5 Jun 2012

 “Students say they deserve higher quality teaching (The OBSERVER: 22/04/12)”

Quality in Higher Education is in the news again. HEFCE has just announced a new consultation on- Improving Quality Assurance in Higher Education.Inter alia, it suggests:

“The proposals also seek to ensure that the enhancement element of review is strengthened; and that there is continued student engagement in quality assurance and enhancement processes.”

  I very much hope that members of the SHED fraternity will be energised to respond. And the recent announcement by QAA, on its new Quality Code for HE which mentions ESD is a welcome initiative, albeit a belated response compared to that of OFSTED and the Learning and Skills Improvement Service.

I believe that universities should place much more emphasis on the quality of teaching as Liam Burns the NUS President has recently argued. The current approach to quality in higher education emphasises the role of universities in serving economic interests. This restricts how quality is defined, understood and measured. Hence value for money, completion rates, graduate employment and graduate earnings feature strongly. And this means that a degree becomes equivalent to a share certificate whose value is determined by the issuing university. A recent select committee report was highly critical of the Vice Chancellors who gave evidence but could not give “a straightforward answer to the simple question of whether first class honours degrees achieved at different universities indicate the same or different intellectual standards”.

Universities should assess how learning contributes to wider social functions such as active and ethical citizenship and shaping a democratic civilised and more sustainable society. Universities have a significant role in developing ‘sustainability literate’ leaders and hence optimising their contribution to the future of society, the environment and the economy.  Sustainability in this sense does not feature in quality assurance or the accreditation systems for university teachers.  An NUS survey carried out in 2011 indicated that 80% of first year students said sustainability should be an integral part of their university course and that this would help them in gaining employment in the future

Moreover, a highly critical select committee report on quality and students (Students and Universities, 2009) contained the following student quote: “contact time we have with staff is a problem. Lecturers are often informative but there is no one-to-one time. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a sausage factory rather than surrounded by some of the foremost minds in my field “.
 We urgently need to encourage and seek ways of integrating these more fundamental aspects of teaching and learning into university quality assurance procedures and into the professional accreditation of university teachers so that we count things of real value to both students and society more generally.
  Stephen Martin

4 Apr 2012

Leaked Document from the HEA

A colleague at UCT* obtained access to this e-mail and its attachment.

Dear *******,

No, you're right. Necks on the line.

Let's retract current strategy and go with attached.


PS Need new Foreword and Intro.

The Higher Education Academy
Strategic Plan 2012 – 2016
Championing excellent learning for resilience and flourishing in universities

Our Vision

For UK universities to be recognised and valued by students, staff and wider society for their facilitation of consistently excellent and appropriate learning.

Our Mission

To use our expertise and resources to support individuals, disciplinary and interdisciplinary teams and university communities and institutions in general to enhance the quality and impact of learning for resilience and flourishing.

Our Purpose

The HEA:

/ Works across the UK to meet the global challenges of today and tomorrow and to enhance students’ learning experiences in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

/ Is owned by the university community, through Universities UK and GuildHE, and works with, for, and on behalf of higher education, supporting subscribing institutions to develop their learning and facilitating practices.

/ Collaborates with university providers, funding bodies, university mission groups, professional, statutory and regulatory bodies, subject associations, sector agencies including the National Union of Students, and groups representing external stakeholders, for instance, local communities.

/ Operates across the university community, bringing together different perspectives to inform and challenge developments in learning and facilitation for resilience and flourishing.

Our Values

applying systems thinking, curiosity, expertise and knowledge to push boundaries and foster a culture of innovation around resilience and flourishing.


– collaborating with individuals, groups, communities and institutions to transform staff and student learning, enabling all to become change agents.

Working for the public good

– providing transparency, accountability and resources.


– ensuring an equality of opportunity and treating all others with respect by taking responsibility for our actions on the planet.

Our Priorities

1 To inspire and support effective practice in learning and facilitating for resilience and flourishing

Supporting individual disciplines and promoting interdisciplinarity

– providing subject-specific support, including systems thinking events and resources for facilitators throughout their careers, working closely with discipline associations and networks, and ensuring opportunities for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary developments.

Supporting professional standards

– providing support to staff working alongside academics, for instance librarians, student support services, careers staff and e-learning specialists.

Addressing challenges

– supporting the university community to rise to additional contemporary challenges such as satisfying greater expectations with less resource, flexible delivery, equality and diversity, assessment and feedback, reward and recognition, employability and internationalisation; recognising that without an underlying focus on resilience and flourishing, the HEA nor the above themes will be able to exist.

Encouraging reflection and innovation

– commissioning pilot projects, research syntheses and new research into learning and facilitating, and disseminating the findings to enhance practice and shape policy around resilience and flourishing.

2 To recognise, reward and accredit excellent facilitation

Recognising and rewarding individuals

– creating opportunities for professional recognition and accreditation, in particular through our fellowship scheme - aligned to the (soon-to-be-refreshed to reflect new staff attributes) UK Professional Standards Framework - our National Teaching Fellowships programme and our facilitation awards.

Accrediting institutional provision

– maintaining and promoting take-up of the sector-owned UK Professional Standards Framework, and supporting institutions to use the Framework to accredit their continuing professional development for academic and professional staff and to support institutional reward, promotion and recognition policies or procedures, as above.

3 To influence policy, future thinking and change

Influencing national policies

– working with representatives of students, staff and external stakeholders to interpret, challenge and shape learning and facilitating policy, for instance through commissioned briefings and position statements, and convening events to influence debate.

