Policy, Politics and Polity in Higher Education for Sustainable Development

Authored by: Gerd Michelsen

Routledge Handbook of Higher Education for Sustainable Development

Print publication date:  October  2015
Online publication date:  October  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415727303
eBook ISBN: 9781315852249
Adobe ISBN: 9781317918110

10.4324/9781315852249.ch3

 

Abstract

Higher education for sustainable development has moved up the international political agenda, at the latest since the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002. This agenda involves three elements: content and goals (policy), the activities of different actors (politics) engaged in higher education for sustainable development, as well as its institutional and organizational infrastructure (polity). Since the Johannesburg summit meeting the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has taken up the challenge of promoting the integration of education for sustainable development in the different educational sectors, from elementary schooling to higher education and informal education, in every region in the world. A key political activity was the United Nation’s World Decade on Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014), which will be continued in 2015 as a Global Action Programme (GAP) in order to maintain support for the activities, together with their actors, that started during the Decade (Michelsen 2011, Leal Filho 2011, Barth 2015). Higher education for sustainable development played an important role in the World Decade and it should be continued in the Global Action Plan.

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Policy, Politics and Polity in Higher Education for Sustainable Development

Introduction

Higher education for sustainable development has moved up the international political agenda, at the latest since the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002. This agenda involves three elements: content and goals (policy), the activities of different actors (politics) engaged in higher education for sustainable development, as well as its institutional and organizational infrastructure (polity). Since the Johannesburg summit meeting the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has taken up the challenge of promoting the integration of education for sustainable development in the different educational sectors, from elementary schooling to higher education and informal education, in every region in the world. A key political activity was the United Nation’s World Decade on Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014), which will be continued in 2015 as a Global Action Programme (GAP) in order to maintain support for the activities, together with their actors, that started during the Decade (Michelsen 2011, Leal Filho 2011, Barth 2015). Higher education for sustainable development played an important role in the World Decade and it should be continued in the Global Action Plan.

Policy, politics and polity

In order to better understand the path higher education for sustainable development has taken over the last years and decades, I will examine more closely three political dimensions – namely, policy, politics and polity – as they apply to this area (Fischer and Miller 2006):

  • Policy describes the content of politics – its goals, activities and objects. The particular shape of politics and its realisation depend on societal interests that can vary greatly depending on individual substantive and ideological agendas and may be contradictory or potentially conflictual.
  • Politics is concerned with this procedural dimension of mediating these interests through conflict and consensus. However, the continuous process of policy-making and the mediation of societal interests cannot be understood solely by examining the contents of policy and its actors.
  • Polity as the third political dimension requires an analysis of institutions that are based on the constitution and legal order as well as on tradition.

All three dimensions will be the basis of the further analysis in this chapter.

The analysis of the policy dimension involves examining declarations, programmes and other documents (see Table 3.1) containing policy statements on higher education in the context of the environment and sustainability, as well as important conferences that have played a role in setting the strategic agenda. Topics include concepts of education for sustainable development (in particular higher education), inter- and transdisciplinarity in teaching as well as the whole-institution approach for transforming the university towards sustainability.

In the politics dimension the focus is on political processes in connection with the interests that higher education for sustainable development is advancing and their respective achievement. In order to characterise these processes, it is important to take account of not only key declarations and policy statements, but also the networks that have emerged over the last years and decades. Here the main topics are: activities of the network, orientation (environment, sustainability or both), and range (global, regional, national or local).

If we look at the polity dimension of higher education for sustainable development, then we see that it is about not only norms and institutions but also about the organisation and regulations that support the process and goal-setting as well as content development. The World Decade can be seen as an example for the institutional framework provided by the United Nations and UNESCO, which in turn is then implemented on the national level with the necessary organisation and procedural regulations.

The development phases in higher education for sustainable development are identified by compiling a list of declarations, charters and programmes together with their year of publication (Table 3.1), networks together with their foundation year (Tables 3.2 and 3.3) as well as depicting in Figure 3.1 the development of the total quantity of declarations and networks over time.

