Need to mobilise submissions for sustainability in higher education (NZ)

Posted on October 17, 2009


The draft Tertiary Education Strategy is out for consultation.      It gives direction to NZ’s tertiary education for the next five years.   The draft is weak on sustainability: it’s alluded to in the higher level statements but missing in the directions for teaching and learning.   As it stands,  institutions will not see sustainability as an imperative, instead they’ll be driven entirely by productivity.

We have until 6th November to send submissions to    Please write something yourself and prompt your organisations to include sustainability in their submission (folks are usually grateful for help, so send some words for them to use).

Here’s the draft of my submission (any thoughts gratefully received):

1      Key messages:

  1. Applaud the inclusion of sustainability in the vision, but that it must take an integrated approach to an integrated socio-ecological system
  2. Education for Sustainability must be explicit in the directives and mechanisms
  3. Polytechnics must be supported in the delivery of applied degrees.

2      Justification

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the Tertiary Education Strategy.

The Tertiary Education Strategy is New Zealand’s chance to deliver on the promise of the United Nations Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014).

The opening line of TES describes the role of tertiary education

High quality tertiary education is central to helping New Zealand achieve its economic, social and environmental goals, and meeting the development aspirations of Māori and Pasifika peoples.

The “Vision for tertiary education” does not explicitly mention sustainability, but it could be interpreted to do so:

Access to high-quality tertiary education enriches people’s lives, increases their employment opportunities and helps to build a productive skills base to drive economic growth.  Government wants relevant and efficient tertiary education provision that meets the needs of students, the labour market and the economy.

So too the Over-arching education vision (1.1).  Successful citizens, world leading, security and opportunity are all concepts conducive to sustainability:

Government’s vision is for a world-leading education system that equips all New Zealanders with the knowledge, skills and values to be successful citizens in the 21st century.

A world-leading education system is an important first step towards a productive and growing economy that delivers greater prosperity, security and opportunity for all New Zealanders.

An integration of the “economic, social and environmental goals” can be considered a in a sustainable future.   Unfortunately, from then on, these integrated goals are split apart and considered separately, with an almost singular focus on the economic.  This is contrary to a robust consideration of an integrated socio-economic system and will not lead to successful global citizens.

The strategy rightly points out the impact of education, it is the biggest lever we have for transforming NZ to a more prosperous society in the long term.  I would like to see the use of this lever go beyond a focus on productivity for personal and societal benefit to include a wider role, that of the sustainable practitioner.

The tertiary education system needs to prepare learners who are capable of meeting future global challenges/changes.   I suggest a focus on the sustainable practitioner would reflect goals already included in the draft TES but it needs to be made explicit.   The expectation for research:

“research…create and share new knowledge that contributes to New Zealand’s economic and social development, and environmental management”.

should be complemented by similar statements for teaching and learning:

Produce graduates who will think and act as sustainable practitioners for the benefit of New Zealand’s integrated economic and social development, and environmental management system.

While research is clearly important, the far bigger levers we have are the skills, values and behaviours of our graduates.  This will ensure graduates have the capability to embed sustainability principles, values and practices in their lifestyle and profession.

The prosperous future of New Zealand relies on people from every discipline, hence it is important that we move to an “every graduate” approach to sustainability.  This means that every student should be able to see through a sustainable lens.

As a society we have to learn to live in a complex world of interdependent systems with high uncertainties and multiple legitimate interests.  These complex and evolving systems require a new way of thinking about risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance (Stagl 2007).  These systems require that we can think simultaneously of drivers and impacts of our actions across scales and barriers of space, time, culture, species and disciplinary boundaries.  This means our graduates need skills in:

–          Systems thinking

–          An understanding of the connected nature of our socio-ecological system

–          Critical and creative thinking

–          Ability to act as change agent

–          Understanding of ethics

–          Sense of participation and action

Sustainability should not be seen as an extra subject and should not be confused with green, or with education about the environment.   Nor should it in any way be seen as anti-business.  Instead it provides a context for learning within and about the student’s discipline.   I believe a focus on sustainability will result in improved completion rates as it provides a hook to link academic subjects to the real world.    This relevance will improve the work-ready nature of graduates.    I applaud moves to promote collaborative work and direct relevance to industry and suggest Education for Sustainability as a proven powerful vehicle for achieving this.

3      Recommendations

3.1    Add education for Sustainability as an expectation for all graduates:

Sustainability is an explicit goal of research.   Sustainability should also be explicit in teaching (rather than only implicit in “meet labour market demands”, and “world-class skills and knowledge”) and to complement the existing focus on productivity.

Produce graduates who will think and act as  sustainable practitioners for the benefit of New Zealand’s integrated economic and social development, and environmental management system.

3.2    Add sustainable practice as a core capability

Acting as a sustainable practitioner is core capability, much like literacy and numeracy (indeed “Eco-literacy” is an often used short hand) and with similar productivity benefits.

  • continuing to assist adult learners to gain the literacy, language, numeracy, information literacy and ecoliteracy skills for higher level study or skilled employment

3.3    Promote interdisciplinary study and research

With a discipline-based panel structure, the Performance-Based Research Fund is not good at supporting interdisciplinary research such as sustainability.

Add an action plan (to “We will look at whether the Performance-Based Research Fund is working well for all parts of the sector”) to look at how it could better support interdisciplinary initiatives.