Evidence gathering and analysis

– capturing, analysing and disseminating intelligence to benchmark and improve policy and practice, and by conducting international comparisons.

Facilitating institutional change

– offering change programmes, consultancy, development opportunities and resources to help academic leaders initiate and embed change that enriches learning and facilitation for resilience and flourishing.

4 To develop an effective, sustainable organisation that is relevant to today's challenges and valued by higher education

Effective governance

– working with our Board of Directors and Trustees to ensure the needs and expectations of society are met or exceeded.

A client-focussed service

– through a team of HEA partnership managers, we will meet the learning and facilitating needs of subscribing institutions by guiding them through our services, tailoring our offer to meet their specific needs, and responding to their feedback to ensure we remain useful and relevant.

Staff engagement

– becoming a reflective learning organisation that ensures its values are translated into practice, making the HEA a place where staff feel professionally fulfilled and enabled to meet the challenges we are facing.

Securing financial sustainability

– we will seek to secure new sources of revenue, for instance by providing services to international institutions or agencies and expanding our subscription base.

We will measure our success against the following targets:

Development of Relevant Academic Practice
[To be defined]

Staff Attributes
[To be defined]

Institutional Strategy and Change

At least 80% of institutional leaders and policy-makers surveyed agree that they have gained valuable support from the work, knowledge, evidence gathering activities and interventions of the HEA.

At least 75% of institutions in the UK have used the HEA’s institutional strategic change services.

Organisational Effectiveness
To be defined


*UCT is the University of Clear Thinking. It is a fantastical university; therefore, with regards to the above...

26 Feb 2012

Notes from a Sane University

Just thought I’d drop a line about what it’s been like at my new job at UCT.

UCT is amazing. They are really taking on board sustainability seriously. Here is what is happening:

Collapse and…
Every course and module now begins with “Collapse and…” in the title. Even if that is not the focus of study, it reminds everyone to keep that narrative in mind, as a precautionary principle. For example, “Collapse and Accounting and Finance for Contemporary China”, “Collapse and Ancient History”, “Collapse and Economics with Russian”, “Collapse and French and Philosophy”, “Collapse and Mathematics and Computer Science”, “Collapse and Neuroscience”, and “Collapse and Veterinary Medicine”. How could it possibly work with some of these? Well, take Vet Med. Not only do they learn how to treat animals (the Business As Usual course), they also look at how to prepare for when people can no longer afford to get treatment for their pets, or for when livestock are abandoned. In addition, the curriculum includes information and thinking on medicine without access to oil/fuel (both in the making of the medicine and also the transport and storage of medicine). Yes, conversations can get intense, but they’re lively at UCT! Oh and lest I forget literature and culture studies, there is a Reader in Dark Mountain (that cultural project based on collapse and our responses to it). I should mention, though, that, very soon, UCT is planning to abandon discipline-specific subjects and start implementing complex problems and predicaments, and having students explore solutions and responses via multiple disciplines. (If a discipline becomes irrelevant, under this process, so be it. Staff understand that they may become redundant – it’s in the contract. But most staff are planning to skill and knowledge themselves up so that they are not pigeon-holed into one discipline, thereby increasing their resilience to the needs of the university.)

Power Down Hours (Days)

To help focus the mind of staff and students, all power (electricity) cuts out for one hour, randomly, each day. This is gradually being increased and, soon, one day per week will be “power-free”. Students and staff, at first, reacted, well, reactively. But gradually, increased amounts of time were spent preparing for the power cut, so that the cut wouldn’t be so disruptive. One of the more interesting outcomes (so far) has been that the kitchen staff are preparing a cold store on the south side of the campus to store perishables underground. (And they are pushing for less frozen food to be needed.) Some students are starting to take notes with notebooks and paper, and most staff are giving up PowerPoint. (Obviously, this is all saving them money and decreasing their carbon footprint!)

The Staff
I am sure you asking how on earth staff (particularly academic staff) went along with such sweeping changes! Well, taking their lead from some other organisations, UCT management/trustees restructured the university and everyone was required to reapply for their jobs. Only now, the job descriptions all included “staff attributes” and required the ability to use systems thinking to problem solve (amongst other things). In fact, during the interview process, applicants must demonstrate these attributes in a written and oral group exercise. As everyone was now “new staff”, it was easy to require all new staff to attend a lengthy induction (along with new students), which included presentations, discussion and debate on the different models of how to explain what is going on in the world today, and what will happen next. Staff are still made up of Business as Usual advocates, Green Economy advocates, Circular Economy proponents and Collapsonomics aficionados, but the difference is that they all are quite well-versed in the different arguments and demonstrate critical thinking and “keeping an open mindness”, as was required on hire anyway.

The Students
UCT markets itself as the Unemployability University, for the very good reason that most graduates will not become employed (at least not in the traditional sense; there are modules on the Shadow Green Economy). How students cope with this reality is important, which is why the university is taking it so seriously. In fact, students are encouraged to attend UCT with the clear understanding that they will not be able to re-pay their tuition fees, so they may as well consider it a free education. In addition to “traditional students”, unemployed/underemployed/retired people from the local community are encouraged to attend classes, free of charge, and under the radar of the government. This makes for a richer learning environment, and the (required) projects undertaken in the community are more successful. Lastly, staff are also students at UCT: non-academic staff were hired for their enquiring minds, so are often in classes; and academic staff are required to take courses outside their disciplines in order to facilitate interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration in solving/responding to our current and future problems/predicaments.