The policy dimension of higher education for sustainable development

The starting point of an analysis of the role of education in sustainable development is provided by the first UN Conference on Human Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm in 1972. The declaration adopted by the members of the conference refers to the role that education has to play and calls on UNESCO to address this challenge and hold a conference on environmental education. The resulting Tbilisi Conference (1977) endorsed the Tbilisi Declaration, which had as a consequence that UNESCO would put on its educational agenda environmental issues in all formal as well as informal and non-formal educational contexts. In this declaration the goals of environmental education are formulated as creating an awareness and knowledge of the importance of the environment, promoting attitudes, values and responsibility for the environment, developing practical skills to identify and solve environmental problems, and promoting the participation of groups and individuals in processes to overcome environmental problems. From a programmatic perspective, education is located in the context of environmental challenges, with a focus on the analysis and identification of ways to solve environmental problems.

The UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 extended the scope of the environment to the concept of sustainability. Almost 180 countries adopted Agenda 21, which in Chapter 36 deals in detail with education, including higher education. This chapter emphasises the importance of educational processes in the context of sustainable development. Ten years later, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, the United Nations was called on to proclaim a World Decade on Education for Sustainable Development. And at the General Assembly Meeting of the UN in December 2002 the Decade was adopted, creating an institutional framework for the promo- tion of education for sustainable development with UNESCO acting as a lead agency in its implementation. The World Decade has resulted in concrete policy proposals and practical activities in many countries around the world and has given impulses in politics, administration as well as educational practice for the implementation of education for sustainable development in the different educational sectors.

Table 3.1   Declarations, charters und programmes in higher education (1972—2014)

Declaration/ Charter/ Programme

Initiator/Partner

Year

Idea/Keywords

Challenge

Approach

Declaration of the UN Conference on the Human Environment

United Nations

1972

Environmental education in general

Environment

Tbilisi Declaration

UNESCO/UNEP

1977

Environmental Education

Environment

Interdisciplinarity

Talloires Declaration

University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF)

1990

Higher education Leadership for sustainability

Environment Sustainability

Interdisciplinarity Transdisciplinarity

Halifax Declaration

Canadian institutions, IAU, UNU

1991

Ethical obligation Participation Leadership

Environment Sustainability

Whole-institution approach

Agenda 21

United Nations

1992

Chapter 36 Environmental education

Environment Sustainability

Kyoto Declaration

IAU

1993

Sustainability action plan Environmental education

Environment Sustainability

Whole-institution approach

Swansea Declaration

Association of Commonwealth Universities

1993

Ethical obligation Environmental literacy and curriculum

Environment Sustainability

Whole-institution approach

COPERNICUS Charter

COPERNICUS and European Universities

1994

Embedding the environment and sustainability across higher education

Environment Sustainability

Interdisciplinarity

World Declaration for Higher Education

UNESCO

1998

Responsibility Societal problems

Environmental Sustainability

Inter- and transdisciplinarity Whole-institution approach

Lüneburg Declaration

GHESP

2001

Key role of universities Social change Curriculum reorientation

Sustainability

Whole-institution approach

Ubuntu Declaration

UNU, UNESCO, COPERNICUS GHESP, ULSF et al.

2002

Learning for sustainability Review of programs and curriculum MDGs

Sustainability

Whole-institution approach

Johannesburg Declaration/ Johannesburg Plan

United Nations

2002

Education for sustainable development UN Decade ESD

Sustainability

UNECE Strategy on ESD

UNECE

2005

ESD in general and in higher education

Sustainability

Interdisciplinarity Whole-institution approach

Graz Declaration

COPERNICUS, Oikos, UNESCO

2005

Embedding sustainability across higher education

Sustainability

Interdisciplinarity Whole-institution approach

Bologna Declaration / Bergen Communiqué

Ministers of Education in Europe

1998/ 2005

Sustainability Curriculum reform process

Sustainability

Sapporo Sustainability Declaration

GS University Network

2008

Need for global sustainability Reorientation of education and curriculum

Sustainability

Bonn Declaration

UNESCO

2009

ESD Higher education institutions

Sustainability

Multidisciplinarity Whole-institution approach

The Future We Want – Rio+20 Declaration

United Nations

2012

ESD Quality education

Sustainability

Interdisciplinarity

Rio+20 Treaty on Higher Education

COPERNICUS, MESA, GUNI, GUPES, IAU, ISCN, UNU RCE et al.

