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Aligning Campus Strategy with the SDGs: An Institutional Case Study

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Abstract

Evidence suggests that while many universities promote their green credentials, fully embedding sustainability across the university (campus, curriculum and community) and securing the full engagement of academic staff, is not without challenge. This paper argues that the Sustainable Development Goals may provide an opportunity to revitalise institutional efforts in relation to education for sustainable development. A case study is presented of an institution that is well-regarded for its green credentials yet continues to struggle to ensure that education for sustainable development permeates the curriculum, despite institutional strategy and policy drivers. The potential of the Sustainable Development Goals to catalyse further engagement within the institution is explored; examples are provided of how they are being used both within the curriculum, and also influencing strategy change. The conclusion suggests that while there is potential in a change of focus, substantial efforts are required to reinforce the responsibilities of higher education in relation to the goals. This paper will be useful to anyone interested in embedding sustainable development within universities and developing a strategy to address the global goals.
Aligning campus strategy with the SDGs: an institutional case study
Professor Chris Shiel, cshiel@bournemouth.ac.uk
Dr. Neil Smith, nsmith@bournemouth.ac.uk
Dr. Elena Cantarello, ecantarello@bournemouth.ac.uk
Bournemouth University, Fern Barrow, Poole Dorset, BH15 5BB, UK
Keywords Sustainable Development, SDGs, Higher Education, Case studies
Abstract Evidence suggests that while many universities promote their green credentials,
fully embedding sustainability across the university (campus, curriculum and community)
and securing the full engagement of academic staff, is not without challenge. This paper
argues that the Sustainable Development Goals may provide an opportunity to revitalise
institutional efforts in relation to education for sustainable development. A case study is
presented of an institution that is well-regarded for its green credentials yet continues to
struggle to ensure that education for sustainable development permeates the curriculum,
despite institutional strategy and policy drivers. The potential of the Sustainable Development
Goals to catalyse further engagement within the institution is explored; examples are
provided of how they are being used both within the curriculum, and also influencing strategy
change. The conclusion suggests that while there is potential in a change of focus, substantial
efforts are required to reinforce the responsibilities of higher education in relation to the
goals. This paper will be useful to anyone interested in embedding sustainable development
within universities and developing a strategy to address the global goals.
Introduction
In September 2015, world leaders made a commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals
(SDGs) formulating 17 goals, aimed at achieving an end to extreme poverty, combatting
inequality and injustice and tackling climate change, by 2030. It is incumbent on each
signatory to bring the goals to life; nothing will be achieved without action on multiple fronts.
While governments need to develop national strategies and approaches for realising the goals,
all organisations in society have a role to play in contributing to their achievement. Higher
education institutions (HEIs), in particular, should be taking a leading role, through research
(Leal Filho et al. 2017a); they should also be educating students in relation to the goals and,
inspiring engagement within their communities. Just as the role of HEIs has been made quite
clear in relation to sustainable development, with a need for integrative approaches (Leal
Filho et al. 2015), the role of universities in relation to the SDGs is obvious, albeit not
explicit. What is less clear however, is whether universities will fully appreciate their
responsibility for the SDGs. History shows that their response to calls to engage with
sustainable development was not only notably slow (Tilbury 2013), but has rarely been
holistic, or very strategic (Leal Filho et al. 2015). Thus, is it likely that they will respond to
the SDGs with greater speed or effectiveness? Will it be the case that many universities
endorse the SDGs publically but beyond that, will not regard them as a central agenda for
strategic planning and action? Signing up to accords and making declarations is common
place within the sector but will education strategies be transformed as consequence? Past
performance does not allow for optimism. Ensuring that higher education addresses the SDGs
may involve the same challenges that implementing sustainable development has faced, with
similarly slow responses and partial outcomes. On the other hand, a more optimistic view,
would be that the SDGs serve to inspire engagement in ways that sustainable development
might not have previously, thus, some institutions will recognise their potential to catalyse
change and to reinvigorate sustainable development initiatives. If a few universities take this
approach and lead by example, then others will follow.
This paper offers a case study of how one institution has seen the SDGs as a catalyst, offering
insights into how the SDG framework might serve as a vehicle to step-up engagement with
education for sustainable development, and to take institutional strategy further.
Universities, sustainable development and the SDGs
The critical role of universities in relation to sustainable development has been consistently
articulated over recent decades (see for example, ‘The Sustainable University’, Sterling et al.
2013). Sustainable development (in higher education) has become a significant field of
research (Barth & Rieckmann 2013), to the extent that examples of what constitutes effective
engagement and the many hurdles to progress, are now well documented.
As far as universities’ practical engagement with sustainable development, considerable
progress has been achieved in a sector that was described as notoriously resistant to change
(Wals & Blewitt 2010) and where, for many years, engagement with sustainable development
was deplored as both slow and inadequate (Tilbury 2013). In 2018, most universities now
address environmental sustainability and/or sustainable development in some form; most will
address campus sustainability and many highlight their green credentials on their institutional
websites. However, while it is widely recognised that sustainable development needs to be
addressed in research, campus, education and community, fewer universities have actually
found ways to embed education for sustainable development across the entire curriculum
(Shiel & Paço 2012), very few will evidence integrative or holistic approaches to
sustainability (Leal Filho et al. 2015). Only some institutions meet the criteria for the title
‘The Sustainable University’ (Sterling et al. 2013). Across the world, and particularly in the
UK, it is quite evident that while many universities have exemplified ‘campus-greening’,
focused on environmental management, and are very good at promoting their green
credentials, integrative approaches to sustainable development are hard to achieve and less
common (Leal Filho et al. 2015).
This paper is set in the context that there is still much more to be achieved (Amaral et al.
2015; Brennan et al. 2015) if higher education is to make a full contribution to sustainable
development. As the UK report on sustainability in education shows (National Union of
Students (NUS) et al. 2017), leaders recognise that sustainability is a priority but are still
failing to deliver. The biggest barriers identified in the report are: finances, lack of senior
management commitment and strategic direction and lack of staff resources. In summary,
progress to date has been slow, there is further to go and the SDGs may be a way to
accelerate wider engagement.
The goals and higher education
The SDGs represent an expanded follow-on, from the eight Millennium Development Goals
(MDGs) which sought to “end poverty in all its forms” (United Nations 2015, p. 2). While
some good progress was made towards the MDGs (which expired in 2015) they were never
fully achieved; they had very little impact (beyond a research agenda and taught as a topic on
a limited number of programmes) on the day-to day activity of higher education. Sachs
(2012) provides a useful summary of development, from the MDGs to the SDGs, the latter
seek a shared focus on economic, environmental, and social goals as a hallmark of
sustainable development. As the SDGs emerged following rigorous and extensive
consultation, they constitute a broad consensus on which the world can build through
cooperation between stakeholders. Although they are not legally binding, they are likely to be
a major influencer on governments and organisations over the next fifteen years.
The United Nations (2015, p.14) articulates the 17 goals:
Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote
sustainable agriculture
Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong
learning opportunities for all
Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and
productive employment and decent work for all
Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable
industrialization and foster innovation
Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts*
Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for
sustainable development
Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems,
sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and
halt biodiversity loss
Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development,
provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at
all levels
Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership
for sustainable development.
Of the seventeen SDGs, only Goal 4 explicitly references education however Mader and
Rammel (2015) suggest that universities have a much wider transformative role to play to
achieve sustainable development. In their opinion, the most pertinent SDGs for education are
Goals 4, 9, 12, 16 and 17. Although they highlight specifically just five goals, what is of
overarching importance is that all students need to understand the implications of the entirety
of the framework; all students need to develop the knowledge and skills required to live
sustainably, within environmental limits. Further, meeting the SDGs will require universities
to provide appropriately skilled graduates (Association of Commonwealth Universities 2015)
and this will require rethinking the curriculum. Dramatically more globally relevant curricula
are needed in all countries if students are to meet employability requirements and to address
the social, environmental cultural, economic and health challenges that the world faces (Hall
& Tandon 2013).
An inspiring publication by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network in the Pacific
Rim (SDSN Australia/Pacific 2017) exemplifies what needs to happen in regard to the SDGs.
The paper reinforces that universities (as knowledge creators) must play a vital role in
developing those who will be the current and future implementers of the SDGs; Addressing
the challenges of the SDGs will require new knowledge, new ways of doing things, hard
choices between competing options, and in some cases profound transformations (p. 8).
Further, the paper suggests that an extensive contribution involves universities embodying the
SDGs through organisational governance, operations and culture, as well as using their
leadership role to influence partners and stakeholders in the community. The paper (p.9) also
sets out why universities need the SDGs: to demonstrate impact; capture demand for SDG
related education; to build new partnerships and to access new funding streams.
Their guide is to be applauded and suggests that what is required for the SDGs is a strategic
and integrative approach to sustainability, as has been argued previously for sustainable
development (e.g. Leal Filho et al. 2015; Sterling et al. 2013) - through research, across the
curriculum and in the extra-curricular sphere, and through working in the community to
educate and encourage capacity building.
There are currently only a few early adopters of such an approach. One of the partners in the
Pacific Rim collaboration, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand for example, has
already mapped their current curriculum against the SDGs with the aim to track their own
contributions towards the global goals and improve their offerings (Wilks & Van den Belt
2017). Similarly in the UK, the University of the West of England (UWE) is leading the way
in taking a strategic approach to the SDGs and undertaking curriculum mapping to establish a
benchmark for progress (Gough & Longhurst 2018), as is Nottingham Trent University
(Willats et al. 2018) however, these examples are uncommon.
The 2017 Green Gown Awards UK and Ireland, a scheme delivered by the Environmental
Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) that recognises exceptional sustainability
initiatives undertaken by university and colleagues, tasked applicants with mapping the SDGs
that their projects were delivering against. Canterbury Christ Church University emerged as
another example of how a strategic approach to sustainability is transforming their
University, both operationally and academically, and The London School of Economics and
Political Science stated that sustainability was a fundamental strand running through
teaching, research, operations and public engagement (EAUC 2017). However, not even at
this high level of awards, was it possible to see that a strategic and integrative approach to the
SDGs is commonplace.
In the UK, 75% of student respondents in the National Union of Students (NUS) et al. (2017)
annual sector survey, reported that their institution had progressed action linked to the United
Nation’s SDGs initiative, seeing the SDGs as the biggest motivator of the initiatives listed.
However, institutional innovators are in the minority and, there are few examples of how
institutions are implementing their approaches. Further, there is no evidence yet of the impact
or success of approaches. More examples are needed to share practice and particularly to
extend conversations about aligning strategy with the SDGs in a higher education setting in
order to build momentum for change.
Method
This paper adopts a case study approach (Yin 2014), and represents an empirical inquiry into
sustainable development progress within a particular setting, the case study institution. Two
sources of information have informed the case study: literature related to higher education,
sustainable development and the SDGs; and reflection and analysis on the part of the authors,
who are members of the case study university’s Sustainability Strategy Group (SSG) but also
champions of change. A single site case study obviously has limitations but learning from
such cases is important to inform processes of systemic transformation across higher
education (Sharp 2002); therein, rests the value of this paper, case studies are useful in that
they demonstrate to others possibilities and challenges. They are particularly pertinent in the
early stages of developments such as engaging with the SDGs within an HE setting, where
examples of practice may inspire others to follow similar paths.
The Case study context: sustainable development at BU
Bournemouth University (BU) has consistently aimed for an integrative approach to
sustainability and was one of the first institutions that sought to explore a holistic approach,
the challenges of which have been documented (see Shiel & Williams 2014; Shiel & Smith
2017).
The institution (BU) is a medium-sized UK university, inaugurated in 1992, with around
19000 students, 740 full-time equivalent academic staff and 846 professional and support
staff. Environmental issues became a focus of attention at the end of the nineties with a
concern for saving resources, particularly utilities. Engagement with the broader concept of
sustainable development became a more strategic concern in 2005, when a strategy was
developed for the whole institution; from 2006, strategy embraced both global citizenship and
sustainability (Shiel 2007) with education for sustainable development becoming a
curriculum requirement. The importance of a holistic approach and integrative ways of
working on over-lapping agendas (Shiel et al. 2005) was established at the outset but has
never been fully achieved or easy to reinforce (Shiel 2011). However the driver has been to
implement an approach not dissimilar to the “4C” model (curriculum, campus, community
and culture) at Plymouth University (Jones et al. 2010, p. 7). The strategic vision for the
university up to 2018, has made a clear commitment to “a holistic approach” to sustainable
development, with the aim of “inspiring our students, graduates and staff to enrich the
world”, and the assurance that: “we will ensure our environmental credentials are held in high
esteem” (Bournemouth University 2012). Substantial progress has been made over the course
of the strategy and BU is perceived as one of the greener universities in the UK, with a ‘first-
class’ award, consistently maintained in the UK Green League (People & Planet 2017).
Campus sustainability is such that the estates at BU provide a very good ‘Living Lab’
environment where students learn from and contribute to campus greening approaches.
In 2016, a number of actions were pursued to achieve a “step change” in progress, and to
reinforce a holistic approach:
Achieving the highest credential to exemplify best practice in the environmental
management of the University (i.e. EcoCampus Platinum and ISO14001 certification)
Reinvigorating the education agenda
Developing the culture and building capacity by working in the extra-curricular
sphere initiating Green Impact teams across the university (Shiel & Smith 2017).
The actions resulted in partial success.
EcoCampus Platinum (EcoCampus 2018) and ISO14001:2004 (International Organization for
Standardization (ISO) 2015) certification was achieved in 2016 and BU became, at that time,
one of only 15 universities with this dual certification. EcoCampus was designed by the
higher education sector to help universities implement environmental management systems
(EMS). An EMS is a risk management tool to minimise the impact on the environment whilst
also promoting positive impacts, such as Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).
BU’s EMS currently provides a structured approach, supported by senior management, to
continual improvement with its ESD programme.
Reinvigorating the education for sustainable development (ESD) agenda involved working
with the Centre of Excellence in Learning (CEL) and gaining approval of a sustainability
focus on the Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCert), which is compulsory for new
staff. In 2017, this took the limited form of a one-off presentation to staff on the PGCert. The
presentation created some interest but was perceived as a bolt-on, with limited impact on
wider curriculum change. Similarly, a competition to surface good ESD teaching practise
(again in collaboration with CEL) made public a few excellent examples, but mainly only
gained the participation of already engaged academics, rather than serving to inspire the
wider body of staff.
Another area where academics appeared not to be engaging related to the Green Impact
programme, which had been introduced at BU in 2015. The programme involves staff
working in teams within their departments to complete a workbook of actions covering
several aspects of sustainability. The more actions completed, the more points are gained,
leading to a Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum award. In 2017, four teams gained awards, with
three at Silver and one at Bronze but three of the four teams were based in administrative
functions, with only one academic team participating since 2015. Efforts to extend the
programme have secured an increase in the number of teams (14 teams in 2017/18), however
academic teams are still in the minority. Other universities (e.g. the University of Sheffield)
have had greater success in securing academic staff participation in the programme,
demonstrating that at BU, there is potential for further improvement. A survey investigating
the barriers to pro-environmental behaviours at BU, including participation into the green
impact programme, highlighted that the biggest barriers facing staff were: lack of time,
funding and organisational support (Scarborough & Cantarello 2018). This echoes some of
the barriers identified by the National Union of Students (NUS) et al. (2017) in their
sustainability in education report. However, it is interesting to note that while time was the
most highly reported barrier at BU, this barrier is only listed in position six in the NUS
report; this suggests that incorporating green impact participation into staff workload could
provide an effective solution for BU to encourage more staff to adopt pro-environmental
behaviours and so, where more staff lead through example, more students might be
encouraged to follow.
In early 2017, it seemed to be the case that while considerable progress was being achieved in
relation to campus greening, community engagement and sustainability research, since
achieving ISO 14001, the ESD agenda was lagging; securing staff commitment and interest
was continuing to be a challenge. In essence a different approach was required to engage
academic colleagues.
A further shift of approach: aligning with the SDGs
As a consequence of ESD being incorporated into the EMS and hence an item on the ‘risk
register’, it became an agenda item for the SSG. This was an important turning point
highlighting the need to try other approaches. The group evaluated ESD as at high risk of
not being achieved. The main reason for this decision was the lack of evidence that
sustainability had been embedded in courses further obtaining robust and objective evidence
to report on the extent to which it had been embedded, was likely to be challenging. Other
Universities, such as the University of Winchester, have addressed how to embed and
benchmark sustainability in the curriculum by signing up to the NUS Responsible Futures
programme which provides a framework for implementing and reporting on ESD (NUS
2017). BU had not participated in such a scheme.
Discussion on how to move forward highlighted the importance of communication that
appealed to all stakeholders. Communication of sustainability messages is key to engaging
with academics (Djordjevic & Cotton 2011) and to culture change. SSG recognised the
potential of focusing communication on the SDGs, as a vehicle to engage with a wider
academic audience and to achieve greater adoption of ESD. This decision was based on the
assumptions that: all staff might address one or more SDGs in their subjects; the topic might
have greater appeal than ESD, given that some staff were unable to relate to sustainability, let
alone ESD; others were finding it difficult to understand how their actions today are either
directly or indirectly affecting the future of the planet to support human life; others struggled
to connect taking personal responsibility for relatively simple actions, such as recycling, with
protecting the environment. The SDGs would provide a different lens for people to
understand and explore what sustainability means for them, plus the tangible ways they might
help make a difference.
The first communication initiative took the form of an adaption of the earlier ESD
competition: instead of requesting examples of ESD, academics were asked to submit case
studies of where they incorporate the SDGs in their programmes. Disappointingly, the
competition had less impact than anticipated but did allow for three excellent winning
academic examples to be promoted. These included an academic who teaches Film and TV.
She had incorporated the SDGs into two modules and organised sustainable literacy training
for staff in the Media and Communication Faculty. Another academic from the same Faculty
had incorporated the SDGs into the assessment of a BA Film Language unit where students
were required to produce a three minute film and consider the environmental sub-plot. A
third academic from the Law Department, illustrated how ‘Advanced Criminal Law’ was
concerned with the United Nation’s Goal Peace, Justice and Institutions (SDG 16). Further, in
discussing types of gross human rights violations, the Goals regarding Inequalities (SDG 10)
and Gender violence (SDG 5) were covered.
In parallel to the competition, it was decided to pursue a more strategic approach. This took
three forms:
Using EcoCampus and the new ISO14001:2015 standard to provide the framework
for ESD
Further and closer collaboration with the CEL Director to ensure ESD was promoted
through central communication channels and became an agenda led by CEL
Using the opportunity of institutional strategy development to embed the SDGs and
ensure that they featured during strategy development processes.
As stated above, BU achieved certification to EcoCampus and ISO14001:2004 in 2016,
following an external audit. The new version of ISO14001:2015 was launched in September
2015 (International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 2015) with organisations having
three years to transition to the new standard. BU achieved the transition at the end of 2017.
One of the key changes to the standard, the need to gain greater commitment and leadership
from senior management to the EMS, has been of critical importance. This afforded an
opportunity to encourage further engagement with senior management. The importance of
this clause, which is now a central component of ISO14001:2015, was discussed by the
University’s Leadership Team as part of implementing the new standard. It served to
influence strategic discussion at an opportune moment the University’s “BU 2018 strategy
was coming to a close and the new strategy BU2025 was in development. The perfect
opportunity was provided to renew with leaders discussions around commitment to
sustainable development but also to introduce the potential of the SDGs.
As a consequence, the new strategy “BU2025 incorporated into an early draft the following
statements (Bournemouth University 2018):
(i) Leadership and impact: Enhance our position as a sustainable organisation and
manage the environmental impact of our actions.
(ii) Support our staff from all parts of BU and students to take a responsible approach
to the environment and sustainable development by:
including sustainable development in our programmes and support our staff
and students to make responsible choices about their environmental impact
bringing together our academic work on environmental sustainability with our
approach to the physical environment at BU
driving significant worldwide impact on sustainability and the environment
through our strategic investment areas.
Leadership for ESD is vital but also requires ownership by the academic community. It
seemed important that CEL should be more visible in terms of developing the agenda but also
in taking a leadership role. CEL’s remit is to provide academics with guidance on curriculum
development and excellence in pedagogical approaches, including the use of new technology
to enhance the student experience. Further meetings with the Director of CEL served to gain
full support for ESD and the SDGs. The CEL Director reports directly to the Deputy Vice
Chancellor (Education) providing a strong central pillar for promoting the SDGs throughout
BU. Further, in 2017/18, rather than a one-off presentation on sustainable development, CEL
agreed that the PGCert in Education would fully address ESD and the SDGs in the Education
Policy unit. In developing the pedagogic approach the SDGs would be introduced to
participants in week one, considered in other units and become a theme for assessment.
In addition to strengthening the role of CEL, and to extend communications and influence
culture change, presentations were made to the four Faculty Education and Student
Experience (FESECs) committees with the aim of directly engaging with academic leads in
relation to reinforcing the importance of embedding sustainability in the curriculum and
introducing the SDGs. Training on the importance of sustainability was also provided to
elected student representatives across the Faculties. These students attend programme
meetings with academics and thus, they represent the student voice and have the opportunity
to comment on and influence what is being taught. At the same time, BU also signed up to
and promoted participation in the first NUS SDG Teach In which encourages academics to
pledge to include the SDGs within their teaching, learning, and assessment on their course(s)
during a week in February 2018 (NUS 2018).
The development of the new BU2025 strategy was an iterative process with the opportunity
to further embed sustainability and centralise the SDGs to underpin strategy development
throughout. The EAUC conference in March 2017, which focused on the adoption of the
SDGs, was a very timely opportunity to take stock of what other institutions were doing and
consider how BU could use the SDGs to help embed sustainability in all areas of the
business. Attendance at the conference enabled BU’s Sustainability Manager to provide
various inputs based on the SDGs to the Office of the Vice Chancellor (OVC) during the
drafting of the strategy, including mapping BU’s strategic Fusion model of excellence in
education, research and professional practice, against the SDGs. As a result, sustainability
became one of the key areas of the new draft strategy. Strategy development at BU is a
process of consultation that includes many opportunities for staff participation and
stakeholder comments on drafts. Not only did conversations around sustainable development
become a wider concern but the SDGs became a noticeable feature of consultation events and
staff development workshops.
One of the major changes in the new strategy will be the need to demonstrate the impact of
BU’s research, education and professional practice. Under the EMS, BU has already
evidenced impact, delivering many environmental and social improvements, such as
providing two new buildings to the BREEAM ‘Excellent’ standard, installing photovoltaics,
providing an efficient Unibus service (over 1M passenger journeys in 2016/17) and using the
landscaping of the campus to educate students about the medicinal value of plants. The new
strategy will commit BU to extend developments to secure further opportunities for staff and
students to use the estate as a living lab for health and wellbeing, and sustainability.
Concurrent with strategy development, the SDGs are being promoted through various media
(including electronic screens in buildings), workshops and presentations with the aim of
raising awareness amongst both staff and students of their importance, but importantly, to
highlight collective responsibility for achievement. Both the main staff engagement tools,
Green Impact and Green Rewards (where staff are rewarded for taking positive action for the
environment and their health and wellbeing), now link directly to the SDGs. For Green
Impact, this involves team members demonstrating how they have incorporated the SDGs
into their professional practice, teaching or research. For Green Rewards, the various
activities are all linked to the appropriate SDGs and so staff are able to see how what they do
on a day to day basis contributes, for example, staff receive 400 points if they sign up to the
SDG Accord. As of January 2018, 83 people had signed up but numbers are increasing
rapidly.
Further developments are currently in the planning stages to accelerate participation and
action; evaluation will take place as the new institutional strategy rolls out.
Discussion and reflections
A substantial amount of effort is going to be required on the part of many stakeholders if by
2030, under Goal 4 of the SDGs, all learners will have acquired:
the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among
others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human
rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship
and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable
development” (United Nations 2015, p. 15).
It is imperative that universities contribute fully to sustainable development and particularly
the SDGs. However, making progress on such agendas within higher education settings has
always been criticised as a slow process (Sterling et al. 2013) with barriers to be overcome
(Leal Filho et al. 2017b). BU is by no means at the forefront of developments but it is
currently further along than many institutions, in developing a strategic and holistic approach
which began in 2005 (Shiel 2007). Continual progress is only achieved where mechanisms
are in place to track the success of initiatives and to develop new course of action and this
paper has described some of the steps that are being taken to move forward. Currently actions
at BU are evolving with the SDGs referred to frequently in strategy development workshops
and becoming a feature of BU2025. It is recognised that further work will be needed to
develop indicators to evaluate achievement and impact.
The approach at BU, as might be expected in an institution that has sought a holistic approach
from the outset, has exemplified each of the patterns that Barth and Rieckmann (2013)
suggest are distinct ways that institutions engage with sustainability: top down institutional
approaches, bottom up, and sustainability as the environmental management of estates (Shiel
& Smith 2017). All of these approaches have continued to be deployed in the actions
described in this case study.
In less than a year, the process of highlighting the SDGs at BU has served to involve a wider
staff base in discussion, in ways that were never achieved when education for sustainable
development was the main focus. Building wider engagement is also being reinforced by
continual workshops for staff development and for students. Staff development is critical for
building capacity (Desha & Hargroves 2012) and the requirements for such should not be
under-estimated. Staff development is never completed, it needs to be ongoing to support
change and curriculum development (Cebrián et al. 2012). Beyond staff development, it will
be important that collaboration with CEL leads to the development of resources that staff will
find easy to use, given the strong evidence (Scarborough & Cantarello 2018) that lack of time
is an inhibitor. CEL will also need to play a larger role in taking ownership and leading the
education agenda, so that it is no longer seen as the work of a few committed champions,
exemplifying pedagogic innovation. BU has already started providing examples of where
sustainable development and the SDGs are relevant to the curriculum and are in fact,
essential to the future career aspirations of their students (the use of the British Academy of
Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) carbon calculator by the British Broadcasting
Corporation and Independent Television for developing media programmes, for example,
requires students to understand sustainable development and carbon). Further examples of the
importance of the SDGs for graduate employability are being developed and will support
further curriculum change.
Recent progress would not have been achieved without maintaining top management support;
it has been critical from the start and throughout the process. Such high levels of continued
support might have been challenging, without the success in securing the EcoCampus
Platinum award and ISO14001:2015. Placing ESD on the risk register has also served as an
important trigger to secure and legitimise initiatives for further action. In turn, strengthening
engagement with leaders has also led to a willingness to embrace the SDGs as a strategic
concern. The success of the new strategy will depend upon how key performance indicators
are selected and monitored.
To date, actions to inspire change have been prioritised over an approach that audits the
curriculum to search out reference to the SDGs, through detailed searching of module
specifications. While such an approach has been avoided, a better alternative for
benchmarking progress may not materialise; eventually, module specification analysis, or a
large-scale survey may be unavoidable, and is currently being considered. Albareda-Tiana et
al. (2018) present an empirical study exploring the principles and practices linked to the
SDGs in the International University of Catalonia curriculum. Their study involved a through
analysis of terms related to environmental, social and economic sustainability found in the
university curriculum and then in-depth semi-structured interviews with the deans of different
faculties. While this is an exemplary approach and other universities may wish to start with a
similar study, desk-based exercises carry the risk of consuming considerable time and
resources, when efforts deployed in more visible actions, including staff development, might
affect greater change.
Green Impact as an initiative has inspired some change, serving to raise awareness of the
SDGs and triggering lots of new activities that will enhance environmental management. It is
however, to date, not appealing sufficiently to academic teams. Ways will need to be sought
to enhance academic engagement. Green Rewards, on the other hand, is a scheme which is
engaging all staff across BU, with clear links between activities and the SDGs; to date, nearly
600 staff have signed up (just over 30%). In future, the data will provide an invaluable
indicator of the ways that staff are contributing to achieving the SDGs.
In moving forward, in those cases where the SDGs are already included in the curriculum
(e.g. MSc Green Economy (an entire programme) and on the final year Globalisation and
Sustainable Development unit, at undergraduate level), it will be important that pedagogy
seeks to engage students in critical discussion to enable the paradoxes that characterise the
larger discourse of sustainable development in educational practice and by extension the
SDGs to be explored. Kopnina (2017) illustrates how through the combination of pluralist,
participatory, transformative and instrumental ecocentric approaches at three different
institutions in the Netherlands (vocational college, undergraduate and postgraduate levels),
she was able to stimulate the students’ recognition of critique of the most common terms in
the SDGs, namely economic development, inclusion and resilience.
It will also be important to enable the transfer of the theoretical concepts mentioned in the
SDGs and associated targets, to personal lives and future work contexts and in so doing,
encourage individuals to explore the SDGs independently. Crespo et al. (2017) describe how
they were able to do that at the University of Vigo (Spain) by introducing a sustainable
holistic rubric based on the SDGs targets which was used to assess students’ dissertations.
This year, at BU, the SDGs have been incorporated into the assignment for the Globalisation
and Sustainable Development unit and the authors of this paper will be able to analyse the t
extent to which a less time demanding approach compared to Crespo et al. (2017) might still
achieve the same result.
As a final reflection, the process of change at BU has taken time but also considerable effort
on the part of SSG members but the Sustainability Manager, in particular. Such changes
require attendance at numerous workshop sessions and leading the delivery of presentations,
as well as being alert to every opportunity to influence conversations with decision makers.
Experience has shown that working in partnership with academics, across educational
boundaries and university functions, contributes greatly to success; formalising decisions
through a strategy group that is chaired by a Deputy Vice Chancellor, gives legitimacy to
outcomes.
Conclusion
Maintaining momentum with ESD and particularly holistic approaches to sustainable
development, poses challenges; those leading the agenda need to be continually evaluating
their approaches and instigating new initiatives (Shiel & Williams 2014), or progress may
falter. This paper reflects one institution’s evaluation of progress, provides a snapshot of the
process of change, and highlights initiatives undertaken to develop further engagement. It has
shown how the SDGs have captured support to the extent that, they have been used to inform
strategic change, and will become a central feature in the new university’s strategy. The
SDGs have provided a platform to revitalise institutional efforts in relation to ESD and
because of their breadth, it is anticipated that wider academic engagement will be catalysed
as institutional strategy rolls out. Academics, who previously might have felt that
sustainability had nothing to do with them, are already beginning to explore how particular
goals resonate with their discipline, teaching and professional practice. The SDGs have
enabled a change of focus at BU, which has increased awareness of the university’s
sustainable development agenda and extended discussion. The impact of efforts will be
evaluated in the future.
This paper will be useful to anyone interested in embedding sustainable development within
universities, maintaining momentum of such approaches, and developing strategy to embrace
the SDGs. Substantial efforts have been required to reinforce the responsibilities of higher
education in relation to sustainable development, similar efforts will be required to ensure
that higher education accepts its crucial contribution to the achievement of the SDGs.
Universities need to ensure that the SDGs are addressed in the curriculum, through research,
on campus and in the community. Through outreach activities, universities can influence
significant change within their regions. Further research in all those areas will be important. It
may be no easier to address the SDGs strategically and in an integrative way, than it has been
historically to address sustainable development, so it will be important to evaluate approaches
and research the impacts and challenges in different geographical and cultural contexts. Until
such time as implementation is commonplace, case studies sharing experience of how the
SDGs are being developed will continue to be required.
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Biographical Info
Dr. Chris Shiel is a Professor in Sustainability & Globalisation in the Faculty of Science and
Technology, Bournemouth University. She is the former Director of the Centre for Global
Perspectives, a Leadership Foundation Fellow, and a Principal Fellow of the Higher
Education Academy. She has led ESD within the UK for almost two decades.
Dr. Neil Smith is the Sustainability Manager at Bournemouth University having been the
Environment Manager at Southampton University for over nine years. He is an EAUC Fellow
and chairs the EAUC, Southern Central Environment Managers Group.
Dr. Elena Cantarello is a Lecturer in Sustainability Science in the Faculty of Science and
Technology, Bournemouth University. She is the Programme Leader for the MSc Green
Economy, a distance-learning course seeking to provide the scientific understanding on
which the transition to a sustainable world can be based. She is leading the Green Impact
programme for the Department of Life and Environmental Sciences.
... The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are interconnected; they agree that decisions made in one field have an impact on results in others, and that development must find the right balance between social, economic, and environmental sustainability. The success of the SDGs requires the engagement of states, the business sector, and public society and individuals alike to ensure that a healthier world is left to future generations [1][2][3][4]. ...
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Since 2015, governments, businesses and civil society, together with the United Nations have been encouraged to work towards seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2017). In this context, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have a special responsibility to embrace the SDGs as they educate the decision-maker of tomorrow. The aim of this paper is to give practical examples of how to embed the SDGs in the curriculum of an HEI by outlining the process of integrating the SDGs into the core curriculum at Nottingham Trent University (NTU). This includes, among others; a Future Thinking Learning Room: an innovative online resource library, discipline specific approaches, the use of the estate as a ‘Living Lab’, community case studies and investing in staff development. As a result, ESD no longer needs to be an afterthought when it comes to curriculum content, allowing it to be an easily achievable priority across all academic departments. This chapter may be of interest to those looking for inspiration and ways to embed the SDGs within Higher Education and beyond.
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