I just want to say I love working here. It’s sane. It’s fun. And if only this wasn’t just a little bit of fantastical writing about the University of Clear Thinking… Sigh.

17 Jan 2012

Today becomes Tomorrow - Some notes and questions

Daniella Tilbury and Alexandra Ryan have written a very interesting paper to introduce a special issue of the Journal of Social Responsibility. The special issue focuses on the position of sustainability within business learning. It makes the case for Business Education for Sustainability. Given the power and influence that graduates of various MBA courses around the world are likely to have on the behaviour and lifestyles of others, some passionate advocacy for the building in of sustainability into business courses is very much needed. Tilbury and Ryan's paper threw up several questions for me, included below alongside some notes. I'd be very interested to read responses to them from SHED members and others who have read the article:

New things I found out:
1. That there is a One Planet MBA at Exeter

Things I liked:
1. That this special issue exists and that the conversation is happening.
2. The way they describe an inclusive view of Sustainability at bottom of p.138
3. The citing of Muhammed Yunus and Microcredit
4. Recognition that those who get a business education are some of those who go on to hold power and influence over the lives of many people.
5. Emphasis on the need to 'build in' not 'bolt on' sustainability.

Questions I have:
1. What is your opinion of the OECD Better Life Index and have you been following the ONS National Wellbeing consultation? Will either gain any real traction in the business world?
2. What's your opinion on the fact that the IUCN approach was to focus on 'the monetary value of nature' [ecosystem services] (p.139)? This is something that DEFRA have done recently too. Is this sensible in the way it commoditizes nature and re-inforces extrinsic values? The latter being particularly important when thinking about business education.
3. Can the 'fundamental ideological struggles involved in bringing sustainability into the business curriculum' (p.142) be overcome without profound changes in the ideology of the business world / Capitalist World? If not, where should efforts be focused?
4. Is Stephen Sterling's 'ecological intelligence' an important concept here? (As a related but usefully distinct one from Systems thinking?')
5. Students, who in a study cited on p.143 are reported as 'seeking stronger emphasis on sustainability' on business courses. I suspect there are a variety of motivations, so the questions here are quite rhetorical.
a. Is this because they want to be more prepared for the future (be more literate about Climate Change, Population growth, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, etc) and therefore more prepared for the threats and opportunities that will emerge?
b. Is it because they genuinely care about the negative impacts of business and want to minimise, rather than eliminate these (or know how to use CSR as PR)?
c. Is it because they see business as the only model, long-term, that can bring about change and genuinely want to run a 'Social Business' in the way that Yunus defines it?
6. Are the differences between 5a+b and 5c the difference between Education FOR and Education ABOUT Sustainability?

4 Jan 2012


Bill Scott’s previous blog about change contains some important and topical messages given the launch of the new LIFE index and the ongoing debate about methods of measuring progress towards a” sustainable university”. He quotes Stephen Sterling:

“How we evaluate and measure anything ... depends on what we think it is [and this informs] the kind of indicators we choose. So while it may not be possible to achieve consensus on the nature and implications of ESD, we can at least attempt some clarification of its dimensions, so that debate on evaluation is in turn clearer” Stephen Sterling 2009

I agree that this distinction is important and highly relevant to any of the sustainability change programmes currently under scrutiny in our universities. But it is important to think a little more about the purpose(s) of evaluation.

We evaluate all the time.  Essentially, when we do this we are taking a piece of the world and comparing and contrasting it by holding it up against something that we already think and know and have decided the value of – whether good or bad, useful or not, high, medium or worthwhile, right or wrong.  This ‘existing description of the world’ against which we compare the piece of the world we are evaluating is our benchmark, criterion or standard.  (This is a bit like those little plastic map templates some of us traced around at primary school and made a shape we knew was our country).  We carry these around in our heads and pull them out when we want to check new things. But the problem with sustainability and our sense of what a sustainable university looks like is much more difficult and more contentious. Indeed, I would go further and argue we do not yet have a clear and coherent vision of such a university. And yet we seem to be pretty clear about the un-sustainability of our universities.

To ‘do an evaluation’ means that we actually do a piece of research or inquiry – but with the emphasis on finding out what value people place on things – in this instance how a university is approaching one of the most challenging contemporary issue of our time .  There is value in knowing what people think of a university’s progress on sustainability, but even more value in knowing why and thus what they would prefer.  People’s preference or possible future options can then also be evaluated by them and the agreed ‘best way to go’ subsequently enacted.  Consequently, while any evaluation will follow a series of steps, it is also clearly setting in place processes which enable others, who are making value judgements, to follow the same steps for their own evaluations.  Hence, there is likely to be a more consistent approach from a range of people involved – designers, deliverers and recipients of a change programmes.  For institutional change to be initiated and commitment to occur, there  has to be some fairly clear conception of what the future state of affairs could be if and when the change were to be successful.

Gleicher’s formula might be helpful in determining readiness here:

                                      C = ( D V F) > X  

Where C = change, D = the level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, V = the quality and clarity of the vision about the desired future state, F = the feasibility of the proposal and X = the cost of changing (this includes the psychological costs as well as more conventional elements such as time, money and materials).