2012

Responsibility of universities ESD in higher education Transformation research

Sustainability

Aichi-Nagoya Declaration on Education for Sustainable Development

UNESCO

2014

ESD in general Responsibility Transformative knowledge

Sustainability

Whole-institution approach

Among the most important recent international conferences focusing on education for sustainable development, the following should be mentioned: the Bonn Conference on Moving into the Second Half of the World Decade in 2009, with its Bonn Declaration, the 36th General Assembly Meeting of the UN in 2011, where 68 countries referred in their statements to the importance of education for sustainable development, and the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, with its final document once again emphasising the importance of education for sustainable development.

A closer look at the process of reaching an understanding of education for sustainable development reveals the crucial importance of a number of policy statements. Sustainable development, as formulated in the Brundtland Report, cannot be achieved without comprehensive and far-reaching social change processes and fundamental shifts in perspective (e.g. in the human-nature relationship) along with other policy actions as found, for example, in Agenda 21. Such fundamental reorientations and changes require bringing about a new consciousness in individuals, which will undoubtedly only be possible through learning. Such a change in mentality must be systematically initiated as an integral goal of the educational system. Education is thus an essential element in the sustainability process, with its role explicitly defined in Agenda 21:

Education is critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of the people to address environment and development issues.

(United Nations Division for Sustainable Development 1992: Chapter 36.3)

In order for education to adequately address these demands, sustainable development must be understood as a cross-cutting issue. Since the 1990s there have been numerous efforts worldwide to introduce elements of education for sustainable development in formal, non-formal and informal educational sectors. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has thus reformulated and further elaborated its understanding of education for sustainable development in its strategy:

Education for sustainable development develops and strengthens the capacity of individuals, groups, communities, organizations and countries to make judgments and choices in favour of sustainable development. It can promote a shift in people’s mindsets and in so doing enable them to make our world safer, healthier and more prosperous, thereby improving the quality of life. Education for sustainable development can provide critical reflection and greater awareness and empowerment so that new visions and concepts can be explored and new methods and tools developed.

(UNECE 2005: 1)

To this end, education for sustainable development should contribute to developing critical thinking competence in individuals so they will be better able to help shape the process of sustainable development as well as question their own attitudes and actions. A key goal in education for sustainable development is to foster the development of such individual competences. In addition, it is important to debate what knowledge and values are especially relevant to a vision of sustainable development – in particular as they are related to the preservation of the natural basis of life, human dignity and justice. This fundamental understanding of education for sustainable development is relevant for all educational sectors, and thus also for higher education for sustainable development.

For the higher education sector, alongside initiatives originating in the United Nations and the UNESCO, it is above all non-governmental organisations, networks and interest groups that have contributed with their declarations and programmatic proposals to the intensive discussions about sustainability in higher education that have taken place since the 1990s. If sustainability was at first seen as closely related to the environment, then this view has changed considerably since the beginning of the new millennium. Both the 2001 Lüneburg Declaration and the 2002 Ubuntu Declaration explicitly refer to the key role of universities and call for essential changes in teaching towards inter- and transdisciplinary approaches. They also take a holistic view of universities and call for a whole-institution approach to their transformation.

In Europe the COPERNICUS Charter and the Bologna Declaration together with the Bergen Communiqué have also played an important role. As a consequence of the Earth Summit in 1992, the European Rectors’ Conference adopted the COPERNICUS University Charter in 1994, which then served as a mission statement for many European universities. By signing the Charter, universities voluntarily commit themselves to ten principles of action, encompassing environmental ethics, the education of university employees, programmes in environmental education, interdisciplinarity, the dissemination of knowledge, networking, partnerships, continuing education programmes and technology transfer. The Charter defines the voluntary commitment of universities to act in accordance with the principles of sustainable development and to integrate the idea of sustainability into the university system across teaching and learning, research and operational practice.

