ESD in HE – QAA has another go

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

Heaven help me but I've been reading the latest attempt by the QAA and its friends to get academics to take ESD seriously.  You'll find it here, and there's a 10 question survey to give your feedback.  Good luck.  The survey begins badly, as it asks for comments by yesterday but then says the deadline for comments is a week on Friday.  ESD in a timewarp?  QAA more like as it never understood sustainability, as I recall vividly from its first attempt a few years ago.

The document is 41 pages long.  You can tell that it has been written by insiders for insiders by the fact that 13 of these pages are filled with bullet point  statements.  It looks more like a firing range target than a serious attempt to communicate.  Pages 18 to 20 are nothing but bullet points.  A further 8 bullet-dotted pages are focused on so-called learning outcomes which have been aligned with the eight key competencies identified by UNESCO.  It's a simple point, but if all these bullet points were numbers it would be so much easier to talk about them. "Can I point you to statement 16 on the slide? is so much easier that: Can I point you to the 16th bullet point on this slide ...?"

I could go on and on about the silliness of many of the learning outcomes, but it's just too tedious.  Anyway, my two main objections are much more fundamental:

1– The opening sentence is: "This guidance is intended to assist staff in UK higher education institutions seeking to incorporate Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) within their curricula."   This might seem a laudable aim, given the state we are in, but it's really not.  It's been written (the document says) by those "with expertise in education and sustainable development" by implication for those who haven't got any.  And yet, as I write this, there are thousands of serious, skilled, experienced and knowledgable academics in UK universities who are helping their students in a wide range of disciplines learn about sustainability.  QAA has never acknowledged that these people exist because they've swallowed the prescription that it's ESD that matters.  So instead of taking expert academics seriously and asking what can be learned from what they do, and how might they be helped to do even more, we're told that these people should learn about ESD instead.  Dear me; whatever the question, it seems that it's ESD that's always the answer.

2– The guidance "is intended to be of practical help to higher education providers working with students to foster their knowledge, understanding and skills in the area of sustainable development".  There is a focus in this on being critical.  For example: enabling "learners to critique the credibility and sources of knowledge", and suggesting that academics "critique different perspectives on SD dilemmas, issues, tensions and conflicts within their subject area".  But there is nothing on being critical of sustainable development as an idea, or ESD as a process.  I guess this is because the experts writing this really do think that these are beyond critique.  But isn't this what universities are for?  To critique fads and fashions?  Or to put it in a rather more scholarly vein, to help society decide which ideas to reject or further develop.  Or are sustainable development and ESD just too important to scrutinise?

QAA has had another go at all this because the SDGs have been developed since their first attempt in 2014.  What a pity they have repeated the same old problems in doing this.   Actually, I don't really blame the QAA as it's clearly puzzled by the notion of sustainability.  It's the closed circle of advisors they listen too (uncritically) that's the problem.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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  • The QAA draft report is largely framed by the ESD community rather than by the SDGs- If the report were to position the case in the context of the SDGs, I believe there is more likelihood it would catalyse a wider uptake of sustainability across the curriculum. Given that many of those students who enter higher education see it as a life affirming “transformative” experience, I find the context and emphasis which this document gives to ESD disappointing. Indeed, I think it would be more effective and strengthen the case it makes if it were framed in the wider context of the SDGs rather than ESD since ESD is merely a means to an end. In the many contexts in which I operate-industry, academia, policy formulation- the sustainable development goals (SDGs) are a” central organising principle” and hence influence decisions and activity at many levels and is in itself then transformative.