Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability in Higher Education

Part 1 - Orientation

EfS - the Strategic View

The intention of Education for Sustainability (EfS) is to reorient education systems to address the learning and change dimension of global sustainable development challenges. Grounded in systemic thinking about the ways that educational practices are developed and implemented, it is not only concerned with the formal curriculum but it does provide a high level vision for rethinking the curriculum – its purposes, content and delivery. The United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) was established with the aim of moving education systems in this direction at all levels of education and through both formal and informal learning.

Decade of Education for Sustainability


As part of its United Nations Decade of ESD initiative, UNESCO provides a set of overarching characteristics for ESD, applicable in different societies and education settings. It states that ESD:

From: UNESCO website – Characteristics of ESD

There is increasing recognition among specialists working on EfS issues that this requires strategic and practical approaches to changing education practices. However, institutional plans and activities have often focused on support for enclaves of good practice, promotion of EfS through specialist institutes, or the provision of incentives for those interested in the area. The majority of innovation in EfS has taken place within individual courses and has not always been pursued at senior management level in universities.

EfS and Quality at Subject Level – Rethinking Content and Pedagogy

Much innovation in EfS work has taken place in the context of specific subject areas, contributing to an increasing volume of subject-specific resources and guidance materials. In some cases, national subject benchmarking committees co-ordinated through the Quality Assurance Agency have begun to consider sustainability issues as part of the core curriculum and in relation to teaching and learning approaches.

As EfS takes the systemic view of education practice, ‘good practice’ in this area is based on the need to rethink both the issues raised in the curriculum and the teaching and learning approaches being used to actively engage learners in responding to sustainability.

This interplay between ‘content’ and ‘pedagogy’ takes shape in relation to the context and priorities of an individual subject area and with consideration of its professional dimensions. This involves industry and professional stakeholders involved with curriculum development, including associations known as ‘Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies’ (PSRBs). An initial HE Academy-funded study of the responses of PSRBs to sustainability can be viewed here.

More recently, the need to find strategic, institution-wide approaches to include EfS in education practice has become a priority for many universities. It can take the form of an explicit stated commitment to EfS or under the banner of related curriculum initiatives (e.g. to improve citizenship or public engagement).

To date, there have been very few initiatives to generate strategic institutional approaches to EfS. The examples from institutions with systematic plans and development projects to fully include EfS in the mainstream curriculum are invariably in the early stages. Work carried out through the Higher Education Academy has underlined this in the UK context, through a recent review of leading practice and an evaluation of the HEA Green Academy initiative in its first phase.

Recognising the need to find ways to work strategically on EfS in ways that engage the central learning and teaching functions of universities, this project was conceived with the focus on EfS as a ‘quality’ concern. Higher Education ‘quality systems’ provide core mechanisms through which the curriculum is developed and improved. They hold the principles, objectives and values of the curriculum together through formal processes that also have substantial influence over informal practice and innovation. By working through these quality systems, the project aimed to engage strategically with curriculum development and the central channels for the flow of learning and teaching and practice within universities.

Policy and Strategic Initiatives in EfS

Strategic and ‘systems’ responses to EfS are already well established in compulsory education in several countries and are starting to gain ground in the context of Higher Education. The challenge of developing these approaches in Higher Education is to align EfS with the complexities of the academic system and to find pathways for change at different levels. In the UK context, the Higher Education Funding Councils have worked to support this process at sector level through their strategic plans and initiatives to support institutions in this area, building on national sustainable development policies in the devolved administrations.

UK Policy Context for EfS in Higher Education:

England: The Higher Education Funding Council for England sets out its rationale and expectations related to sustainability in its 2008 strategy and action plan Sustainable development in higher education. It also supported several national projects through its Leading Sustainable Development in Higher Education initiative under the Leadership, Governance and Management Fund.

Scotland: The Scottish Executive recognised the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UN DESD) with the publication of Learning for our Future in 2006, an action plan spanning all levels of the education sector. The Scottish Funding Council continues to support institutional and sector level developments in this area as part of a commitment to sustainable development and the UN DESD in its Corporate Plan 2009-12.

Wales: The Welsh Assembly Government has a longstanding commitment to sustainable development as reflected in 'One Wales, One Planet' (2009). Its educational work is outlined in the Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship Action Plan (2006-09), with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales leading cross-sectoral initiatives in HE. It is developing the first piece of primary legislation dedicated to sustainable development in the UK, to ensure that sustainable development is the central organising principle of government and public bodies in Wales.

There is a particular need to address ‘system-specific’ issues that can affect the way the curriculum takes shape across the sector, such as the connection between research developments and teaching practices, the pressures of academic leadership and the need to understand trends in student learning needs. Certain initiatives have emerged at the international level in recent years, which may help to support Higher Education to grapple with the challenges of building capacity and improving leadership in EfS.


Learning for the future: Competences in Education for Sustainable Development

(download: UNECE competences)

This framework was developed to provide an educator competences model which maps against the principles of the ‘Delors report’ (International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, 1996). The framework was developed through an expert group formed by the UN Economic Commission for Europe UNECE) Steering Committee on Education for Sustainable Development.

Turnaround Leadership for Sustainability in Higher Education

This project seeks to challenge and change leadership in EfS in tertiary education by developing an evidence-based leadership competencies framework. The initiative was funded by the Australian Office of Leaning and Teaching and operates through the collaborative work of experts in Australia, the UK and the USA. The leadership competency framework is based on the experience of 188 EfS leaders across four continents and is supported by the Sustainable Futures Leadership Academy.