Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability in Higher Education

Part 2 - Pathfinder

Quality and Education Themes

The HE learning and teaching landscape is continually shaped by priorities that emerge both from within and outside the sector. These themes can be strongly geared to responding to societal changes or to meet specific industry and economic demands. Often they emerge in tandem with shifts in education theory or changing teaching practices, with educational repercussions for all institutions and subject areas.

This places education themes in an important position in relation to the Higher Education quality system, as certain themes take on strategic importance for institutions and are prioritised in the strategic directives and funding incentives of the key sector agencies.

The Scottish Higher Education sector has a unique approach to quality, through its Enhancement-Led Institutional Review (ELIR) scheme and setting periodic sector-wide Enhancement Themes.

This approach enables all institutions to share practice and focus attention on strategic education concerns, as shown in the Graduates for the 21st Century theme (2008-2011). The theme explored the development of institutional strategies to support generic ‘graduate attributes’ such as ethical, social and professional understanding; lifelong learning; personal and intellectual autonomy; and global citizenship.

Sector Agency attention to EfS

Recognising the increasing presence of education themes and their role in shaping learning and teaching agendas, the UK Quality Code for Higher Education identifies the place and role of such themes. The Learning and Teaching Chapter locates them as part of the ‘strategic approach’ that all Higher Education providers should implement and promote among staff, students and stakeholders.

Education for Sustainability has become identifiable as a prominent education theme, with its importance reflected by the key agencies responsible for learning and teaching quality, across both aspects of QA and QE.


In the section on ‘themes that cross subject boundaries’ (UK Quality Code for Higher Education, Chapter B3, p.8), the QAA lists prominent ‘topics which may be considered to have a broad relevance to the purposes of higher education and its wider context in society’:


Its Strategic Plan 2012-16 points to the importance of several ‘contemporary challenges’ for the Higher Education community, which are its priority areas of work for learning and teaching:

Stakeholder Perspectives on EfS

Attention to EfS at this strategic level underlines the level of sector recognition for the contribution EfS can make to educational practice. Consultations with the Expert Advisory Board for this project confirmed the need to address this as educational imperative, in tandem with the pressure from industry and government concerns around sustainability.

The advice from the Board was that EfS should be centrally positioned in the future learning and teaching landscape, in dialogue with several related societal and educational concerns, as well as specific initiatives related to sustainable development:

Learning For Sustainability

Strategic Influences around EfS

The Board provided valuable input on the ways that sustainability is influencing Higher Education in general and affirmed that within this landscape and in the light of influences shaping the public sustainability agenda more broadly, attention on EfS is likely to include an increasing focus on curriculum quality. 

While this expert assessment of the societal and educational context recognized that the picture was highly complex, they reflected that this combination of drivers and initiatives would create an overall strategic ‘push’ to move EfS forward. Summary points from this discussion can be viewed here.
Within the Higher Education sector, dialogue about how to progress EfS as a strategic concern for educational quality will need to take place at both institutional and sector levels, bringing perspective from all aspects of the system. As part of this process, the project team joined the QAA Annual Conference in 2012 to hear initial perspectives on some of the issues at stake. A podcast about the seminar, titled Public Expectations, Teaching Quality and Sustainability, can be accessed here.

Tim Burton (Assistant Director, QAA) comments on how the project provided an opportunity to locate EfS in the development of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education and to consider its strategic role in learning and teaching.