On the policy level, the so-called Bergen Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education in 2005 marked a major step toward acknowledging sustainability as a guiding principle for building the European higher education area and the Bologna Process. The UNECE places the Strategy for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), also established in 2005 in Vilnius (Lithuania), high on the political agenda and serves as a driving force for creating structures and provisions for ESD in the region. The strategy serves as a flexible framework for European countries and outlines a range of objectives underlying the regional implementation, e.g. ensuring that policies support ESD, promoting sustainable development through all forms of learning, equipping the education sector with the competences to engage in ESD, developing special tools and materials, promoting research and development of ESD, fostering the use of indigenous knowledge and strengthening cooperation on ESD in the UNECE region. Detailed descriptions of the goals and measures necessary for the introduction of ESD can be found in this strategy.

The politics dimension of higher education for sustainable development

Higher education for sustainable development relies on strong networks not only for its members to share experiences and learn from each other, but also to achieve its interests with as much consensus as possible. Over the last two decades, a number of national as well as international networks have been formed to facilitate such exchange activities and to pursue their interests and conduct the lobbying work necessary to that end. Table 3.2 lists some of the most influential networks around the world. Not surprisingly, the number of networks has increased considerably since the beginning of the UN World Decade on Education for Sustainable Development. There are now possibilities for universities in every region of the world to actively engage in networks on global, regional, national and local scales. The growing interest in network-building underscores two developments: firstly, the interest in changing universities towards more sustainability, and secondly, the role that networks play as instruments in further strengthening the political process establishing sustainability in universities.

Table 3.2   Networks on higher education for sustainable development – an overview

Networks

Activities

Year established

Orientation

Global/ regional/ national

Internet address

IAU – International Association of Universities

Promoting and facilitating universities’ responsibility with regard to sustainability

Since 1993 (Kyoto Declaration)

Environment Sustainability

Global

www.iau-aiu.net/sd/sd_dkyoto.html

ISCN-International Sustainable Campus Network

Sharing best practices on building design, transportation and teaching (world-wide)

2007

Sustainability

Global

www.international-sustainable-campus-network.org

GUNI-Global Universities Network for Innovation

Strengthening the role of higher education in society contributing to the renewal of the visions, missions and policies of higher education

1998

Innovation Social responsibility

Global

www.guninetwork.org

GUPES – Global University Network for Environment and Sustainability

Mainstreaming of environment and sustainability practices and curricula into universities around the world

2010

Environment Sustainability

Global

www.gupes.org

UN-PRME – United Nations Principles for Responsible Leadership Education

Responsible management education, research and leadership

2007

Environment Sustainability

Global

www.unprme.org

COPERNICUS Alliance

Improving higher education and research for sustainable development in partnership with the society

1993/2007

Sustainability

Europe

www.copernicus-alliance.org

NSCN – Nordic Sustainable Campus Network

Strengthening sustainability in research and teaching; supporting green campus activities

2012

Sustainability

Europe

https://nordicsustainablecampusnetwork.wordpress.com

EAUC – Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges

Embedding the principles and values of environmental, economic and social sustainability in higher education

1996

Environment Sustainability

National

www.eauc.org.uk/home

AUT – Allianz Nachhaltige Universitäten in Österreich

Establishing sustainability in universities

2012

Sustainability

National

http://nachhaltigeuniversitaeten.at/

AASHE – Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

Inspiring and catalysing higher education to lead the the global sustainability transformation

2005

Sustainability

North America

www.aashe.org

NWF – Campus Ecology

Campus Ecology program to protect wildlife and habitat, and improve campuses overall green educational programming and onsite sustainability

