One of the challenges that comes up often in discussions around embedding responsible leadership and sustainability into management education is how to measure progress and impact. Several schools are exploring different projects that would enable them to do this more effectively. Coventry University, in the UK, is one of these. They have recently become a pilot school invited to test out a new accreditation mark (which they recently received) launched by the National Union of Students in the UK, called Responsible Futures. The mark goes beyond looking at sustainability on campus to exploring sustainability across the whole institution, and in particular in curriculum.
I spoke with Dr. Paul Cashian, Faculty Director of Learning and Teaching at the Faculty of Business, Environment and Society, about their experience.
Introduce the programme and how Coventry got involved in the project?
The Responsible Future project is an accreditation mark launched by the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK aimed at embedding sustainability issues into the curriculum. The scheme is partly a response to annual NUS/HEA surveys which consistently show more than 60% of UK students want issues around sustainability to be included in their courses. Coventry University was one of eight universities, along with five further education colleges, invited to trial the new accreditation mark by the NUS, partly based on previous green initiatives from our own Students Union (CUSU), and partly through the work of embedding PRME in the curriculum, done within my faculty. Details on the Responsible Futures project can be found on the NUS website, and a dedicated Responsible Futures page is under development.
Why have an accreditation process for sustainability? How does it work?
The NUS sees the Responsible Futures project as an on-going process. Achieving the accreditation mark is not an end in itself but an indication that an institution, in partnership with their students, has put in place an enabling framework to take the whole sustainability agenda forward. The other advantage of this particular accreditation mark is that the focus on curriuculum moves the sustainability agenda at the institutional level away from the traditional focus on this being an issue for the Estates Department. We also see this as an opportunity to support and develop the work we’ve been doing in the faculty in relation to PRME—a nationally recognised institutional-level accreditation mark gives more credibility to the faculty’s PRME committment. The focus we have taken in our approach to PRME is to develop graduates who are aware of sustainability issues and the need to adopt responsible and ethical work practices in their future careers. This is similar to the ethos behind Responsible Futures—it is not just about students developing knowledge about sustainability, but also about them taking a challenging and responsible mindset into the work place.
The accreditation process is evidence-based and revolves around putting together a workbook that meets a series of criteria. Some criteria are mandatory and some optional, plus you can define your own additional criteria if you wish. The mandatory criteria cover areas such as having a Responible Futures coordinating partnership group with a clear action plan, the partnership group including a high-level champion, providing evidence of sustainability-relevant formal and informal curriculum activities and, perhaps most crucially, showing that the institution’s learning and teaching strategy support the objectives of the Responsible Futures initiative. To achieve the accreditation mark, the workbook evidence is audited by teams of NUS-trained student auditors from another institution, with a score being awarded against the evidence presented for each criterion. The audit team also interview staff and students as part of the audit process. The accreditation mark is awarded if a minimum score is gained, and lasts for 3 years. As a pilot at the moment, some of these details may change before the general roll out.
Do you think there should be an accreditation mark for sustainability?
There are many accreditations related to aspects of sustainability, however we saw the Responsible Futures accreditation presented two advantages: Firstly, the focus of many of the criteria on the curriculum, both formal and informal, changes the emphasis to focus on our students and their engagement with the sustainability agenda. Secondly, when taken as a whole the criteria provided us with a mechanism to bring together other awards, initiatives and projects into a more cohesive and compelling framework. However, to use the accreditation process in this way you do need a degree of cooperation across the institution, which usually equates with a champion at the highest level who can make things happen.
What have you learnt so far through this process?
I think that all the members of the coordinating group have been surprised by just how much evidence we have been able to collect to support our claims against the criteria—and we know that there are a lot more activities and initiatives that we haven’t yet uncovered. The other learning point for me was how effective a small but focused team drawn from across traditional university silos (academic, estates, students union) can be in kick-starting a project such as this—we all brought different experiences, perspectives and institutional contact networks into the process.
What have been some of your challenges? Successes?
The biggest challenge has been engaging senior management from other faculties in the process, despite having a high level management as a champion. This may be because, as a pilot institution, we were on a very tight timescale having less than 6 months to root out and present the evidence, as well as demonstrate that the Responsible Futures initiative was having an impact on the institution.
Our invitation to act as a pilot institution was really well-timed as over the last 12 months the university has been preparing a revised corporate plan and an associated education strategy. Involvement in the Responsible Futures project raised the profile of sustainability and green issues within the university leadership team, and has allowed us to have a positive impact on both these key strategic documents.
What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?
The key piece of advice I would give is to try and be as inclusive as possible in terms of who you include in the process. Take the opportunity to break down the traditional internal barriers and pull together all the disparate green and sustainability initiatives taking place across the university—chances are that you will be as surprised, as I was, about how much is actually happening and the opportunities that exist to enrich the curriculum with live cases and projects.
Achieving the accreditation mark is only the start of the process. As with PRME, the underlying philosophy is one of the need for continual enhancement and development.
Any UK institution that might be interested in working towards the Responsible Futures accreditation mark should contact Quinn Runkle at the NUS (quinn.runkle(at)nus.org.uk).