Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: January 2014

Hefce off-line

📥  Comment, News and Updates, Talks and Presentations

The Hefce consultation meeting is over.  As for, my question ...

In 2009, Hefce said this: “It remains our view that the greatest contribution that universities and colleges can make to sustainable development is through the values, skills and knowledge that students learn and put into practice.” Why has this sentiment been omitted from the current draft document?

… well, it got through the technology – which worked very well.

The discussion at the end was effective, I felt, largely because people were linking their points with others that had been made, and drawing issues together. Well done all those who were there.

Hefce's Andrew Smith said that "Hefce's not here to solve all your problems." Well, maybe not (actually, definitely not), but I did think they were "our" problems, and that a degree of common cause was always part of the Hefce stance.  Tricky, of course.  There was something of a comparison between the NHS and Hefce in terms of effecting change which was instructive.  But, of course, we don't have a National University Service – thank goodness – and so Hefce is always going to be limited in what it, itself, can do.  Its in the catalysing, stimulating, exemplifying, encouraging business, but not the proselytising or instructing one.

What's clear however, is that Hefce needs our help so that it can help us.  Today sounded as if this was being done.


Hefce on-line

📥  Comment, News and Updates, Talks and Presentations

I have joined Hefce’s London consultation on line, and was impressed by the ease of the technology.  Just a click.  If it runs out of tax-payer cash, HEFCE could sell this expertise.

I joined just in time to see the NUS’s two recent films (again) – the Welsh one, and the one about the Green Fund projects, wittily introduced by Dom Anderson.  Then there was the Panel discussion where Dom was joined by Steve Egan (Hefce), David Pencheon (NHS), and Nigel Carrington (VC; U of the Arts).  All men, Dom and I noted.

Questions to the speaker panel included …

  • What can we do to provide stronger and more authentic Leadership
  • What enthuses VCs?
  • The Student Green Fund is excellent – what are prospects for more funding?
  • Should we be educating students about sustainability?
  • How (and what) can academics learn from the NHS?
  • What about the 2/5 of students who don’t seem to want sustainability in the curriculum?  How can we engage them?

… and their comments included

Engage the VC on their own terms, on what interests them; make them offers they cannot refuse.

Make the Green Fund a partnership between students and the university

Empower leadership at every level in the organization

Make universities visible institutions of the future in terms of implementing (and then doing) solutions.  Universities know too much and do too little, unlike the NHS which apparently knows too little and does too much.

These are not all original ideas, of course – except to those large numbers of people who’ve never thought about them before.

After lunch, it was mostly small group work (around 90 minutes), which is pretty useless for those of us on line, as we cannot even listen in.  I did ask an on-line question:

In 2009, Hefce said this: “It remains our view that the greatest contribution that universities and colleges can make to sustainable development is through the values, skills and knowledge that students learn and put into practice.”  Why has this sentiment been omitted from the current draft document?

But will I get an answer?



The continuing development of preferences over what preferences to have

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The title of this blog is Amartya Sen's view of rational behaviour.  I was reminded of it – and the text at the foot of the post, which Stephen Gough and I wrote in 2007 [1. 4], as I took part in the first meeting on Monday of the NUS's Sustainability Direction and Oversight Board, which I am privileged to be a member of.  At the Board, there was much talk of behaviour change and (good) habit formation around sustainability.

Behaviour change and (good) habit are things that NUS emphasises in its work with student unions, with much of it informed by the notion that ruptures in social continuity (such as going to university for the first time) are good times to disrupt old (ie, bad) habits and establish new (ie, good) ones.  That might also work the other way round, of course, … .

However, I do not think that humanity will be saved from itself by the encouragement of habit breaking and making and behaviour changing alone, especially if it continues to valorise (as it tends to do) the individual and personal over the social and concerted.  Good habits are fine (essential, even), but they can become a problem when the context or circumstances change.  Then, you need new habits and behaviours. So having the (cap)ability to look at and decide those habits and behaviours to have is the important thing here.  Actual habits and behaviours come out through this process, and thinking critically about your habits and behaviours should, itself, become something of a habit.

Here's what Steve and I wrote [1] in 2007 ...

In the clearly liberal conception of a university, the institution, and the individuals they educate, should be at the cutting edge of society’s creative response to unfolding future circumstances.  This clearly is not achieved by making them the uncritical repositories of present conventional wisdom — whether in relation to higher education or sustainable development.  A key current question is: ‘what can education do for sustainable development?’  But, a complementary one is: ‘what can sustainable development do for education?’ which leads to important questions such as: ‘what is a university, a school or college now for?’  One model of the social role of education is in accord with Amartya Sen’s account of rational behaviour as the continuing development of preferences over what preferences to have, and of development as the capability, the substantive freedom to choose a life one has reason to value [2. 3].  Thus, the whole of the formal education system should be promoting such rationality and freedom, as these qualities are firmly associated with the tolerance of a plurality of values that we shall need.  How best we might do this is one of the many aspects of the research agenda in this field that deserve particular attention.