1989

Environment Sustainability

North America

www.nwf.org/Campus-Ecology.aspx

ARIUSA – Alianza de Redes Ibero-americanas de Universidades por la Sustentabilidad y el Ambiente

Improving higher education for environment and sustainability; greening the campus

2007

Environment Sustainability

South America

http://ariusa.net

MESA Universities Partnership

Mainstreaming/ integrating of environment and sustainability concerns into teaching, research and community engagement and management of African universities

Environment Sustainability

Africa

www.unep.org/training/programmes/mesa.asp

ProSPER.Net

Promoting sustainability in postgraduate education and research; young scientist award; leadership programme

2007

Sustainability

Asia

www.prospernet.ias.unu.edu

KAGCI

Sustainability in higher education; green campus declaration of university presidents

2008

Sustainability

Asia

www.kagci.org

ACTS – Australian Campuses Towards Sustainability

Inspiring, promoting and supporting change towards best practice sustainability within the operations, curriculum and research of universities

2006

Environment Sustainability

Australia

www.acts.asn.au

The potential of such networks is exemplified on the regional level by the European network COPERNICUS Alliance, which was re-established in 2007 (Mader 2011). Founded by ten core member institutions, the network’s vision is to promote the role of sustainable development in European higher education in partnership with societal actors. Its main goals are to exchange knowledge on ESD between European higher education institutions and student organisations that work for sustainability, to promote ESD in European policy-making, to disseminate tools for sustainability integration in higher education and to represent European higher education in international committees on ESD. The network takes up earlier networking activities from the former Copernicus Campus network and is strongly connected to the COPERNICUS Charter. On a national level we can see in the example of Austria how different actors in the higher education sector network exert influence on political processes on a global level (e.g. through ISCN or GUPES), but also on a regional level (e.g. through the COPERNICUS Alliance) and on a national level (e.g. through AUT).

Student networks engaged in issues concerning the integration of sustainability in higher education also play a special role (Table 3.3). Even though the number of global student networks is not very high, it is clear that there is substantial interest on the part of students in the environment and sustainability.

If we look at the development process of higher education and sustainability, then we see that at the latest with the start of the new millennium there has been a considerable increase in engagement. On an international level the United Nations and the UNESCO have taken up the cause of education for sustainable development by proclaiming the UN World Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, giving an important impulse to countries in different regions of the world. Even if education for sustainable development has been taken up by individual countries around the world with varying degrees of enthusiasm in the different sectors of their educational systems, the Decade has provided an important stimulus for higher education. The establishment of new networks for ‘higher education and sustainability’ span every continent and show not only that many actors are interested in initiating change processes in their own institutions but also that these actors are influencing political decision-making so as to promote a transformation of higher education towards sustainability. In the Bologna Process, which was established to create a unified European higher education area, policy-makers called on institutions of higher education to integrate elements of sustainability into all new programmes of study. The cooperation of governmental, non-governmental and societal institutions and organisations has, both before and during the UN Decade, led to processes exploring how changes can be made in higher education that would lead to greater sustainability.

Table 3.3   Student networks worldwide

Networks

Activities

Year established

Orientation

Global/ regional/ national

Internet address

Oikos International – Students for Sustainable Economics and Management

Empowering future leaders to drive change towards sustainability worldwide

1987

Sustainability

Global

www.oikos-international.org

WSEN – World Student Environmental Network

Supporting creative student initiatives for the incorporation of sustainability into higher education systems, policies and institutions

2008

Environment Sustainability

Global

http://wsen.org

NetImpact

Community of students and professionals committed to solving the world’s toughest social and environmental problems

1993

Environment

Global

https://netimpact.org

The polity dimension of higher education for sustainable development: the example of the UN world decade education for sustainable development

Following the recommendation of the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg 2002, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the World Decade on Education for Sustainable Development for the period 2005–2014 to be coordinated by UNESCO. Its goal was to develop educational measures to contribute to the implementation of Agenda 21, which was adopted at the 1992 Rio Summit and then reaffirmed at the 2002 Johannesburg Summit, anchoring the principles of sustainable development in national educational systems around the world. All member nations of the United Nations were called on to develop national and international educational activities that would show pathways to preserving and enhancing the living conditions and chances of survival for both existing and future generations.

