Understanding Sustainability

Sustainability carries the aim of improving prospects for people across the globe whilst protecting the natural systems that life depends upon. The idea of sustainability – or sustainable development – recognises that our health, cultural, financial, security and environmental issues are not separate, competing, and hierarchical, but systemic and interdependent. Sustainability requires more than technical and scientific innovation. Most importantly, it involves changes in our thinking and lifestyles. Therefore sustainability can ultimately be seen as a challenge of learning and a priority for education. This is the key idea behind Education for Sustainability. Find out more in this short briefing.

Sustainability on the international stage

In 2015, UN Member States adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as successor to the Millennium Development Goals.

This intergovernmental agreement – Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – follows the ‘Rio+20’ Earth Summit in 2012. It aims to connect global economic, social and environmental goals, to advance the post-2015 development agenda.

Visit the SDG website

Defining Sustainability

There are many definitions of sustainable development, an idea that has gained in visibility since the 1970s. The concept emerged from the practice of forestry management and the study of natural systems.

The most commonly quoted definition is from ‘Our Common Future’, the 1987 publication of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development – known as the Brundtland report:

“Sustainable Development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”

Sustainability in Higher Education

The idea of a university is that it acts as a beacon for society through education and research, building on foundational knowledge but also breaking new ground. In a rapidly changing world facing complex challenges, this role to support change through learning and inquiry is critical.

The global higher education community is increasingly active in sustainability in line with international agendas and the interests of the wider global student community. In the UK, innovation has been supported by HE funding agencies of all the devolved administrations, the National Union of Students, as well as student-led organisations and education agencies. The People and Planet league was established in 2007 to benchmark the performance of universities in responding to sustainability, based on the priority impacts most important to students.

Education and skills agencies

Education for Sustainability frameworks and guidance have been published by agencies including LSIS, NIACE and Ofsted. The UK Higher Education Academy supported curriculum research and development and the UK Quality Assurance Agency released national guidance aligned to the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

“All graduates will share responsibility as stewards, not only of the environment, but also of social justice – as employees, citizens and, in many cases, parents and mentors of the next generation.” (QAA, 2014)

National Union of Students

The NUS have pioneered a range of sustainability programmes to support students in driving change, including the UNESCO award-winning Green Impact project and £5m Green Fund investment in Students Unions. It has conducted annual skills surveys since 2010 reaching over 35,000 students, reporting on the priorities and demands students are focused on.

“88% of students across all levels and subjects believe sustainability is something universities should actively support and promote.” (NUS, 2018)

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