We concluded our 2007 book on higher education and sustainable development [4] with this thought:

Universities value knowledge, and for that reason they demand clarity about what is known, and how.  Universities also value the pursuit of knowledge and must, therefore, insist on its present and on-going incompleteness — in the face of those who, for whatever reason, wish to extrapolate to final, general truths.  Sustainable development touches on all aspects of our intellectual lives, and will require us to husband what we know, eschew glib certainties, and confront the future with an open, learning orientation.  To this extent, there is an identity of interest between higher education and sustainable development.

This seems even more pertinent than when it was first written, even if we are not much further on in knowing what it might mean on the ground.


1. Scott WAH & Gough SR (2010) Sustainability, Learning and Capability: exploring questions of balance.  Sustainability 2(12) 3735-3746

2. Sen AK (1999) Development as Freedom; Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK

3. Sen AK (2002) Rationality and Freedom; Belknap/Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, USA

4. Gough SR & Scott WAH (2007) Sustainable Development and Higher Education: Paradox and Possibility; Routledge: London, UK


Circular update from Davos

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

No.  I’m not there!  Hardly.  I’m not even sure where it is.  But the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is  – launching another report with McKinsey, and a new initiative: Project Mainstream.

I can remember when ESD experts were sniffy about the Foundation.  You would find them muttering into their Pinot Grigios that it wasn’t really about sustainability; that it didn’t actually understand ESD; that it wasn’t worth bothering with. Truth is, those who went hoping for a research grant or two got the bum’s rush; one of the Foundation’s many skills is sniffing out rent-seekers.

Well, if you want to see how really badly the Foundation is now doing, have a look at this press conference with Ellen MacArthur, Ian Cheshire (CEO Kingfisher PLC) and Feike Sijbesma (CEO, Royal DSM).  It’s here.  Ellen’s blog 'Investing in the circular economy' is also now available to read on the World Economic Forum website.


Another day; another sustainability literacy test

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The problem is: whenever some dodgy concept – like sustainability literacy – emerges out of the many febrile imaginations tired of day-time TV, inevitably someone decides it has to be measured.  I was alerted to the latest example today by eagle-eyed correspondents.

Here it is.  And it comes with more acronyms attached than you could shake a STICK [1] at.  Just look at them: there's the SAB and the RNEC to start with.  Just bewildering.

The website blurb says this:

The “Sustainability Literacy Test” is a tool for the various initiatives on sustainability lead (sic) by HEIs to assess and verify the sustainability literacy of their students when they graduate.  It assesses the minimum level knowledge in economic, social and environmental responsibility for higher education students, applicable all over the world, in any kind of Higher Education Institution (HEI), in any country, studying any kind of tertiary-level course (Bachelors, Masters, MBAs, PhD).

This is quite a claim.  However, it gets better (or much worse depending on your point of view).

There's a helpful page on how it all works:

All of the questions in this assessment will ensure that future graduates have basic knowledge on sustainable development and both individual and Organisational sustainability and responsibility. For this purpose, the scope of this assessment covers 2 types of question:

  • Questions on challenges facing society and the planet i.e. general knowledge on social, environmental and economic issues, basic understanding of the earth e.g. water and carbon cycles, greenhouse effect etc.
  • Questions on the Organisation’s responsibility in general and on corporate responsibility in particular i.e. questions on practices for integrating social responsibility throughout an Organisation and questions on the responsibility of individuals as employees and citizens.

In order to be easy to use worldwide, a Multiple Choice Question (MCQ) format has been chosen.  
50 MCQs are randomly selected out of among a wide range. Of those questions, 2/3 are related to Supra/International level (global warming for instance) and 1/3 linked to national/regional level (i.e. local regulations and laws, culture and practices). The test takes 30 minutes.

Easy, really.  The first sentence (which I had to read 3 times to make sure it really was saying this) is complete rubbish, unless the organisers see institutions teaching to a test they have no responsibly for.  Maybe they are mutton-headed enough to think this.  If so; they completely misunderstand universities and have no business doing any of this – well, they haven't any business, anyway, whatever their understanding is.

As for the questions (which I cannot access), judging by the bullet points, above, these are going to be the usual tired stuff about how the earth works and what corporate ethics ought to be.  I fear that Oscar Wild's aphorism will apply with force: in examinations, the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer.


