30 SES 10 B, Higher Education and Sustainability
The dysfunctions of our socio-ecological systems dominate societal and academic discourse: climate change, rising economic inequality, unregulated advances in infotech, the degradation of ecosystems, and the current COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has made the interlinkages of our socio-ecological systems more recognizable for many, but the experience of unpredictability and complexity has been troubling. Whether the pandemic will add momentum to societal dynamics that work towards more sustainable, democratic and just socio-ecological systems remains to be seen—in general, most societies seem to be deeply divided regarding the question of how we should relate to ourselves, each other and our ecosystems. However, there seems to be an agreement that education (including higher education) does play a key role in shaping and reproducing socio-ecological systems (e.g. Lotz-Sisitka et al. 2015; UNESCO 2017; Wals et al. 2016). Accordingly, the potential of higher education institutions (HEIs) as transforming agents in socio-ecological systems has been widely acknowledged, particularly from the perspective of higher education for sustainability/sustainable development (HESD). The fundamental argument of proponents of HESD is that specific forms of curriculum (pedagogy and/or content) lead to outcomes that are not only generally desirable but directly relevant for a transition towards sustainability. However, the more specific debates on what should be learned and how it should be learned and monitored remain conceptually controversial and, according to Barth and Rieckmann (2016), empirically inconclusive. In their review of the literature on HESD until 2012, they diagnosed a lack of robust explanatory studies. The objective of this study, accordingly, is to assess whether since 2012, substantial progress has been made in demonstrating that specific forms of curriculum do lead to outcomes among graduates that are particularly related to sustainability.
Systematizing the empirical evidence on HESD is challenged by the tensions between different perceptions of higher education: in the instrumental narrative, its role is to produce innovative solutions and skilled graduates for effective implementation (McCowan 2016). Proponents of an emancipatory higher education emphasize the responsibility to provide spaces in which learners develop capabilities to discover, create and implement new ways of being, knowing and relating (Wals et al. 2016). More radical scholars have even questioned our acceptance of the concept of “higher education”, and claimed that attempts to reform it towards sustainability are trapped in a superficial improvement agenda (Hellberg and Knutsson 2018). The existing literature on higher education for sustainability can be placed along this continuum from instrumental optimism to emancipatory concern and radical critique. Paradigmatically, the main divide is between scholars who assume the existence of known sustainability competencies that can be taught and assessed (e.g. pro-environmental behaviour, system thinking, anticipatory competency; de Haan 2010; Wiek, Withycombe, and Redman 2011), and scholars who question whether we can make valid assumptions about the competences learners will need to address unknown challenges (Barnett 2012). The latter suggest that we should focus on fostering a critical disposition among students as a form of values education—values which may or may not refer to sustainability (Shephard and Egan 2018). Some recent work has attempted to pragmatically bridge this gap by integrating critical thinking as a competency that underlies specific sustainability competencies (Brundiers et al. 2020).
Given this diversity, is an aggregation of empirical findings on possible relationships between factors possible? And, if not, can the studies be configured into a meaningful assemblage?
This critical review can be categorized as “mixed methods-mixed research” (Sandelowski et al. 2012) since qualitative, quantitative and mixed-methods studies were considered for review and analysed using qualitative and quantitative approaches. In operationalizing the review, I followed established procedures as proposed by Petticrew and Roberts (2008). Following the example of earlier reviews in HESD research (Barth and Rieckmann 2016; Rodríguez Aboytes and Barth 2020), I searched Scopus, Web of Science and ERIC databases. The title-abstract-keywords search was carried out on October 15, 2020, using the string: (higher education OR university OR universities OR tertiary education OR college) AND (education for sustainability OR education for sustainable development OR sustainability learning). The search yielded a combined raw sample of 8350 records, of which 6573 records were retained for screening after duplicate removal. Corresponding to the research interest of this study, I specified the following inclusion criteria that were applied first at title/abstract-level and then at the full-text level: • the study population are students or graduates in higher education (college, university) • the study empirically investigates curricular processes and/or content as intervention/exposure • the study empirically investigates curriculum outcomes expressly related to some concept of “sustainability”. The title/abstract-screening excluded 5680 records, so that 893 articles were screened as full-texts, finally including 357 articles in the systematic appraisal and further analysis. In addition to standard bibliometric data, the systematic appraisal of each article extracted details on research question, research design, research instrument, conceptualization of sustainability, learning theory, intervention/pedagogy, and study results. For the explorative analysis of the dataset, I used qualitative summaries and descriptive statistics.