The Formula for Change was created by Richard Beckhard and David Gleicher, refined by Kathie Dannemiller and is sometimes called Gleicher's Formula.  It provides a model to assess the relative strengths affecting the likely success or otherwise of organizational change programmes. The revised formula is:

                              D x V x F > R

Three factors must be present for meaningful organizational change to take place. These factors are:

D = Dissatisfaction with how things are now;
V = Vision of what is possible;
F = First, concrete steps that can be taken towards the vision;

If the product of these three factors is greater than

R = Resistance, then change is possible. Because D, V, and F are multiplied, if any one is absent or low, then the product will be low and therefore not capable of overcoming the resistance.

Steve Martin 4/1/2012

29 Dec 2011

Transforming, reforming, or (merely) evolving?

In a brief, but aptly thoughtful, 'Thinkpiece' for the 2009 Universities that Count annual report, Stephen Sterling makes a distinction between universities whose sustainability-focused work might be seen as reformist in nature, and those where this might be viewed as more transformative.

Stephen writes:

The situation currently is that whilst debates are pushing into [transformative] territory, ... most universities are in practice still struggling to embed sustainability through the [reformist] pathway.

In this sense, reformist is seen in terms of an 'add on' to current practices — a working within the current framing of HE, if you like; and transformative is viewed as significantly challenging of mainstream policies and practices — an attempt to change that framing. Stephen is, as well-read consumers of this blog will know, keen on the transformative conception, as I think are at least some of the other senior leaders at his university, Plymouth, although whether they would all go as far as Stephen does in seeing the need for what he describes as

a systemic shift of culture towards a more holistic, participative and engaged form of education reflected across the whole institution

is a more open question. Stephen makes this reformist / transformative distinction in the context of writing about how we might evaluate what could be seen as progress in the development of a university to address sustainability. He notes:

How we evaluate and measure anything ... depends on what we think it is [and this informs] the kind of indicators we choose. So while it may not be possible to achieve consensus on the nature and implications of ESD, we can at least attempt some clarification of its dimensions, so that debate on evaluation is in turn clearer.

Just so. But what is to count as reformist, and who are to count as significant reformers? And where does the locus of the transformative have to be centred if it is to count as really transformative? Purists will already have noted a flaw in these questions in that, in some readings at least, the transformative will necessarily be de-centred if it is to count as such. However, I shall side-step this awkward little issue – in this posting at any rate – whilst I argue that, to be seen as either transformative, or reformist, implies a degree of institutional endorsement and leadership which is implicit rather than explicit in what Stephen writes.

So, perhaps it is useful to think in terms of leadership, although this can be tricky as HE institutions are stuffed with leaders of all kinds and at every level. However, I am thinking of formal structures, as universities are essentially committee institutions with codified decision-making. A sharp(ish) question, then:

Can a university be thought of as being on a transformative road unless its senior leadership have endorsed this vision and trajectory, with say, senate and senior management group minutes to formalise this, with then policies enacted and funded to realise the vision? That is, both endorsed and mandated, with everything that should follow from such a stance. In this, an institution would be well beyond where merely signing international declarations or charters would place it.

It seems to me that the answer has to be No it cannot. It's also reasonably clear that such a formalised eventuality would come about as a result of significant activity over time across the institution both in a practical sense (teaching, researching, etc) and in an argumentation one (seminars, working groups, policy proposals, etc.). Thus, in terms of identifying potential indicators of development / progress along the transformative road, it may make sense to think of the journey, rather than the destination, and to conceptualise this in terms of a (small) number of stages of development.

But it seems to me that these arguments have to apply to the reformist position as well as to the transformative, as even an 'add on' will need to be consciously developed both within the institution, and by it, if it is really to be said to be happening. And as Stephen says:

most universities are in practice still struggling to embed sustainability through the [reformist] pathway

which imputes agency to the institution itself, and not just its members.

With all this in mind, it seems to me that there are institutions in the UK (and beyond) where leadership clearly espouses reformist or transformative positions, and yet there are also others which do neither, and yet these institutions do manage to research, teach and engage with the public, government and corporations about sustainability in many ways, thus probably being just as effective within society. They do this because of the interest and expertise of their staff, rather than because of any institutional drive or vision, and the university is quite likely to judge staff success in quite conventional terms: for example,

students, grants, collaborations and opportunities in

– student satisfaction, prizes, patents, papers and prestige out

... rather than in any overt or proxy contribution to sustainability: a green gown award, say, a People & Planet top 5 position, or accreditation through LIFE. And where this institutional recognition is conventional rather than focused around sustainability, the term evolving seems more apt in that there will be activity on the ground (teaching, researching, etc), and maybe argumentation, but nothing formalised or endorsed by a senate or senior leadership group.

Thus it seems that we might usefully think of three developmental positions: the evolving, the reforming and the transformative, especially if we are to make a clear distinction between something that happens within an institution, carried out by (some) of its constituent actors: academics, managers, students, and support staff, as opposed to that which the institution itself does, and enables, as an institution through its structures and systems.

If we are to gauge development and even progress, then making these distinctions clear seems an important step.

12 Dec 2011


Growth in all of its forms is one of the greatest conundrums facing humanity in the 21 century. It can improve our living standards and health and well-being. Yet as a recent global photographic competition (www.prixpictet.com) has depicted in graphic detail the dizzying growth of our cities and their dependency on scarce resources along with the relentless growth of the world’s population, all of which now threatens our very existence. We face a global environmental catastrophe in land use, food production and resource use which could undermine existing fragile economies and the sustainability of our civilisation.

