Mellalieu persistently and interminably asks the question

Posted on May 4, 2009


My friend Peter Mellalieu is the Professor of Innovation at Unitec.   Fortunately for us, he does this with a strong leaning towards sustainability.    We caught up at the Tertiary Education Summit where he was delivering a paper “Shifting frontiers,  new priorities, creating pathways: Elevating the case for tertiary education for sustainable development in New Zealand”. 

Here’s the summary of his position:

Distinctive core competencies are the foundation of long-term national wealth creation

A special selection of “new”academic literacies are required to create and exploit core competencies

Sustainable development (SD) is a key distinctive core competency required for 21st century success

Education for SD helps strongly to create the “new” academic literacies.

In other words, he is arguing for a position that aligns with the one Otago Polytechnic has adopted.   Peter  bases his position on a profound understanding of New Zealand business and community.  He cites the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment:

all tertiary graduates leaving TEOs  should possess a core understanding of … environmental sustainability as a result of institutes encouraging Education for Sustainability (EfS) throughout their organisations (PCE 2004, 2007)

He points to statements expressed in the Tertiary Education Strategy:

“Provide knowledge to meet the challenges and opportunities of a
changing world and to understand and work within environmental
• “Help New Zealanders understand and protect our environment because
key industries rely on the quality of our natural resources.
• “Add value to primary production, help manage increased pressure on
national resources, help manage and restore our indigenous ecosystems
and biodiversity – through teaching and learning, research, knowledge
transfer and innovation.” (p. 10)

“Provide knowledge to meet the challenges and opportunities of a changing world and to understand and work within environmental limits.

“Help New Zealanders understand and protect our environment because key industries rely on the quality of our natural resources.

 “Add value to primary production, help manage increased pressure on national resources, help manage and restore our indigenous ecosystems and biodiversity – through teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer and innovation.” (p. 10)


Peter’s argument is that “Education for Sustainable Development is the academic literacy for the 21st Century”.    He expands on the chainsaw operator questions we asked in the development of discipline based sustainable practitioner statements. 

These ideas form the basis for an exploratory strategic audit of  a tertiary educational organisation (his own Unitec).      He finds that although sustainability is stated in the institution’s mission statements, this primarily concerns operations: “Manage our campuses to achieve best practice in environmental sustainability”.  Education for Sustainability is considered a “curriculum gap in the institution”.

This is gap not because of a lack of personal belief, several senior leaders in the institution reported personal feelings along the lines of “eco-sustainability should be embedded right up front in everything we do … in our lives and in our work. It is [the TEO’s] responsibility to do all we can”. 

Other leaders reported the dangers of a “ghetto of evangelists” and the risks of viability of specialist programmes.    Peter was able to report pockets of innovation: the Pacific Centre for Sustainable Communities; a demonstration sanctuary; a students’ conference on sustainability withing environmental engineering; and the campus itself is considered “a place of beauty”. 

Some lecturers identified barriers:

constraints of meeting the requirements of professional bodies is reducing the ability of teachers to adapt courses to deal with the new legislative and market change risks associated with the theme of eco-sustainability








Peter makes several recommendations for Unitec.   All have wider appeal:

Re-affirm and communicate its commitment to – and rationale for – sustainability by ensuring that the espoused commitments and values defined in its Charter are transferred into the TEO’s future Strategic Plan and Investment Plan and communicated to staff and stake-holders.

Ensure that the question: “What are the sustainability issues associated with this proposed policy or action?” is asked persistently and interminably when new academic programmes are developed, new buildings and structures are designed, new external suppliers are  appointed, and new research commissioned (including market research and stake-holder needs analysis).

Underwrite immediately the resourcing required to enable the creation  of the Sustainable Urbanism programme for Waitakere City Council as an exemplar of cross-institutional collaboration, innovation, and ‘real world’ learning

Investigate the intended nature and operation of the TEC quality assurance, monitoring, and planning systems to identify the extent to which sustainability targets form part of these systems. If absent, raise the issue with TEC and PCE and promote their adoption. 

Ensure that the TEO’s new Academic Strategy takes express and explicit account of the general aims regarding sustainability as  advocated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE, 2007, 2004) and the government’s aims presented in the ‘contextual sections’ of the Tertiary Education Strategy (as identified in this report). In particular, require that all students at graduate and postgraduate level participate in at least one course that fulfils the aims of Education for Sustainability presented in the ‘Definitions’ section of this report.

 Identify and provide the resources, policies, and support needed to maintain and enhance the several extant competencies  relevant to sustainability that exist within the TEO. Note that these competencies are mainly embedded in the knowledge and network connections of a few enthusiastic staff

Support the Centre for Teaching and Learning Innovation to foster a Community of Practice engaging academics, students, and other staff interested in promoting Education for Sustainability and sustainable practices on the TEO’s campuses.

Conduct an organisational survey to assess staff’, students’, and stake-holders’ understanding of sustainability issues, their willingness to make change, their suggestions for change, their expectations of support from the institution, what they are doing currently,and so forth.


Other recommendations include

– local and international networks and organisations engaged in sustainability; 

– Identify and adopt an appropriate sustainable practice benchmark standard for the TEO’s operations and external audit –

– Establish a contestable fund

– evaluation research, site visits 

–  action research-informed strategic planning process


This, Peter concludes, would place Unitec in a “fast follower strategic posture”.  Good work Peter, and good luck.