Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability in Higher Education

Part 2 - Pathfinder

Connecting the Stakeholders

Gaining entry to discussions about education priorities and to leverage changes of practice is a complex matter in Higher Education institutions. Negotiations happen at several levels and involve many stakeholders with overlapping but distinct priorities and concerns. For effective institution-wide change, all parties need to become involved, to ensure that initiatives will be implemented and developed.

Q: What issues arise for practitioners in EfS?

As a relatively new field of education practice, EfS brings several challenges to the fore. Many staff with QA and QE responsibilities (as well as sustainability enthusiasts) are unfamiliar with its aims and approaches at the institutional level. To introduce EfS as a quality matter across the curriculum requires work to build shared understanding of how it can connect with other corporate priorities and education agendas.

Developing this understanding has to take place in context, so that pathways to introduce EfS will make sense to the institution and help to strengthen its core education provision. The wide range of potential drivers for EfS, coupled with the changeable nature of the sector, means that flexibility is critical, to adapt to organisational circumstances.

The pilot institutions encountered the need to make sure that key stakeholders and opinion formers helped to establish why and how EfS could be important to the institution. Dialogue about the ways that EfS could support the institution’s wider ambitions helped to remove obstacles and to build upon existing (but often unarticulated or under-developed) opportunities.

PILOT WORK FINDINGS – Understanding EfS Stakeholders

A shared picture emerged among the five pilot partners about how to work with the perspectives offered by staff with expertise around sustainability. It proved to be useful to understand how their institutional locations and roles can support EfS initiatives:

Academic Champions – educators with experience in EfS and the drive to support it can be an excellent source of good practice, invaluable in raising levels of discussion around EfS in teaching teams and at committees. The potential drawback is that their expertise is often limited to their subject area, which can unwittingly promote the view that EfS is best addressed only in certain enclaves. Ensuring that broader discussion takes place about how EfS principles can be applied in the context of strategic enhancement and assurance activity is critical to achieving broader academic engagement.

Sustainability Researchers – researchers working on sustainability-related issues are sources of valuable sustainability expertise and often extensive knowledge about sustainability topics. However, not all of them will have had prior interest in EfS or be informed about the pedagogic approaches it involves and how to apply these to the curriculum at a strategic level. Given that incentives and opportunities for the transfer of research insights to teaching may be few, their contributions to EfS may be limited in certain institutional contexts. 

Students – students can be critical in driving EfS and petitioning for its place in the curriculum and for their broader learning experiences, although this varies across institutions. The role of students in judging curriculum quality is increasing across the sector, but the influence of students can be ephemeral, with loss of momentum as cohorts move through their studies. 

Sustainability Teams – staff responsible for corporate sustainability initiatives can play vital roles in galvanising institutional attention and making the broader case for EfS as a corporate priority linked to the overall institutional mission. The drawback is that these staff may lack experience in EfS: many will not hold academic roles or have teaching experience, which can consolidate perceptions of sustainability as an ‘estates’ rather than an education issue.

Q: What are the challenges from the perspective of Quality?

Considering the value and place of EfS as an educational quality concern requires the involvement of stakeholders at many levels, taking into account both institutional and local (departmental or subject level) concerns, as well as the interaction between QA and QE. The learning needs of students and their professional ambitions, as well as implementation factors around curriculum delivery, provide additional considerations that staff responsible for quality face in relation to strategic education themes. 

It was apparent during the pilot projects that to bring EfS effectively into institutional thinking around QA and QE, better understanding was needed of the ways that these stakeholders address cross-cutting agendas, including the questions of most importance to them and their methods for tackling the issues. In some cases, further discussion was needed about the reasons and benefits for embedding EfS within the institutional approach to quality. For other institutions, the critical issues were practical ones related to finding equitable and shared ways to implement and manage a new strategic curriculum priority.

Since professional knowledge about the quality arena can often be fairly implicit and is transmitted through practice, efforts to introduce change can be challenging. The lessons learned in this project about how education themes and curriculum change agendas are handled in Higher Education institutions would apply not only to EfS but also to other issues with implications for the quality of learning and teaching.

For those seeking to use EfS to inform the future orientation of the HE curriculum, there is an important need to understand the ways that boundaries are managed between QA and QE, as this is a critical ‘node’ at which the embedding of EfS can take shape. Gaining experience and insight into quality processes is therefore vital for those trying to embed education themes such as EfS across the curriculum.

PILOT WORK FINDINGS – Perspectives from Quality Roles

Experiences across the five pilot project showed some common themes in how staff responsible for quality (at both ‘central’ and faculty levels) view EfS. It was important to understand how they initially framed its role in relation to quality and to education agendas generally:

The five pilot project leads discuss several issues relating to the different stakeholder groups and professional perspectives common to Higher Education institutions:

Martin Haigh (Oxford Brookes University) explains the importance of finding approaches to educational change, such as graduate attributes, that can connect with multiple stakeholders.

Alex Ryan (University of Gloucestershire) discusses the value of bringing external influences to bear when working towards institutional change.

Pauline Ridley (University of Brighton) comments on need to connect staff and student understandings around the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of EfS.

John Blewitt (Aston University) reflects on the nature of the academic system and the importance of finding alignment with its professional structures.

Harriet Sjerps-Jones (Exeter University) reflects on the quality perspective and the importance of asking questions about translating EfS into achievable actions.