Higher Education for sustainable development: From an individual effort to systemic action

by Alfredo Estrada / Due to the drastic transformations that the world is experiencing at multiple levels, institutions of higher education need to understand that their role is not just to train people in how to be successful in the current system, but also to create the path for an integral improvement of society. A responsible education approach includes, among others, cultural, economic, political, and social dimensions. Nowadays, it is important to consider that the success of responsible education depends on understanding the problem from a systemic approach instead of an individual perspective. This view implies qualifying the problem as complex – and this complexity is composed by numerous factors, including holistic factors, which make it seem that responsible education (also known as “impact” education) will only be achieved when all the actors of the academic ecosystem are articulated with each other.

It is not new to say that we need to rethink the world, to make it fairer, more empathetic, more equitable. Here, I refer to De Luca and Lezama (2021) who state that the pandemic we have lived through, as an exercise to rethink the world, is an educational driver, a creator of opportunities that, based on a strategic education and sustainability policy, will allow higher education actors to develop impact education mechanisms that endow students with professional skills and citizen competencies for the construction of a better world. To do this, we should integrate the determining role of innovation and social entrepreneurship as academic activities inherent to a holistic model of education for sustainable development.

We also need to understand that higher education for sustainable development is associated with an elementary principle of modernity; modernity that will save humanity, and here we can see the relationship with innovation and entrepreneurship. It is certainly known that the negative impacts that afflict the current global order derive from limited integration between innovation and entrepreneurship as generators of sustainability, as Kapecki (2020) notes, when stating that people and companies have transformed 66% of their ecosystems to meet their needs. This is the basis of the challenge to understand the role of universities from a systemic approach, whose real objective is to design environmental, economic and social transformations that are conscious, circular and of triple impact. This is certainly not an easy task.

Education for sustainable development, as defined by Miñano and García (2020), is “the strategic system that, effectively designed, provides university students and staff with the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes to address the complex challenges of sustainable development, articulated by the 2030 Agenda through any career.” In this sense, the 2020 study ‘Higher Education and the 2030 Agenda: Moving into the ‘Decade of Action and Delivery for the SDGs’, developed by the International Association of Universities (IAU), shows that 64% of the participating universities state that the interest in education focused on sustainable development has increased. While this increase is reflected in the level of knowledge about Agenda 2030, it also refers to how we should work on educational processes and other key activities of institutions of higher education, such as research, international mobility, teacher training, and evaluation. As the IAU writes:  “We are clear that we want to work with the SDGs; now we do not know if the proposed scope within educational activities will be adequate” (IAU, 2020). The gap between educational activities and other activities is evidenced with a factor that is critical to consolidate a systemic approach to education for sustainability. This factor refers to the aspect of internal politics, organizational philosophy, which will allow to turn the barriers into drivers for higher impact education.

It is clear that it is not only required to have a will at the directive level, but also to have a management education model that, as a result of the balance of resources and institutional capacities, determines the transforming actions for the short-term and long-term, to build the new higher education system we need. This education requires developing the necessary knowledge and skills for future leaders that enables formulating a response to imminent global challenges, such as climate change, poverty, social inequality and many more (Setó-Pamies and Papaoikonomou, 2020). Now more than ever it is primordial to integrate business ethics, corporate social responsibility and sustainability into management education to address the new demands in society while contributing to the circular economy. The challenge hast just begun.

De Luca, A., & Lezama, J. L. (2021). La crisis del sistema de la vida. reflexiones para una ecología política de la esperanza. Revista Mexicana De Ciencias Políticas y Sociales, 66(242), 475-499. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.22201/fcpys.2448492xe.2021.242.7932S

IAU. (2020). Higher Education and the 2030 Agenda: Moving into the ‘Decade of Action and Delivery for the SDGs’. Paris: International Association of Universities (IAU) / International Universities Bureau.

Kapecki, Tomasz (2020) “Elements of sustainable development in the context of the environmental and financial crisis and the covid-19 pandemic” Sustainability, 12(15). doi: https://doi.org/10.3390/su 12156188

Miñano, R. y García H., M. (Editores) (2020). Implementando la Agenda 2030 en la universidad. Casos inspiradores, Madrid: Red Española para el Desarrollo Sostenible (REDS).

Torres, D. (2021). Contribución de la educación superior a los objetivos de desarrollo sostenible desde la docencia. Revista Española De Educación Comparada, (37), 89-110. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5944/reec.37.202.27763.

Setó-Pamies, D., & Papaoikonomou, E. (2020). Sustainable development goals: A powerful framework for embedding ethics, CSR, and sustainability in management education.

Alfredo Estrada is Director of the Sustainability Center at Universidad de Lima, Perú.

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