In a number of countries, institutional frameworks were created for the implementation of Decade activities and for promoting the process of establishing education for sustainable development in all sectors of education. An example of which structures were created for the activities during the UN World Decade for National Development can be found for the German-speaking countries of Austria, Switzerland and Germany (Michelsen 2014; see Table 3.4).

We can now look more closely at the institutional and organisational implementation of the Decade, using Germany as an example with the structures and procedures created there. Organisationally, a Decade Office was established at the German UNESCO Commission for the implementation of the Decade, receiving financial support for its operation from the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF). A National Committee Education for Sustainable Development was appointed and met twice a year to deal with important issues related to the monitoring and implementation of the Decade. The results and recommendations they reported were then addressed to the respective decision-makers in politics, administration and educational practice and negotiated with them. The National Committee was composed of members from the relevant ministries at federal and state levels as well as from politics, associations, non-governmental organisations and institutions such as universities, broadcasting companies, from the media and from relevant foundations. Representatives of educational practice met annually at the Round Table and agreed on concrete practical educational activities.

From the very beginning of the decade, the working group ‘Higher Education’ played a crucial role with more than 100 academics from universities and universities of applied science participating. Work of the group covered teaching and learning in higher education, whole-institution approaches and finally the development of a sustainability codex. An important milestone was the memorandum ‘Higher Education and Sustainability’ which was approved by the German UNESCO commission as well as the Germans Rectors’ conference in 2009 (Deutsche UNESCO-Kommission 2014).

Table 3.4   Structures for implementing the UNWorld Decade Education for Sustainable Development

Country

Structures and activities

Germany

  • National Committee with Decade Office
  • Round table with stakeholders
  • Recognition of Decade projects
  • Research programme in education for sustainable development
  • Activities specific to each federal state
  • Establishing Regional Centres of Expertise

Switzerland

  • Swiss Coordination Conference Education for Sustainable Development
  • Action Plan 2007—2014 Education for Sustainable Development
  • Recognition of Decade projects
  • Programme Sustainable Development in Universities (2013—2017)

Austria

  • Austrian Strategy for Education for Sustainable Development
  • Decade Office
  • Recognition of Decade projects
  • Sustainability Award for Austrian universities
  • Establishing Regional Centres of Expertise

An important tool for encouraging initiatives and projects on education for sustainable development was a recognition process for so-called Decade projects. Over the Decade, nearly 2,000 projects were awarded recognition. At the federal level, a research program was also launched to study education for sustainable development, and at the federal state level specific initiatives were put in place in individual states, for example, modifying framework guidelines for schools, while in a number of universities programmes of study containing elements of sustainability were introduced. On the federal state level contractual arrangements in the form of target agreements between individual universities and the relevant ministry were made, which explicitly included the integration of sustainability into the strategy of higher education development.

Higher education for sustainable development: from the environmental perspective to sustainability

A closer look at the role of education in the context of the environment and sustainability shows what changes there have been in discussions revolving around these topics. The declarations published over the past 40 years along with the networks and the institutional frameworks that have been established (see Figure 3.1) can be divided into three different phases:

  1. Orientation and experimental phase (1970 to 1990)
  2. Transition and development phase (1990 to 2000)
  3. Expansionary phase (to 2014)

In the orientation and experimental phase the background is characterised by the environmental destruction, together with the growing realisation that raw materials are a finite resource, that was experienced in many countries around the world and was documented in numerous publications including Silent Spring, Limits to Growth, Global 2000, Seveso ist überall (Seveso is Everywhere). In reaction to these developments, the UN Conference on Human Environment (1972) called for involving education as an instrument for preventing or solving environmental problems, which led to the UNESCO holding, as mentioned above, the first conference on environmental education in Tbilisi (Georgia). The Tbilisi Declaration that was adopted at the end of the conference had as a consequence that many countries undertook both policy initiatives and practical actions in education that aimed at establishing environmental education in the different educational sectors. At the same time a scientific discussion on environmental education began. With the Brundtland Report (1987) it became clear that human development on earth in a traditional sense (for example, continued growth on a planet with finite resources, environmental destruction, unequal distribution of resources) was no longer possible. The report shaped the ‘modern’ idea of sustainability and produced the concept of sustainable development that has since become an important element in global political and societal discourse. The discussion on education has also been strongly influenced by this thinking.

