One of the most challenging conclusions for HEFCE ...

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... or for anybody else, come to that.

In 2007, HEFCE commissioned the Policy Studies Institute, PA Consulting Group and the University of Bath to undertake a strategic review of sustainable development in higher education in England.  This review was one of the key actions contained in Hefce’s sustainable development strategy (HEFCE 2005/28).  The aims of the review were to:

  • establish a baseline of sustainable development in the sector, against which to measure progress and publicise what the sector is already doing
  • learn from institutions' experience about the conditions for embedding sustainable development, including barriers and drivers
  • identify key issues which present opportunities and challenges for the sector and investigate possible policy responses
  • evaluate Hefce’s approach and refine its priorities
  • raise the profile of sustainable development in the sector.

In its published summary of the review, Hefce notes the following:

The review covers ground which is novel, wide-ranging and challenging and we are grateful to the consultant team.  The views expressed in the document are those of the authors and, in line with our normal practice for research that we commission, do not represent Council policy.  It may be the case that some of the views expressed will be contested.  Such debate would be welcomed by both the authors and ourselves, particularly if it leads to greater understanding and engagement. ...

I was not part of the research team, and thought the report to be particularly thought-provoking.  A crucial issue was what is to count, for survey purposes, as "activity related to sustainable development" [ie, for teaching purposes, ESD].  The report's executive summary said:

Probably the most important finding of the review is that SD activity is very disparate in the HEI sector: it is very widely dispersed within different HEIs; it varies widely across HEIs, with some engaging in multiple, coordinated institution-wide SD activities involving hundreds of staff, some having only a few active individuals, and some no identified activities at all.  Moreover, different HEIs have different perceptions of what SD is and how it should be appropriately pursued (if at all) within the institution.

It went on:

For the purpose of this review, activity related to sustainable development was defined as activity that contained ‘a significant element related to either or both of the natural environment and natural resources, PLUS a significant element related to either or both of economic or social issues’.

This was a particularly tight conceptual framing, much more so, as I recall, than that adopted by the STAUNCH review system in Wales for a similar survey – and is one that not everyone will agree with.  Indeed, the report for Hefce also noted:

Although this definition was widely accepted by HEIs, it emerged very early on in the review that SD lacks an adequate and consistent definition in the sector.  Moreover, it is clear that there is currently no single definition of SD which would command consensus across the sector, making it difficult for HEFCE to adopt a generic approach to SD.  However, it is clear that it will need to do this if it wishes to generate a definitive and comprehensive baseline for SD activity in HEIs.  This is one of the most challenging conclusions for HEFCE of this Review.

In other words, it was impossible to maintain the conceptual tightness of the framing whilst collecting the data that institutions wanted collecting.  I doubt very much that this has changed given the breadth of possible conceptual interpretations around sustainability and/or sustainable development, and has implications for anyone wanting to know about what is happening across the sector in relation to academic activity focused on sustainable development.  Caveat emptor, then.  Further thoughts on the problems of framing can be found here.

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