[1] STICK is the Society for Traducing International Conceptual Knorms.  It is based in Poughkeepsie, VA. [ ]


Facing up to stealth denial; winding down on fossil fuels

📥  Comment, New Publications

Thanks to David Oldroyd for pointing me towards: the RSA’s Social Brain Centre Report: A New Agenda on Climate Change: facing up to stealth denial and winding down on fossil fuels.

This draws on a UK-based survey that identifies the widespread phenomenon of' 'stealth denial' of which most of us are guilty.  To quote:

"This human response to climate change is unfolding as a political tragedy because scientific knowledge and economic power are pointing in different directions".

More on this later ...


Reaching beyond GDP

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

I've just read "Time to leave GDP behind" which Robert Costanza and colleagues have published in Nature. It argues that we need new, more integrated measures of sustainable human well-being, beginning ...

Robert F. Kennedy once said that a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. The metric was developed in the 1930s and 1940s amid the upheaval of the Great Depression and global war. Even before the United Nations began requiring countries to collect data to report national GDP, Simon Kuznets, the metric’s chief architect, had warned against equating its growth with well-being. GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustain-ability or flexibility.”

It's powerful stuff, well-argued, and with good background on GDP's genesis and development.  Compelling as the argument for change is, there's so much inertia in the current system as to render GDP's replacement hugely difficult.  Personally, I think it will take an OECD or an IMF to step beyond the GDP framing to something more helpful.  If a body as credible as the  OECD were to set up a parallel system to GDP, to run alongside it for a while, then we could all see its merits and (many) demerits in stark contrast.  I've not got much money riding on this, and even less on the UN as an agent of change which the authors inexplicably favour:

Creating that successor will require a sustained, transdisciplinary effort to integrate metrics and build consensus. One potential vehicle for doing this is the setting up of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a process that is now under way to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  Established in 2000, the MDGs comprise eight basic targets that include eradicating extreme poverty and establishing universal primary education, gender equality and environmental sustainability.  Currently both the MDGs and the suggested SDGs are only lists of goals with isolated indicators. But the SDG process can and should be expanded to include comprehensive and integrated measures of sustainable well-being.

I fear they've been reading The Manifesto we all Want with a sub-critical eye.


Watching the website to watch

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Though I know there's considerable choice, but for those of still wondering what the Decade was all about, this has to be the place: the website of the 2014 UNESCO conference to mark the shift from Decade to GAP.

Although it's a long while till November 10th, there will be much to watch, and issues to note.  Go on, bookmark it. You know it makes sense.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering whether there will be a parallel event in the UK.  Just as there was a launch, don't we need a landing / docking / arriving / whatever.  I think I am probably wondering whether England will do this, as Scotland and Wales will no doubt be doing what they do best – acting in devolved isolation, that is – and the Northern Irish will likely have two celebrations: a unionist and a republican one.

Maybe UNESCO UK is working on this right now … .  I have asked.


My week in books and postcards

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

It began with my reading the New Scientist's 'Nothing', a book that brings together the writings of more than 20 New Scientist writers around themes that have the idea of nothing at their heart.  Topics included: the history of zero, the number; absolute zero, the temperature; the near-vacuum; zero gravity celestial pathways; the placebo effect; being idle for a purpose; (un)consciousness; the point of day-dreaming; the Big Bang and the end of it all; and more ... .

dn24442-2_300If you think that all this sounds a mishmash, you'd be wrong as the book is cleverly arranged in both themes and pathways.   For example, you can read from start to finish (or finish to start, if you like), working through the 6  themes:

beginnings, mysteries, making sense of it all, surprises, voyages of discovery, conclusions

Or you can follow an idea through the themes, for example by

  • starting at p. 16 with the secret life of the brain,
  • going to p. 65 and wastes of space,
  • then to p. 93, with busy doing nothing, and
  • finally to putting the idle to work on p. 183.

It strikes me that this combination of paths and themes might be used more frequently in providing structure for readers.  I learned a lot, and was held by good writing, so well done New Scientist for showing that there's more to nothing than you might at first think.

It ended, on the Friday evening, with the launch of a great book: Research Journeys: a collection of narratives of the doctoral experience, edited and written by real doctoral students from Bath.  The publishers say:

"The aim of this book is to provide prospective and current doctoral students, and their supervisors, with a range of narratives of doctoral experiences.  The book is an outcome of a conference where both academic and professional doctorate students at different stages of their research shared their experiences of the process of completing a doctorate.  The ten candid accounts included in the volume provide a valuable insight into the kinds of challenges that arise and the ways in which these might (or might not) be overcome.  In so doing, this book ‘lifts the lid’ on some of the hitherto concealed aspects of the doctoral process.  The book also includes a chapter from an established academic with a record of writing about the doctoral student experience, as well as inserts from a doctoral programme leader and an experienced academic supervisor.  In the Introduction, the editors review some of the current literature on experiences of the doctoral research journey and the research process.  The book concludes with the editors’ reflections on both the unique nature of doctoral research for each individual and the common stages that students experience on the journey."

