Education for sustainability in university curricula


Education for sustainability (EfS) refers to education that builds the knowledge, skills and dispositions for living sustainably. It is bringing sustainability – for some time a prominent concern within higher education – firmly within the fold of teaching and learning, a key aspect of universities' core business. Is EfS an unstoppable juggernaut in higher education? The short answer is no; it is one of a gamut of policy considerations universities that currently face. This review has made it clear, however, that EfS is a vehicle for infusing a central and progressive presence for sustainability within institutions.

This report establishes a picture of the state of play of EfS in Victoria's universities, but in so doing also considers the interactive dynamics between institutions. All eight universities that were chartered in Victoria have been consulted. In addition, information was gathered from the Australian Catholic University.

Input was sought both from those involved in sustainability policy management and academic practitioners. Documents available publicly and provided on request, including brochures, reports, educational resources and policy materials, were examined, as were scholarly publications and resources available through various national and global bodies dedicated to sustainability and to EfS in particular.

The report is designed both to assist government agencies in understanding the workings within the sector and to suggest to them courses of action to support EfS development, as well as to inform institutions and their members about what is happening throughout the State. From document analysis and semi-structured interviews, a picture of both patterned and more isolated instances of progress and blockages in the expansion of EfS in universities has emerged and is described here.

Interviews were conducted on the basis of anonymity. In order to locate input in discussion of Victorian universities, quotations are identified according to the respondent being at an institution fitting one of four widely accepted categories, being:

  • Go8 – the two members of the Group of Eight research-intensive universities, Melbourne and Monash;
  • Gumtree – the two institutions notably composed of networks of campuses in Melbourne and provincial cities, Deakin and La Trobe;
  • New – two universities with strong commitments to their local areas, Ballarat serving the inland west of the State and Victoria University linked to Melbourne's west; and
  • Unitech – two metropolitan technological institutions with specialised research foci, RMIT and Swinburne.

These pairings are intended somewhat to 'mask' the voices of respondents and institutions,while at the same time providing meaningful context. It is far from the only way Victorian universities could be split up.

The limitations of the data have allowed the grasping of only a very broad picture of the ways in which EfS is gaining traction in Victorian universities. The reader should be aware that the plasticity of ongoing developments prevents the advancing of definitive conclusions. At the same time, it is possible to identify certain clear emerging trends.

As the birthplace of the multi-sector (sometimes called dual-sector) university, Victoria may have the jump on other jurisdictions in that many of its institutions have had no choice in pursuing EfS within their vocational education and training (VET) sectors; universities in the New and Unitech categories are all multi-sector. Moreover, other Victorian universities have been at the fore of a global wave of curricular reform. The existence of the active Victorian Higher Education EfS Steering Group – bringing together academics who support EfS at all Victorian universities on a regular basis – is also a unique example of State-wide cooperation in an Australian context (of course, Victoria is the most 'city-state'-like Australian State; staff from all its institutions can more easily get together for meetings than elsewhere).

Due to the necessity of VET providers delivering EfS to VET students, Victoria's four multisector universities currently share more similarities in their practices than do the other four. In the course of preparing the report, it has become clear that, beyond masking respondents, the categories often do provide a useful heuristic for bearing in mind the way universities see themselves positioned amongst their peers. To glean contextualised insights from the report, institutions beyond Victoria may consider how their roles more or less correspondent to one (or more) of the four categories.

The report was commissioned by Sustainability Victoria in order to provide a broad overview of the perceived challenges that face the advancement of EfS in Victoria's universities. We thank Stuart Galbraith, both for his ready assistance and for affording the necessary freedom in pursuing the research.

Policies and practice in Victoria

Peodair Leihy and Jose Salazar (Centre for the Study of Higher Education)
Prepared for Sustainability Victoria

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