And our politicians search relentlessly for solutions which will re-energise economic growth, with little evidence to date that their interventions are making any fundamental difference. So it’s not surprising that some of the worlds’ so – called sustainability experts have also found it impossible to reach any consensus on whether sustainable consumption and economic growth are compatible (http://www.globescan.com/news_archives/tss_growth/

The results, released today by international consultancies GlobeScan and SustainAbility in collaboration with independent organization the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF), are based on the views of nearly 1,000 experts worldwide surveyed in September and October 2011 on topics relating to sustainable consumption.
London, 31 October 2011 – A strong majority of sustainability experts believe that sustainable consumption is achievable, according to the latest findings from The Sustainability Survey research program. But two in five think it is incompatible with continued economic growth. Experts overwhelmingly disagree (70%) with the statement, ‘sustainable consumption is impossible to achieve’, with strong majorities in all regions endorsing this view. But experts are divided on whether there is an ‘inherent conflict between economic growth and sustainable consumption.’ Forty percent agree that the two are incompatible while a similar number (43%) disagree.
But some recent analysis of the UK’s Material Flow Accounts for 2001-2009 suggest we are using less stuff now than the previous decade (Guardian 1/11/11- The Only way is Down http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2011/nov/01/peak-stuff-consumption-data ).

It seems that the grand total of stuff we use (minerals, fuel, wood etc) in the UK amounts to roughly 2 billion tonnes per year about 30 tonnes for each and every one of us. For Boris’ benefit that’s as heavy as 4 Route Master buses!

This data is potentially good news because it implies at least as I read it that we have “decoupled “economic growth from material consumption. Genuine decoupling has been seen by many of us as unachievable. But is this really de-materialisation and hence the emergence of a Green Economy?

Steve Martin 6/12/11

6 Dec 2011

The changing face of the Sustainability movement

Inadvertently, the 'animate' video below might just represent the changing face of the sustainability movement. It highlights how much bigger it actually is if we take into consideration the more subtle contributions.

Tim Kasser (a psychologist and one of the architects of Common Cause) describes 'the high price of materialism' for: happiness, equality and the environment. He argues that as our materialism goes up, our emotional wellbeing and care for others and the environment goes down. This leads us to recognise that we should be reinforcing intrinsic values like empathy, altruism, kindness and selflessness, while inhibiting extrinsic values like greed, status, materialism and selfishness. As Kasser points out, the benefits of doing this cut across several areas. This is what has united apparently unrelated organisations behind the common cause all of whom, in different ways, are trying to foster a 'happier, more socially just, more ecologically sustainable world.'

In a previous blog post I labelled the philosopher Alain de Botton as an 'accidental environmentalist'. His books, documentaries and School of Life rarely mention the environment. However, by helping his audiences to question the wisdom of endlessly pursuing happiness through material wealth he is perhaps a more powerful educator for sustainability than someone who merely deliver's factual information on the environmental costs of materialistic behaviour. Alain de Botton is an unwitting participant in a sustainability movement that is bigger than that which currently meets the eye.

Kasser's short film, beautifully produced by the Center for a new American dream, neatly illustrates what the sustainability movement is beginning to look like. No longer is it just about highlighting environmental problems and positing lifestyle choices to address them. It is now burrowing deeper, recognising the benefits of exploring the underpinning value systems that shape (un)sustainable lifestyles. Tim Kasser does this wonderfully well:

If the sustainability movement is changing in this way, if it is taking a more systemic view of the forces that shape human behaviour (i.e. not assuming that people fly because they hate Polar Bears), what does this mean for environmentalists and environmental organisations? It could mean a painful identity crisis for established organisations, but does it have to?

Environmentalists have, for a long time been frustrated by the impotency of traditional approaches, there is a temptation to abandon old habits. But, can they adopt new more powerful approaches that focus on values and don't mention the environment without confusing their audiences and funders? Will they be stand accused of purporting to be concerned with wellbeing and equality when really their sole agenda is to save the environment? (As if you can only care about one thing at a time). Should they change tack, or should they expand and grow into new areas?

I suspect what is needed is evolution not revolution. Like a child maturing into an adult their identities should become more complex as they come to be characterised by a richer, broader set of attributes. It is still very important to talk about the environment, really important, it can reinforce intrinsic values in very powerful ways. They should definitely not stop talking about it, because if they do, who will take their place and will they be able to do it well? Living, breathing and experiencing the natural environment is a tremendous bringer of wellbeing and a powerful antidote to consumerism. It must not be abandoned or even reduced, it just needs to be incorporated into a wider, more complex definition of education for sustainability. It will sit more comfortably there too, for it will not be laden with over inflated goals and heavy expectations. Education about the environment should help us love and appreciate it, that's all it needs to do. Education for sustainability is broadening out, it comes in many different forms: read Tim Kasser, Alain De Botton and George Orwell; listen to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Scroobius Pip; watch Adam Curtis, Charlie Brooker and Into the Wild.