An important landmark in the transition and development phase was Agenda 21, which was adopted at the Rio Conference in 1992. This document describes the action that must be taken in order to achieve the goal of sustainable development. Although almost all chapters in Agenda 21 contain references to the importance of education, it is Chapter 36 that exclusively deals with education, public awareness and training. It is a catalogue of proposals showing pathways to implementing the actions listed in this chapter. This document gave the discussion about the role of education in the context of sustainable development a central reference point, one that has since repeatedly appeared in educational policy initiatives and activities in national context. The activities that were initiated world-wide had however consequences that need to be critically evaluated. The first efforts to implement Agenda 21 focused on schools (that is, on only one area of the formal educational system), were mostly limited to environmental education and concentrated on the ecological dimension of sustainability. The first initiatives (political declarations, establishing networks) in higher education recognised the role of universities in meeting the challenge of sustainability.

Number of declarations and networks: development since 1970

Figure 3.1   Number of declarations and networks: development since 1970

In the expansionary phase an important role was played by the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation both stressed the special importance of education and lifelong learning for promoting sustainable development. The role of education as an integral component in sustainable development was strengthened:

we will work together to assist one another to have access to financial resources, … ensure capacity building, … and make sure that there is technology transfer, human resource development, education and training to banish forever underdevelopment.

(United Nations 2002)

A number of chapters emphasise the key role of education for specific fields of action such as gender equality, rural development, healthcare and patterns of consumption and formulated the goal to:

Integrate sustainable development into education systems at all levels of education in order to promote education as a key agent for change.

(United Nations 2002)

Furthermore the Plan of Implementation argues for the creation and implementation of local, sub-national and national educational guidelines that include education for sustainable development. It also proposes as an important measure the implementation of a World Decade of Education for Sustainable Development to start in 2005. This position statement and the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development both call for all educational sectors, including that of informal education, to devote greater efforts to integrating the concept of sustainability. In this phase we can also see increased activities in higher education. It will be a challenge in the next phase to create the necessary structures for the implementation of sustainability in higher education.

The Decade was undoubtedly successful overall (Wals 2012). As a result of the UN World Decade there have been many initiatives and activities all over the world that have shown what education for sustainable development is about. This includes major conferences and publications as well as specific initiatives. For example, in China education for sustainable development was integrated in the medium and long term planning for national educational reform (2010–20) and over 1,000 experimental schools for education for sustainable development were established. In India the campaign CO2 Pick Right was started in over 70,000 schools. In Japan education for sustainable development was codified in the national curriculum guidelines. Sweden is supporting the training and education of teachers in education for sustainable development in Asia and Africa. The MESA programme by UNEP has introduced education for sustainable development and sustainable development in over 80 universities in 40 African countries. Alongside numerous European initiatives (see Stoltenberg and Holz 2012), Sweden has passed legislation requiring all universities to take up education for sustainable development and sustainable development. In Germany close to 2,000 so-called Decade Projects were recognised, a good 4,000 teachers in day-care centres were certified in education for sustainable development, and in general schools sustainable development has gained importance. The United Nations University has been able to establish over 100 Regional Centres for Expertise (RCE) around the world that focus on education for sustainable development on a local or regional level. Research programs on education for sustainable development (for example in Germany) are beginning to take shape.