There was a good turnout with students, staff and some senior university folk pitching up, for standard issue canapés and wine, but for incisive comments, from book editors and contributors.  A pity, though, about the WiFi un-connections.  All told, a must read, I'd say, if you're a graduate student embarking on an EdD / PhD / DPhil.  I'm looking forward to the next book – this time about the supervisor experience; the hardest thing an academic does.

In between times, there was time for  a trip to the new Stonehenge visitor centre.  The Centre, much loved by critics, fares less well with consumers, we are told.  Too much queuing – indeed, too many queues to get to the queues for the too small and too slow road trains to reach the stones.  Not everyone, it seems, is interested in the rather wonderful museum where we spent nearly all our time, not going to the stones at all.  I suspect that English Heritage may have assumed that too many would be.  It seems clear that visitors who are littering Trip Advisor with adverse comments cannot have spend enough time in that emporium of delights which is the shop.

images-2There is surely everything here you could wish for; there are even books, though these are hard to find as you meander through the mead, mugs, mouse mats, scarves, engravings, necklaces, tea towels, scarves, hats, fridge magnets, tee shirts, wooly jumpers, scones, pencils, pens, postcards, pictures, paintings, photographs, wine, blankets, beer, broaches,  – all of which is now part of the requisite National Heritage experience.  I nearly bought this postcard of a pre-English Heritage scene when the A303 looked like a track and there was a sign saying "Fork Left for Exeter" in front of what looked like a road-side cafe  with the stones in the background and an old bone-shaker car trundling down the hill.

Time, too, for a bit of ganderflanking.  The weather was kind, the ground not too sodden, and the air, if not quite balmy, well, it wastn't arctic chill either. Mind you, our conversation was probably more purposeful than the notion of ganderflanking suggests, if wiltshire dialect glossaries are be relied on.  And, finally, time to see the first primroses, once again on that sunny bank in Winsley.  Where, I wonder, are the snowdrops?


Framing arguments

📥  Comment, New Publications

I have just read a significantly flawed, but rather informative, report from nef on the framing of the government’s messages around their socio-economic (aka, austerity) policies.  From nef’s point of view this amounts to a very clever way of presenting and arguing very poor policy.

“Well-framed, well-crafted and often repeated, the austerity story is the dominant political narrative in Britain today.  It shapes how most of us think and talk about the economy.  It has convinced most of the country of the need for huge public spending cuts and presents a coherent vision for the kind of society we should live in.”

There are two aspects to the report: [i] a discussion of socio-economic issues, and [ii] a discussion of how particular frames are used to present messages. Inevitably, the first of these (given that it’s by nef), comes with a built-in preference for particular (ie, non-austerity) views which do rather colour the argument.  I’m sure nef thinks this is the whole point of the report, which starts:

“The Coalition tells a powerful story about the economy to make the case for austerity in the media and public communications.  It is consistent, memorable, uses vivid images and emotional metaphors, and is simple enough to be understood and retold.  There are several frames that underpin it:

  1. Dangerous debt – the most important economic issue the UK faces is the size of public sector debt, caused by excessive public spending.
  2. Britain is broke – the UK’s public finances are like an individual household, which has spent all its money.
  3. Austerity is a necessary evil – there is no economic alternative to spending cuts.
  4. Big bad government – the bloated, inefficient and controlling government is getting in the way of progress, interfering in people’s lives and rewarding the undeserving.
  5. Welfare is a drug – like drug addiction, state support is tempting, but ultimately dangerous; benefit claimants are weak, reckless, undeserving and addicted to hand-outs.
  6. Strivers and skivers – there are two kinds of people in Britain: hardworking strivers and lazy skivers, we each choose which to be.
  7. Labour’s mess – all the faults of our economy can be pinned on the previous (Labour) Government and their out of control spending.”

Clearly, not everyone will find the diagnosis and subsequent prescription plausible – well, I didn’t: too many generalisations and convenient glossings-over for my taste – and far too many complex issues presented as simple binary choices.  However, though you may find such aspects uneven, there’s no getting away from the fact that the report is an excellent discussion (and illustration) of the idea and practice of framing, which shows its persuasive power.  The report notes:

“… when a frame is strongly held we tend to ignore facts that do not fit with it.  The austerity story is a powerful narrative that is embedded in public consciousness.  It cannot be challenged with facts.  Only with new frames and a different story about the economy can it be dislodged.”

There’s much here for those bent on making a persuasive case – whatever it’s about.