Developing a Sustainability Disposition – La Trobe Business School

In 2008, La Trobe Business School in Melbourne, Australia was one of the first schools to become a Signatory to PRME. The Business School, which also has campuses in Sydney, China, France and Vietnam, has been actively engaged in both embedding responsible management within its school as well as contributing to the PRME network. They are starting their second term as a PRME Champion, Ten years on, they were selected to be a PRME Champion along with 38 other business schools from across the world who are taking transformative action on integrating the Sustainable Development Goals into three key areas: curriculum, research and partnerships.

In 2015 the School put in place a second year subject focused on Sustainability which is mandatory for all students enrolled in any Business Degree. Because of its focus on developing a sustainability disposition in students rather than just educating them about the issues, the course has been very well received by students and continues to be an exemplar of cross-disciplinary subject content within the School. I spoke with Dr Swati Nagpal about this innovative course. 

What is La Trobe Business School’s approach to sustainability in the classroom?

LBS understands the obligation as an institution to advocate for responsible management education throughout the school; in its four departments and its research centres, and by advocating and supporting responsible management initiatives and operations across the university.

A patchwork of subjects addressing Sustainability Education in Business degree courses at La Trobe was replaced in 2015 by a core second year subject entitled ‘BUS2SUS – Sustainability’, for all students enrolled in any Business degree. More than 2,500 students are now enrolled in this compulsory subject every year. This includes students from a range of business majors, including management, human resource management, marketing, accounting, sport management, finance, event management, tourism and hospitality, economics, international business, and agribusiness.

The subject is based on a blended learning design that allows for greater scalability across the entire portfolio of majors within Business and across all our campuses in Australia and abroad. With sustainability as the lens or context for change, students are introduced to systems thinking, tools for solving wicked problems, and the role of advocacy in managing change for sustainability.

How have you approached the design and delivery of this core course?

The process of embedding sustainability thinking into the core business curriculum presented a number of challenges, including distinguishing sustainability from related streams of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and non-financial measurement and reporting. The curriculum design was ultimately guided by the need for a future set of skills, rather than by identifying disciplinary content that business graduates might require. These skills include critical thinking, creative problem solving, ethical awareness and teamwork. For example, by working in small groups in class, and engaging with ‘wicked’ global sustainability issues such as climate change, global poverty and renewable energy, students are required to apply a systems lens to examining the true nature of the issues and potential solutions.

There is also an emphasis on creating a ‘safe space’ in classes to tackle often controversial social and environmental issues such as indigenous disadvantage in Australia, the refugee crisis and the potential for a sugar tax. This has required class teachers to be briefed and trained in pedagogical techniques that require reflexive practice and approaches to manage conflict.

The course puts a focus on developing a sustainability disposition. Why do you think this is important?

Research on education for sustainability, student surveys and teaching feedback have taught us that developing graduate skills for sustainability is not enough to create the impetus required for students to be change agents for sustainability, there also needs to be an emphasis on creating a ‘mindset’ change. This is enabled in the subject through use of a range of pedagogical design elements to create a learning environment that seeks to bring about this change. For example, through the use of case studies, examples and problem-based scenarios that require students to reflect on their underlying values base and question the status quo in management thought.

As such, this subject places a focus on both generic graduate skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, while also creating the disposition towards sustainability and ethical decision-making.

How are the SDGs embedded into this course?

Using the SDGs as a guide, students are introduced to the interplay between the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainability, and the implications for ethically complex decision-making.

Ultimately, educating students new to the SDGs places us in a unique position as the entry point in their educational experience. We believe this is critical in developing their awareness of global issues and challenges so that they can enter the workplace fully equipped to advance and implement policies and practices that will contribute to sustainable business.

What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?

The question of whether business schools should approach embedding sustainability into core curriculum or as an elective has not been resolved to date. Our experience at LBS in taking the ‘core subject’ approach has been positive since we have the institutional support in terms of the University’s focus on sustainability and our historical emphasis and ethos of social justice. Therefore, gaining institutional support for furthering the sustainability agenda is key, along with the resources to make it happen.

The challenge in any modern business subject in sustainably is an emphasis on both the development of graduate skills and students’ disposition towards sustainability and ethical decision-making. This requires modern educators to span the boundary of the classroom and identify opportunities to engage with industry partners and other stakeholders to continuously produce innovative teaching materials and approaches that inspire and motivate students to pursue business ideas that align with the SDGs. 

What’s next for the class?

Next year, a major piece of assessment will focus on students (in groups) generating a business idea to be in contention for the Hult Prize. One of the challenges with a large enrolments in the subject are the limited options to create authentic assessments. An international student competition that requires students to develop an actionable and scalable business idea is both practical and allows for gamification/competitive elements to be built into the subject design.

What other initiatives at your school you are particularly proud of in this area especially in relation to the SDGs.

In 2017, LBS embarked on a series of workshops that brought together delegates from business, local government, education, not for profit and community sectors to discuss what the SDGs mean for them, and create opportunities for collaboration among the sectors towards implementation of the goals.

This outreach project on the SDGs is an international effort by our CR3+ network which includes LBS and PRME Champions Audencia Nantes School of Management (Nantes, France), ISAE/FGV (Curitiba, Brazil) and Hanken School of Economics (Helsinki, Finland). All four business schools have committed to hosting similar workshops in their countries.

Two Australian workshops were held in Wollongong and Albury-Wodonga on 15/11/17 and 29/11/17 respectively. In addition to the original aims as set out in the project proposal, the choice to focus on regional areas was two-fold; firstly, to develop our regional campus’ capacity to build and sustain cross-sector engagement and partnerships on the theme of the SDGs, and secondly, to focus on areas where UN Global Compact Network Australia presence is limited.

This post is part of a special feature throughout the month of February focused on schools in Australia and New Zealand. 

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