Outlook

Education for sustainable development has become an established concept that fundamentally reinterprets the goals, methods and content of education, enhancing its quality, as well as creating opportunities for change processes in individual educational sectors. However despite the countless political initiatives and activities as well as practical projects described, education for sustainable development is not yet ‘mainstream’. And it is for this reason that at the final Decade conference in Nagoya (2014) the UNESCO announced it will continue the UN World Decade as a Global Action Programme. The Aichi-Nagoya Declaration states:

that the Global Action Programme (GAP) on ESD, endorsed by the 37th session of the General Conference of UNESCO as a follow up to the Decade of ESD and a concrete contribution to the post-2015 agenda, aims at generating and scaling up ESD actions in all levels and areas of education, training and learning.

(UNESCO 2014: 1)

Moreover the member countries of UNESCO are called on to continue to work for further progress in education for sustainable development; in particular that they should:

Review the purposes and values that underpin education, assess the extent to which education policy and curricula are achieving the goals of ESD; reinforce the integration of ESD into education, training, and sustainable development policies, with a special attention paid to system-wide and holistic approaches and multi-stakeholder cooperation and partnerships between actors of the education sector, private sector, civil society and those working in the various areas of sustainable development; and ensure the education, training and professional development of teachers and other educators to successfully integrate ESD into teaching and learning.

(UNESCO 2014: 2)

The Global Action Programme is expected to give further impulses for the implementation of education for sustainable development. The programme is concentrated on five priority action areas:

  1. Processes for the political integration of education for sustainable development at national and international levels must be strengthened, and the success factors for its establishment identified.
  2. Support is needed for holistic approaches for schools and higher education (whole-institution approaches) to sustainability, not viewing it merely as a topic for lessons and teaching but as a comprehensive mission that will impact the shape of educational institutions.
  3. The Global Action Programme should aim at strengthening activities integrating education for sustainability development in the areas of pre-service and in-service teacher education and training.
  4. Young people should not only be seen as target groups of education but should instead be more closely involved in educational processes and provided opportunities to serve as change agents, especially in the informal and non-formal educational sectors.
  5. Finally, efforts should be increased to promote education for sustainable development on a local level and to support network local actors.

We can expect that the five strategic action areas identified in the Global Action Program, in particular the greater efforts to empower young people, will play a more prominent role in further developing practice and research in the area of sustainable development over the coming years. Consequently, with the years coming, the following activities come into play and will be crucial for HESD:

  • The ‘whole-institution approach’ needs to be embedded more systematically in institutions. This way, universities have the opportunity to take over organisational responsibility and serve as a role model in society.
  • Higher Education Institutions need to develop and implement new study programmes, especially but not limited to teacher education, in which sustainability is a key issue. This will help to educate future change agents that will contribute to a sustainability transformation.
  • The role of professional development of academics in higher education as well as of key actors in economy, administration, education and academia must be supported with respect to key challenges in sustainability.
  • In research on HESD an output- and outcome-oriented perspective that provides evidence-based recommendations is needed, especially focusing on the development of key competencies in sustainability.

In the course of these activities the UNESCO Chairs that are engaged in issues related to sustainable development should also take on a greater role internationally. The UNESCO Chairs belong to the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme, which promotes interuniversity cooperation and networking to enhance institutional capacities through knowledge sharing and collaboration. In many instances, the UNESCO Chairs serve as think tanks and as bridge builders between academia, civil society, local communities, research institutions and policy makers. In the context of UNESCO initiatives they have so far been an underutilised resource, but in their intermediary function in their own countries they have been able to make a considerable contribution to focusing the attention of universities and colleges on education for sustainable development. For teaching but also for research, all of the strategic action areas are of interest for the UNESCO Chairs as well as for other actors in higher education.

References

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UNECE, 2005. UNECE Strategy for Education for Sustainable Development. CEP/AC.13/2005/3/Rev.1 (adopted at the High Level Meeting in Vilnius, 17–18 March 2005).
UNESCO, 2014. Aichi-Nagoya Declaration on Education for Sustainable Development. www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/ERI/pdf/Aichi-Nagoya_Declaration_EN.pdf [accessed 10 March 2015 ].
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