The majority of the reviewed studies used one group pre-post designs and investigated a single intervention. The studies were case-driven rather than proceeding from a pre-determined research interest, and only very few studies tested pedagogies across institutions. In most cases, the researchers developed their own research instruments which were not regularly tested for validity and reliability. The concept of “sustainability” was critically reflected on only in few of the studies, and the ecological dimension of the concept was most prominent, while social and economic dimensions were mentioned but rarely included in research instruments. Regarding learning theory, there was a clear preference for constructivist concepts. Scholars extolled the virtues of engaging with real-world challenges in a problem-based, interdisciplinary and experiential setting. Usually, however, the analysed intervention was only outlined, limiting the applicability of the findings. Moreover, the studies did not offer arguments on why the pedagogies and interventions were particularly related to “sustainability” more than any other societal concern. The different studies were looking for a wide range of what interventions/pedagogies should achieve or affect – including behaviour change, affective and cognitive change. Several studies established that interventions indeed had effects in the affective domain (e.g. attitudes), other studies did so for the cognitive domain (e.g. skills, knowledge). Some studies showed that the effect of an intervention differed depending on the individual participant (e.g. gender). Overall, a significant effect of the entire higher education experience on students’ attitudes or competencies regarding sustainability was not consistently detected. I conclude that despite a considerable research presence, the progress in demonstrating that specific forms of curriculum are particularly related to “sustainability” has been limited. This may be due to methodological challenges, requiring an increase in effort and consolidation—or it may indicate a need for further critical reflection on the concept of HESD itself.
Barnett, Ronald. 2012. “Learning for an Unknown Future.” Higher Education Research and Development 31 (1): 65–77. Barth, Matthias, and Marco Rieckmann. 2016. “State of the Art in Research on Higher Education for Sustainable Development.” In Routledge Handbook of Higher Education for Sustainable Development, edited by Matthias Barth, Gerd Michelsen, Marco Rieckmann, and Ian Thomas, 100–113. London. Brundiers, Katja, Matthias Barth, Gisela Cebrián, Matthew Cohen, Liliana Diaz, Sonya Doucette-Remington, Weston Dripps, et al. 2020. “Key Competencies in Sustainability in Higher Education—toward an Agreed-upon Reference Framework.” Sustainability Science. Haan, Gerhard de. 2010. “The Development of ESD-Related Competencies in Supportive Institutional Frameworks.” International Review of Education 56 (2): 315–28. Hellberg, Sofie, and Beniamin Knutsson. 2018. “Sustaining the Life-Chance Divide? Education for Sustainable Development and the Global Biopolitical Regime.” Critical Studies in Education 59 (1): 93–107. Lotz-Sisitka, Heila, Arjen E.J. Wals, David Kronlid, and Dylan McGarry. 2015. “Transformative, Transgressive Social Learning: Rethinking Higher Education Pedagogy in Times of Systemic Global Dysfunction.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 16 (October): 73–80. McCowan, Tristan. 2016. “Universities and the Post-2015 Development Agenda: An Analytical Framework.” Higher Education 72 (4): 505–23. Petticrew, Mark, and Helen Roberts. 2008. Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. John Wiley & Sons. Rodríguez Aboytes, Jorge Gustavo, and Matthias Barth. 2020. “Transformative Learning in the Field of Sustainability: A Systematic Literature Review (1999-2019).” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 21 (5): 993–1013. Sandelowski, Margarete, Corrine I. Voils, Jennifer Leeman, and Jamie L. Crandell. 2012. “Mapping the Mixed Methods-Mixed Research Terrain.” Journal of Mixed Methods Research 6 (4): 317–31. Shephard, Kerry, and Tony Egan. 2018. “Higher Education for Professional and Civic Values: A Critical Review and Analysis.” Sustainability (Switzerland) 10 (12). UNESCO. 2017. Education for Sustainable Development Goals : Learning Objectives. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Wals, A.E.J., V.C. Tassone, Gary P Hampson, and Jonathan Reams. 2016. “Learning for Walking the Change: Eco-Social Innovation through Sustainability-Oriented Higher Education.” In Routledge Handbook of Higher Education for Sustainable Development, edited by Matthias Barth, Gerd Michelsen, Marco Rieckmann, and Ian Thomas, 25–39. London: Routledge. Wiek, Arnim, Lauren Withycombe, and Charles L. Redman. 2011. “Key Competencies in Sustainability: A Reference Framework for Academic Program Development.” Sustainability Science.
Search the ECER Programme
- Search for keywords and phrases in "Text Search"
- Restrict in which part of the abstracts to search in "Where to search"
- Search for authors and in the respective field.
- For planning your conference attendance you may want to use the conference app, which will be issued some weeks before the conference
- If you are a session chair, best look up your chairing duties in the conference system (Conftool) or the app.