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Higher Education from 2010 to 2024: Where have we been and where do we go?

Ripple Effects
Dr Louise Logan

Project Officer for Education, King's Climate & Sustainability

29 May 2024

The landscape of Higher Education has changed significantly in the last 14 years. In this blog, King’s Climate & Sustainability’s Project Officer for Education, Dr Louise Logan, reflects on the growing demand for Education for Sustainability throughout her time in the sector.

When I joined the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow as an undergraduate in 2010, ‘sustainability’ was a term I was barely aware of. Efforts were made to recycle at home and at school, but being ‘sustainable’ wasn’t yet something to aspire to. My teenage vegetarianism was motivated by a concern for animal welfare (and, admittedly, the desire to annoy my family) rather than the environmental impact of industrial agriculture. ‘Carbon emissions’ was again terminology that hadn’t yet entered common parlance. During my English degree, sustainability wasn’t something I was aware of in the curriculum. How, then, did I end up here?

In November 2010, on my 19th birthday, I took a sweaty overnight bus packed with fellow students from Glasgow to London, to take part in what turned out to be the largest student demonstration in decades. The new coalition government had planned significant education spending cuts and - for those not lucky enough to benefit from free tuition as we did in Scotland - huge hikes in tuition fees. 50,000 people turned out from across the UK, but the planned cuts went ahead and have shaped the last 14 years of Higher Education. My undergrad, Master’s and PhD were punctuated by frequent strikes by academics, professional staff and students (and I eventually took part in all three capacities) fighting against pension cuts, casualisation, gender inequality and zero hours contracts which continue to damage quality education and the sector.

Over the same period, we’ve seen universities across the UK cut degree programmes in arts, humanities and social sciences and damaging rhetoric about degrees which seen to be of ‘low value’ economically. This characterisation is misleading; graduates with humanities and social sciences degrees are as likely to find rewarding employment across a range of sectors as STEM graduates, while the creative industries contribute over £100 billion to the UK economy. The instability of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic have further intensified questions about the purpose of university degrees – and universities more broadly.

These questions underpin much of the work going on across the sector, and in Education for Sustainability (EfS) in particular, which seeks to transform education in order to create graduates equipped with the knowledge, skills, values and attributes necessary to make much-needed positive change in society. EfS is another piece of terminology I wasn’t aware of until towards the end of my PhD, when a last-minute teaching gig saw me coordinating an interdisciplinary EfS module that brought together English and Computer Science students on a project module partnering with local primary schools to increase digital literacy and widen access. This is how I came to learn that sustainability wasn’t only concerned with the environment, but social and economic factors as well. The complex and interrelated nature of sustainability challenges across these three pillars is represented by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which include Gender Equality (SDG 5), Climate Action (SDG 13), Decent Work & Economic Growth (SDG 8), and Quality Education (SDG 4). It was clear to me then that EfS represented the ideal of HE – transformative education that sought to make a difference and valued knowledge and skills across all disciplines.

There’s been an increasing sense of urgency around engagement with EfS in the last decade, with the QAA and Advance HE launching their official guidance in 2021 and the ongoing inclusion of EfS in Subject Benchmark Statements. Students, too, consistently report a desire to see sustainability in their formal education; a 2023 SOS-UK survey of King’s students found that 79% would like to see sustainable development actively incorporated and promoted across all courses. Colleagues from across King’s are working to make this a reality, and soon King’s Climate & Sustainability will launch a new EfS Toolkit to support teaching staff to draw out links to sustainability in their teaching practice.

While working on the Toolkit, I’ve heard from a range of colleagues what EfS means to them, and what exactly are knowledge, skills, values and attributes we’re seeking to imbue students with. Inevitably there’s some disagreement on the details, but we agree that we want our students and graduates to be empowered to act and to influence. Today, as in 2010, students continue to stand up for what they believe in, whether it’s for quality education, urgent action on climate, or for peace in the face of injustice, but are sometimes punished or viewed with derision by institutions that claim to want to create world-changing graduates. If we are truly to work together to create transformative education, we need to work with, and for students, and ask ourselves the same questions we ask them: how can we make a positive change in our sphere of influence, and where can we go from here?

Ripple Effects

Ripple Effects is the blog from King's Climate & Sustainability, showcasing perspectives from across the King's community.

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