Embedding sustainability within higher education: current commitments, approaches and outcomes in higher educational institutions

Anglia Ruskin University

Publication Release Date: Oct. 24, 2019
Date Posted: May 13, 2020
Submitted by: Tessie Devlin
Sustainability Topic: Coordination & Planning
Content Type: Publications
Publisher: Anglia Ruskin Research Online
Type: Graduate Student Research


It is increasingly understood that (1) sustainability-related challenges must be urgently addressed, and (2) the role of the Higher Education sector is important in meeting such challenges. Education for Sustainability (EfS) aims to address our sustainability challenges by ensuring students gain the knowledge skills and values they need to take action to help create a sustainable future. However, to date, the typical approach of HEIs in tackling sustainability has almost completely been limited to information/knowledge provision (i.e. ‘Emancipatory’ approach). This is in stark contrast to a possible focus on action. Indeed, the influence of socio-psychological factors in translating knowledge to action for sustainability is commonly overlooked. As such, I ask the following research question in this thesis: ‘To what extent are HEIs actually seeking to be a tool for enabling students’ actions for sustainability rather than raising awareness of sustainability and providing underpinning knowledge of the subject. In answering this question, I investigate four constituent aims covering: students responses to HEIs EfS approaches; University’s corporate commitment to EfS; the experiences of individuals with responsibility for implementing EfS (EfS leads) and the institutional landscape that those EfS leads are constrained/enabled by. This thesis involved a pragmatic mix of semi-structured interview, social media and documentary data, all of which were predominantly analysed via content and thematic analysis techniques. I found that the attention being afforded to EfS across UK HEIs is limited in scale, both in terms of ambitions and outcomes. EfS implementation suffers from a lack of real management support and inappropriate approaches to enabling students’ actions for sustainability. Those HEIs who do report high number of students taking action for sustainability are (1) blending the Emancipatory and Instrumental approaches, with (2) students being active participants in the process, and (3) have high levels of management support. To conclude: to address the issue of students’ (in)action for sustainability, the problem needs to be reconceptualised in a new way where the focus is shifted from knowledge/capacity-building to learners actual actions as outcomes. In reflecting on what is possible, I demonstrate in this thesis the value of interdisciplinary insights that innovatively connect the EfS and behavioural science literatures.