namely:
- Teach sustainable development across all disciplines of study;
- Encourage research and dissemination of sustainable development knowledge;
- Support the creation of green campuses and local sustainability efforts;
- Engage and share information with international networks.
Promoting sustainability in higher education has not been an easy feat. Two years after the release of the SDG agenda, while most sectors have already incorporated the sustainability principles promoted within the document, collaborators with a vested interest in advocating for sustainability as a panacea meant to overhaul higher education finally came to their senses and placed themselves in a 12-step programme of aligning this sector with the UNSDG agenda. The first step they identified in the process of recovery is admitting they had a problem manifesting itself in the form of a pack in partnerships to support their sustainability initiatives.
This led HESI to be co-chaired by UN Global Compact’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs – Division for Sustainable Development (UNDESA-DSD) which alongside UNESCO, United Nations Environment, UN-Habitat, UNCTAD and United Nations University, managed to organise an event on the extent to which the SDGs can be integrated into the sustainability practices of higher education institutions. This event became the central focus of the 2017 session of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and managed to address the intricacies of campus practices, pedagogy, teaching and research routines used to position the higher education sector as the lynchpin where under sustainability objectives in education could be met.
This event managed to look under the bonnet of the less obvious work conducted by universities all around the world and identified best practices coming from the movers and shakers of the education purview. Noteworthy examples are constituted by the Business School of Lausanne that works towards developing GAPFRAME – a “safe space for all of us” which serves as a basis for multi-stakeholders to address Grand Challenges, by sector, across industries, for an enterprise or as a responsible management educator, building on the “outside-in” perspective of true business sustainability. Likewise, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has managed to fabricate from the ground up a all-encompassing MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS) aimed at utilizing the campus as a testbed and incubator in order to identify ways of responding to today’s sustainability conundrums.
Notwithstanding the amazing progress in promoting sustainability for the higher education sector, many devil’s advocates still chide against these initiatives because of their unrealistic expectations. In Kerry Shepard’s book Higher Education for Sustainable Development, all of these enterprises will never display that much power as to change a student’s sustainable or, for that matter, non-sustainable behaviour. This has nothing to do with the crux of the sustainability ventures themselves, but with the reluctance of faculty members to change their archaic views regarding their teaching practices by stepping away from teaching knowledge to teaching values. The argument does not presume that professors do not understand the importance of sustainability, but more that they do not want to take it upon themselves to change students’ deep-rooted perspectives and manners of conducting themselves.
To take stock of the HESI initiatives while incorporating the feedback coming from sustainable education scholars who have written extensively on the matter, we must acknowledge the great strides made within the course of merely one year since the 2017 session of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and desist from focusing on affective learning, but stick to cognitive learning by developing critical thinking skills. In Shephard’s words, this type of skillset will make students:
discern for themselves the hidden messages within the teaching that they experience in higher education.… They will be able to see the absurdity of teachers who claim to be aloof from concerns about sustainability and yet continue to teach traditional business studies, social sciences, or to some degree, physics, as if the knowledge within these disciplines was in some ways values-free and independent from the human world around them. (p. 37)