By Morgan Phillips (Waste Watch)

30 Nov 2011

Communicating Sustainability

Good article in the Guardian which summarises the 'Common Cause' project that WWF is involved in. To put it briefly, Common Cause criticises sustainability writings which appeal to extrinsic values (wealth, public image, social power and concerns about security) because it's been shown that people who focus on these values are less likely to be motivated to contribute to sustainability. Instead the claim is that it's more effective to focus on intrinsic values - social justice, care, acting ethically, improving people's wellbeing etc., i.e., representing sustainability as something that is life-affirming not a short-cut to self-aggrandisement, saving money, and avoiding fines. Here's the article:

and here's the very useful Common Cause project:

21 Nov 2011

Thoughts from Jane Davidson

What would a country committed to sustainable development look like? A country committed to balancing economic, social and environmental factors in its decision making; a country prepared to actively reduce unnecessary consumption and focus instead on improving the quality of life for its citizens, particularly those with least resources?  From 2013, that country might be Wales when the Welsh Government puts forward legislation to put sustainable development at the heart of not only what it does, but how the government relates to the wider public sector. Such legislation will make a flexible concept real and turn what is now at best good practice into meaningful legal obligations which can be monitored and reviewed and ultimately challenged in the courts.

This is a significant moment in the history of devolution. The National Assembly for Wales started its life in 1999 with a unique duty to have a Sustainable Development Scheme, a duty supported by all political parties. 12 years on, it has become clear that the original duty, although pioneering, is insufficient. The scheme is simply not enough to make a real sustainable difference in a world that uses too much.

Last month I was privileged to be invited to give the annual ENDS Report lecture in London which went up on SHED-SHARE last week. In it I argued that the time for voluntarism is past, that legislation will deliver better outcomes for Wales as it will enable ‘sustainable development’ and its indicators to be defined in law and in doing so, facilitate adherence from the government and public sector in Wales round a common agenda.

For those of us interested in the sustainability agenda, this presents an ideal opportunity to discuss what such legislation should look like. What should be its ambit? What outcomes would we like to see as a result of it? Could a ‘sustainable’ Wales be distinctively different? How precise should the definitions be? What would be the best model for independent critique?

Our discussions with the new Minister start on 1st December. Your thoughts would be welcome.

Jane Davidson
Trinity Saint David University
November 2011

17 Nov 2011

No country is an island ...

In a recent mailing, Arran wrote:

Just wanted to encourage you to read Jane Davidson's article … I really appreciate the way it represents sustainable development. … I like the way it starts off by talking about "quality of life and community wellbeing" rather than economic growth with a bit of resource conservation, the way it describes "the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given" and mentions the vision of Wales "using only its fair share of the earth's resources so that its ecological footprint is reduced to the global average availability of resources". That's a long way from the language of Whitehall, and clearly embraces the contraction end of contraction and convergence which often gets forgotten. Hopefully it's a reflection of the wider discourse used in political circles in Wales, but even if not it certainly encourages the reclaiming of the term sustainable development.

Yes, hopefully it is.

Prompted by this encouragement, I read Jane’s article, and looked again at the 2009 report: One Wales: One Planet. In the article, Jane herself asks: "So what would a sustainable Wales look like?" and then reminds us that a cross-party vision was agreed in One Wales: One Planet last year:

Across society there is recognition of the need to live sustainably and reduce our carbon footprint. People understand how they can contribute to a low carbon, low waste society. These issues are firmly embedded in the curriculum and workplace training. People are taking action to reduce resource use, energy use and waste. They are more strongly focused on environmental, social and economic responsibility, and on local quality of life issues, and there is less emphasis on consumerism. Participation and transparency are key principles of government at every level, and individuals have become stewards of natural resources.”

For me, this doesn't quite picture a "sustainable Wales"; rather, it's a view of Wales's becoming less unsustainable, and (then, perhaps) more sustainable, over time. The verbs used here are all about the journey "… are taking action ..."; "… understand how they can ..."; "… a recognition of the need ..."; etc.

But this is fine, as sustainable development is just that: the reflective social learning that this descriptor captures – albeit in too little detail. It was Jane's question that was misleading with its definitive notion of a "sustainable Wales".

Actually, the view of a sustainable Wales presented in One Wales; One Planet is not quite this:

Our Vision of a Sustainable Wales is one where Wales:

  • lives within its environmental limits, using only its fair share of the earth’s resources so that our ecological footprint is reduced to the global average availability of resources, and we are resilient to the impacts of climate change;
  • has healthy, biologically diverse and productive ecosystems that are managed sustainably;
  • has a resilient and sustainable economy that is able to develop whilst stabilising, then reducing, its use of natural resources and reducing its contribution to climate change;
  • has communities which are safe, sustainable, and attractive places for people to live and work, where people have access to services, and enjoy good health;
  • is a fair, just and bilingual nation, in which citizens of all ages and backgrounds are empowered to determine their own lives, shape their communities and achieve their full potential.

… but here there is no hint of social learning, or any sort of learning and education, although the document as a whole does address such matters.

I do think the omission significant, however, as none of what I have just quoted will occur without a great deal of learning, and un-learning, by all concerned, and absolutely not just through ESDGC in schools.

Thus, there will be development of a less unsustainable, and then of a more sustainable sort, and One Wales; One Planet details some of the initial steps along this track. It is less clear, however, when it comes to forming judgements about effectiveness and progress; ie, about indicators, an issue that the UK itself continues to struggle over – especially in relation to education.

I mis-quoted John Donne in the title of this post. Here's the original:

... No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

We are all involved in humankind, and Wales will only be properly sustainable when everyone else is too. But I think they know that.

11 Nov 2011

Occupy Universities

The Occupy movement is about drawing attention to system failure. (in my opinion)

So what if we occupied universities? Does anyone doubt that universities are failing to enable humans to create systems that will allow humans and species to thrive on our planet? If that's not the role and goal of a university, then let's create spaces and places that will enable humans to head for and reach this goal.

So, whilst it's certainly important to raise awareness around tuition fees and the marketisation of higher education, that doesn't go far enough.

What if students at university around the UK (the world!), launched sit-ins, demanding that they be educated about the system and how it is failing and about alternatives and how to implement them? Do the professors not have the answers? Then let's co-learn.

21 Oct 2011

What unites those who joined SHED?

I sent a question to Shed-Share in the form of a conundrum. I, and colleagues at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, would like to develop a ‘special interest group’ to bring together university teachers who share an interest in the broad and undefined  area of higher-education contributions to ….(something along the lines of … sustainability). I made the case that terms such as environment, sustainability, development, being ‘for’ anything in particular, and advocacy, tended to divide rather than unite, in the context of perceived roles for higher education. I wondered if others had something working elsewhere that succeeded in bringing disparate mind-sets together.

I think that it was a fair question. As I have researched the field for many years I have been thinking about it for some time now. But I did not have high expectations of an easy answer as I do not have one myself. In some respects my question was rhetorical, but in others it was a plea for a good discussion on a way forward.

I had six responses and I am grateful for them all. I was helpfully reminded that: this should not be a ‘special’ interest; that academics characteristically may not notice the wood for the trees; that the issues are value-laden and that values are deeply-culturally embedded; that we may, if we wish, blame our current situation on defective leadership; that even where things appear to be working well at a superficial level, they may not be deep-down; that as individuals we are capable of making highly subjective interpretations of even simple language constructs; and that there are amongst us colleagues with a far greater proclivity for the esoteric, or academic, than I.

Two colleagues emphasised the value of embedding our concerns within the label of ‘graduate attributes’ but did not say how successful their own experience of this approach had been. [My own research, publications and institutional role do emphasise graduate attributes, but my experience is that many university teachers interpret these attributes (including as they often do, ‘literacy’ and ‘teamwork’) as ‘skills’ and doubt the extent to which they should be ‘teaching skills’. Graduate attributes can easily become another dividing line].

But the situation is serious. No doubt we share common interests but we appear to have some mutually exclusive goals. We are not communicating effectively. We have different conferences, journals and embedded academic values. It would be difficult to interpret these as strengths as we are in danger of undermining our commonalities. For example, as peer-reviewers (in a profession that is heavily dependent on peer-review) we may damage even those academic endeavours that could lead to common purpose. We have constructed an academic divide to match that between the disciplines themselves and wonder why we are not making progress.

Please do respond, support, criticise or develop. Useful discussions could, as examples:

·         Focus on bridging the most obvious divide amongst those likely to be reading these words [Those whose concern is ‘for’ sustainability, often in a human-centred paradigm and those whose focus is the environment, generally from an ecological and conservation perspective]. Pollution, habitat destruction, economic collapse and spiralling loss of indigenous cultures have failed to bring us together (sufficiently for Higher Education to unite) but surely something as basic as ‘HE’s role as ‘critic and conscience’ offers hope for mutual goal setting?
·         Address the structural issues that currently keep education for sustainability/sustainable development/environmental education outside of mainstream debates in higher education, or consign them to box-ticking exercises. Could our peer-review processes become more respectful of new, interdisciplinary or just-different perspectives? Could we collectively become more focused on evaluating our impact on our students, before we get too agitated or complacent about whether or not we should be trying to influence our students? What else could we do, collectively, to make progress?
Kerry Shephard
University of Otago

10 Oct 2011

Should We Celebrate the Reporting of Failure?

I remember 2002 as a time of hope for progress on the environment. I had the privilege of chairing a meeting on Business Sustainability at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in the sumptuous surroundings of the Hilton Hotel, surrounded by armoured vehicles and high security because Robert Mugabe was staying there. It did not feel very secure or sustainable.

2002 was also the year that stories about corporate irresponsibility surfaced in spades. CEOs of Enron, WorldCom, Vivendi and Marconi went from heroes to zeros, as the corporate governance debacle spread in the USA and Europe.

And whilst there was no shortage of rhetoric about lessons learnt, there was no serious attempt to make CSR reporting more rigorous and worse still, little pressure on corporations to meet higher standards of corporate governance. So I welcomed Ed Miliband’s assertions at the recent Labour Party Conference, that we need a new corporate culture to address the problem of the asset strippers and profiteering predators in our society.

I think he’s right; we need a paradigm shift in our institutional culture and consciousness in the public AND private sector. But like anything new that encompasses radical and worthwhile ideas – it is much easier to conceptualize than implement.

Cynics at Johannesburg moaned about an implementation gap and still lament the fact that many sustainability reports lack transparency, rigour and credibility. The Universities that Count Sustainability reporting and benchmarking process has also been criticised along similar lines because it focussed more on process than assessing impact.

Let’s face up to it; there is a huge gap between the stuff that gets reported and rewarded and the reality in most of our universities and colleges. It’s still pretty much business as usual with a few pioneering green stalwarts struggling to initiate real change, especially in reform of the curriculum and teaching and learning. The new LIFE Index must seriously address this challenge.

I agree with a commentary by Rory Sullivan in August, that sustainability reports should acknowledge both the good and the bad aspects of progress towards being more sustainable. But as he stresses most reports have an “unhealthy fixation on good news and corporate PR”.

Much of the current criticism of sustainability reports as well as some celebratory awards that have surfaced alongside them reflects the limited influence they have had on institutional performance. If the reporting and awarding process is reduced to a form of tokenism then it is a failure. And the good reporters are also not necessarily the best performers. The true value of performance reporting is in facilitating greater efficiency and effectiveness by identifying and remedying weaknesses.

