Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability in Higher Education

Part 1 - Orientation

EfS and Quality - Shared Ground

This resource is located at the meeting point between two distinct areas of practice. It stands at the crossroads between the established, but constantly evolving, area of Quality Assurance and Quality Enhancement, and the cross-cutting and emergent area of Education for Sustainability:

Quality Assurance and Quality Enhancement:

Quality in HE is a complex arrangement of principles, practices and processes that influence all Higher Education courses. Its two aspects, QA and QE, have a dynamic relationship and are managed in various ways in HE institutions.

In the UK, two key agencies provide sector-wide guidance in this area: for QA, the Quality Assurance Agency, and for QE, the Higher Education Academy.

At the ‘obligatory’ end of this spectrum is QA, operating through various routines and guided by benchmarks and policies to maintain curriculum quality and standards.

At the ‘invitational’ end, QE covers a range of strategies, mechanisms and initiatives to develop and improve the curriculum, in line with sector-wide trends and directives.

Approaches to QA and QE need to be versatile enough to be used across the curriculum, so that ‘quality’ can be reflected differently by individual subject areas.

Education for Sustainability:

EfS is a relatively new movement of educational thinking and practice that aims to reach across the curriculum and inform practice at all levels of education.

To date, it has influenced some subjects more deeply than others - and its learning and teaching approaches have more immediate affiliation in some subject areas. 

EfS provides fundamental and important challenges to Higher Education, when viewed as a quality issue, as it connects with fundamental questions about the overall purpose and direction of the education system.

Its sources are partly educational, framed in terms of critical, active and participative pedagogies intended to improve the integration and application of learning.

Its impetus is also societal, taking shape in response to international dialogues and forums concerned with future development trajectories and prospects for humanity.

Exploring this meeting point involves an encounter between two quite different worlds of thinking and practice, with their own parameters and purposes. To date, no major initiatives have considered the implications of EfS as an overarching ‘quality’ agenda for the curriculum. A small number of publications have asked questions about this, but in the Higher Education arena, this is still relatively untrodden ground.

From the quality perspective, cross-cutting education agendas are increasingly familiar and serve as the stimulus for waves of funding and activity seeking to improve the curriculum in line with educational and societal triggers, for example to enhance the professional profiles of graduates or to extend the credentials of universities in responding to industry needs or civic concerns.

A very small number of universities internationally have understood the potential importance of viewing EfS as part of the emerging understanding of what ‘quality’ will mean for the future of the Higher Education curriculum. First steps in this area include the development of briefings and position papers to gain ‘buy-in’ and increase understanding across institutions about the ways that EfS could inform curriculum practice.

This Guide is intended to support Higher Education institutions in taking the ‘big picture’ view on bringing EfS into their quality systems, so that they can move from first steps into planned journeys, by sharing the findings of five universities which have started to put these ideas into practice.

Convergence and Divergence

An initial glance shows that the two fields of EfS and Quality have quite different origins, that they engage with the HE sector in different ways, and that they have different intentions or aims. These areas of divergence set the tone for an educational encounter that brings together two quite different worlds, in terms of the languages and practices common to each area.

However, there are also several ways in which their concerns are deeply connected. For instance:

Members of the project’s Expert Advisory Board comment on the connections between EfS and Quality:
- Speaker 1: Virginia Isaac (Director, Sustainable Direction) reflects on the relationship in the context of learning and business development, in the light of her work in this area with the QAA
- Speaker 2: Simon Kemp (Academic Lead in ESD, HEA) explains the synergy in terms of supporting academics in curriculum innovation and in order to improve graduate skills for sustainability
- Speaker 3: Alice Owen (Associate Director, ARUP) considers the perspective of employers in relation to the development of graduate attributes and abilities

Daniella Tilbury (Project Director, University of Gloucestershire) reflects on the importance of finding entry points for EfS in relation to institutional thinking and priorities for education and learning.