STENZ Tertiary Education Strategy submission

Posted on November 6, 2009


STENZ Logo_Colour_smSTENZ Submission on Tertiary Education Strategy:

1. Status and interest of submitter

This submission is presented on behalf of the Sustainability in Tertiary Education in New Zealand. STENZ is a working group dedicated to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD) across all tertiary education in New Zealand. STENZ aims to provide a whole-of-sector approach to Education for Sustainability.  It is made up of people who have leadership roles in the tertiary education sector, across a variety of institutions and academic disciplines. They are committed to Education for Sustainability rather than any explicit political agenda.

2. Submission summary

In summary, this submission:

  • Applauds the inclusion of sustainability in the vision, but argues that it must take an integrated approach to an integrated socio-ecological system; and
  • Maintains that Education for Sustainability must be explicit in the directives and mechanisms.

3. Vision for tertiary education

The vision for tertiary education is well-aligned with sustainability and embraces key sustainability related concepts.  STENZ applauds this approach.

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 above role description does not explicitly mention sustainability, but it could be interpreted to do so because of its mention of the three dimensions of sustainability – economic, social and environmental.  These are central to virtually all definitions of sustainability.

Moreover, the focus on well-being – both personal and economic –is consistent with sustainable development as a process that may lead to sustainability.

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 that stresses successful citizens, security and opportunity embraces concepts aligned 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.

4. Focus in the remainder of the strategy

Unfortunately, in the remainder of the strategy, the integrated goals – economic, social and environmental – are split apart and considered separately, with an almost singular focus on the economic.

STENZ sees this separation as contrary to a robust consideration of the integrated nature of the economic, social and ecological system that supports human life and that human life is inescapably part of.  Focussing on these dimensions in isolation will not lead to successful global citizens.  STENZ’s thinking is in line with that promulgated by the UN Millennium Development Goals, the World Commission on Environment and Development 1987 (Brundtland Report), The Rio Earth Summit 1992, Agenda 21, and, of course, the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD).

5. Explicit expectation of teaching and learning for every student

The strategy rightly points out the impact of education; it is the biggest lever we have for transforming New Zealand into a more prosperous society which promotes well-being, as noted in the TES vision.

Accordingly, the tertiary education system needs to prepare learners who are capable of meeting future global challenges/changes.  In other words, we need to produce graduates who can operate as sustainable practitioners in their particular fields.  STENZ suggests a focus on the sustainable practitioner would reflect goals already included in the draft TES but it needs to be made explicit.

Sustainability is an explicit goal of research (noted below).   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.

This expectation for research should be complemented by similar statements for teaching and learning (as offered in 5.1):

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

5.1 Recommended expectation for all institutions: Produce graduates who each 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 more direct return on government investment in education is manifest in the skills, values and behaviours of our graduates.  Including the above expectation in the TES will motivate institutions to ensure that 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 is educated to be able to see through a sustainable lens.

6. Recognition of eco-literacy as a core capability

In the achievement of a prosperous New Zealand, eco-literacy is a core capability, much like literacy and numeracy and with similar productivity benefits that are essential for a natural resource based economy.

6.1 Recommendation: Add ecoliteracy to statements describing expectations of core capabilities.

7. Integrated curricula

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.  They 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
  • Understanding the connected nature of our socio-ecological and economic system
  • Global citizenship
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Pragmatics of change management

Sustainability should not be seen as an extra subject and should not be confused with green, or with education about the environment.   Instead it provides a context for learning within and across disciplines.  STENZ considers 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.   STENZ applauds moves to promote collaborative work and direct relevance to industry and suggests Education for Sustainability as a proven powerful vehicle for its achievement.

8. Promotion of  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.

8.1 Recommendation:  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 PBRF could better support interdisciplinary initiatives”’.

Associate Prof Samuel Mann on behalf of Sustainability in Tertiary Education in New Zealand.

Otago Polytechnic

STENZ is a pivotal initiative within the NZDESD programme of activities.   STENZ is supported by SANZ and the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO.