Education for Sustainable Development: a perspective from the higher education sector

Education for Sustainable Development: a perspective from the higher education sector

There aren’t many issues which so many people agree on. From think-tank policy wonks, to the most run of the mill grandparents, we all say the same thing: kids ought to be getting their hands dirty more often.

Whether it’s backed up by reams of research, or just taken for granted as common sense, we know that this is important. There are few experiences more disarming than meeting a kid who doesn’t have the slightest idea where milk comes from. And it’s not that uncommon. Once, a kid tried to tell me an egg was a fruit. I couldn’t speak for days.

Thankfully, I’m part of an incredible section of civic society which is taking action on this. At the National Union of Students, we know how important it is that sustainability is an integral part of education. Not just in further and higher education – but as early as primary school too, ensuring that all pupils, students and graduates have a connected experience through education and employment.

Through students’ unions across the UK, hundreds of students are reaching out into their communities, and helping primary school children get a good sense of nature, biodiversity, stewardship and citizenship.

From Plymouth, to Liverpool, to Cumbria, university students are running educational workshops on sustainability, with plenty of experiential learning. Institutions like the University of Lancaster are even providing formal credit for the sessions their students deliver. And of course, there’s loads of other interventions like this from across the sector, not least the Sustainable Schools Alliance themselves.

But as amazing as all of this work is, it begs the question: why are organisations like students’ unions having to lead on this?

Here in the UK, we have a distinct lack of joined up thinking when it comes to education for sustainable development. We’re falling way behind on this global agenda. Japan gets it – proudly boasting a national strategy which encompasses all levels of education – and they fittingly hosted the UNESCO Decade of ESD conference last year. The UK couldn’t even be bothered to send anyone. This is indicative of the lack of governmental leadership on this agenda.

Our new accreditation mark for education for sustainable development is helping students entering further and higher education see which institutions are taking this seriously. But this needs to be far more strategic and systemic. At National Conference this year, we passed a motion on education for sustainable development for the first time in our 92 year history – mandating us to lobby government for a national strategy on ESD. We recognise how important this is.

The UK student movement does amazing things for sustainability across further and higher education, transforming campuses, curriculums and communities. And more and more students’ unions are even supporting the work of their local primary schools. But, while the third sector, NGOs and students’ unions will always have an important and valuable role to play in any active civil society, they shouldn’t be the sole drivers of quality education. This demands good governmental leadership

There are many crises facing the UK education system today, but few issues require such joined up thinking across primary, secondary, further and higher education than properly embedding sustainability into learning. It starts with something as simple as kids getting their hands dirty more often, but we need government to roll their sleeves up too.


Pic for blog



by Piers Telemacque

NUS vice president of society and citizenship