Celebrating failure seems to be catching on too, but in a different way to “tokenistic failure”: a new Stanley Cup sized award called “the Heroic Failure Award“has just been introduced in the USA to reward creative risk taking! I wonder if celebrating heroic failure of this kind should be the next evolutionary step in sustainability reporting.

Ideas on measuring and celebrating progress through sustainability reports, indicators and awards have proliferated in the wake of the Rio and Johannesburg Earth Summits. Of course they have their place in motivating individuals and organisations but if they are to make a real contribution to sustainable development they must ultimately contribute to action that leads to transformation in our prevailing model of progress which is predicated on unlimited consumption driven growth.

Steve Martin

7 Oct 2011

Talking past each other

John F Disinger was an American environmental educator, and scholar. His was often a rational and clear voice amid the competing clamour and battle as one disposition or other tried to out-shout another persuasion, particularly in the shameful (and shameless) culture wars that afflicted environmental education in the early 1990s.

He wrote this in 1983:

“… though EE is ideally interdisciplinary – an eclectic assemblage of interacting disciplines – its practitioners typically approach it as if it were multidisciplinary – an eclectic assemblage of discrete disciplines. Because EE’s practitioners typically are grounded in no more than one of the multiplicity of disciplines involved, logic leads them to approach EE through the intellectual filters of their own disciplines. Thus, practitioners in EE typically continue to talk past one another, rather than with one another”.

Quite so. This was true then, and remains the case today to too great an extent, and even the faltering advent of ESD, with its seductive appeal to an integrating holism, seems not to change matters much. Indeed, how could it without great effort, given Disinger’s diagnosis of the problem?

The lion’s lying down with the lamb may be some people’s vision of harmony, but mine is where teachers from different disciplines begin to interact with each other with student learning (rather than their own certainties) in mind.

6 Oct 2011

What stories are we telling ourselves?

At least one story is always running through our heads. If someone cuts us off on the road, we may mutter, "Idiot!" – thus implying the perpetrator has particular characteristics and motives. If a group of hooded teenagers walks past us, we tense up – indicating fear around youths with particular characteristics. If we dig deeper, we uncover stories -- assumptions, beliefs, worldviews.

As education for sustainability practitioners, what stories are we telling ourselves? If we look at our behaviour first, this will indicate the narrative. What are we teaching our students? How are we behaving with our colleagues, family and friends? What is our underlying story about the future of humanity, climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion and social (in)justice?

Do our actions imply that we think:

humanity is doomed?

catastrophe is inevitable for the vast majority of the population?

technology will protect civilisation?

everything is fine, nothing needs changing?

Are we acting quietly, cautiously (but calling it "strategically")? If so, what does this imply? That there is time?

Do our own actions imply that action on the above challenges is:

needed urgently?

important but not a priority?

ineffective? misplaced?


Perhaps your own answers to these questions are too private to post in comments below. But have a think. I've had to face my own stories in the past few weeks and it's been radicalising.

Storytelling mother, 40, seeks others who believe it's urgent and that people are powerful enough to prevent catastrophe and to create flourishing communities worldwide... having zesty fun along the way. Be in touch.

30 Sep 2011

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), where are you?

Something which Stephen Martin and me have argued for some time (see “Educating Earth-literate Leaders” or “World Wise: Can universities be models for ethical and sustainable communities?”), becomes more and more urgent by the day. It is the question about both the effectiveness of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and its most important target audience.

In 40 years of Environmental Education and Development Education and well over fifteen years of ESD the focus has been on turning pupils and students into human beings fully equipped with the competencies to cope with the challenges of a world which the present and the last generation have turned into anything but paradise. In other words, the target audience has always been the next generations which is disingenuous on two counts: first we expect those who aren’t responsible for the mess we’re in to clean it up and second, it is an implicit but stark admission on our part that we are not capable of cleaning it up ourselves. All we can do, so we signal, is hope that our successors will turn out to be a notch cleverer than we are.

To come back to the audience question, this means that those who really need to be educated, who need ESD, who clearly lack the competencies to deal with our sustainability crisis, are the current political and economic and spiritual leaders. If Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, wants to take the lead in tackling Climate Change in Europe and at the same time makes every effort to exempt German car manufacturers from more stringent (but still wholly inadequate) new CO2 emission limits, if Doris Leuthard, member of the Swiss Government, says that tackling Climate Change cannot mean less economic growth, one is sadly reminded of George ‘the older’ Bush’s punch line for the Rio Earth Summit of 1992: ‘The American Way of Life is not negotiable’.

In reality, statements (and the ensuing politics) like the above mean that these leaders have not even grasped the most basic fundamentals of sustainable development. For the industrialised Euro-American societies of this planet, there are 3 of these basic laws:

  1. There is no unlimited growth in a materially non-growing system like planet Earth.
  2. If you have taken over many years, if not centuries, more than your fair share, it’s time to give back and make do with (much) less.
  3. If your way of life, taken as a role model and emulated by the rest of humankind, is a sure recipe for destroying the life-support system Earth, it’s time to abolish it, deter anybody from copying it and to establish pretty fast a new one that is sustainable (i.e. one-planet living).
As soon as you hear points like these uttered by leading politicians and economic leaders, you know that ESD has started to work and you can safely turn your attention towards pupils and students (but not before!). Rolf Jucker, 30/9/2011