25 Sep 2011

Some thoughts on Universities and Sustainability: And graduate, fiscal and soil moisture deficits!

In itself sustainable development is not new. According to Genesis, Creation was launched with a statement of sustainable development policy; man was set in the garden “to work it and take care of it”.

But whilst man has responded impressively to the first part of this commission, he has taken much longer to grasp the implications of the second. Indeed it is only within the last decade or so that the complexity of sustainability has become better understood. As I talk to people who grasp some of the urgency surrounding the impact of our current un- sustainable lifestyles, I am constantly reminded that there is still scope for scientific and public disagreement about probabilities, timescales, and detailed causation and response. And yet the cataclysmic effects of climate change are already wreaking havoc on our” global garden” (see: The Climate Reality Project; 24hourly reports on climate change from numerous locations around the world -http://climaterealityproject.org/the-event/ )

In my own backyard in the Vale of Evesham we have had the lowest rainfall this year since 1910. In March and April this amounted to a miserable 14mm; eight of the past 11 years have seen less than average rainfall. This area is the “salad bowl” of the UK with thousands of acres devoted to lettuces, onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers, all of which require vast quantities of water from rivers, ground water wells and reservoirs. All of these are becoming more and more limited in meeting the needs of local growers; many of the ground water wells were dry in June and still dry in September. According to the Environment Agency soil moisture levels are at an all time low, meaning that unless the deficit is made up in September and October, our salad bowl might look a little sparse next year. So whilst our politicians continue to hammer home the need for fiscal deficit reduction we in the Vale are more focused on another form of deficit reduction-the soil moisture deficit!

So our attempts at caring for the “garden” are becoming fundamentally more difficult, complex and uncertain. Can we in the university sector help our graduates take better care of the “garden?” Any attempt at defining a role for our universities is beset with controversial assumptions and yet I think a university’s treatment of sustainability is increasingly being seen by prospective students and employers as an essential element of a” good” university education.

So I particularly welcome the Higher Education Academy’s ambitious but relatively small scale pilot with 8 universities called the Green Academy – A Curriculum for Tomorrow, which aims to promote new approaches to the curriculum. It is fundamentally aimed at achieving what are described as “Graduate Attributes for the 21 Century” after a radical curriculum restructuring programme carried out by the University of Melbourne- which became known as the Melbourne Model. Harvard, Hong Kong and Yale have undergone similar reforms along with a small number of universities in the UK: Aberdeen, Manchester and Southampton.

The Melbourne Model is based on 6 well defined graduate attributes: Academic Excellence; Knowledge across Disciplines; Leadership in Communities; Attuned to Cultural Diversity; and Active Global Citizenship. Two of these attributes directly focus on international learning experiences. Graduates of the University are expected to have an understanding of and respect for social and cultural diversity and value different cultures. And I’m really impressed that graduates are expected to accept social and civic responsibilities and be advocates for improving the sustainability of their environment. On top of which they must have a broad global understanding coupled with a high regard for human rights, equity and ethics. Whatever your perspective, these are stretching and ambitious objectives for any university.

But all of this is small scale, relatively limited to a few academic staff and institutions. Can it be ramped up? Is it realistically possible to embed graduate attributes of the kind pioneered by Melbourne University into a wholesale curriculum change process? Unfortunately, our institutional structural processes are slow and internally contradictory and some commentators argue that like many other large organisations there is no institutional learning architecture to allow joined up thinking and practice. There is lots of a talk, but relatively little action, a lot of strategic discussion, but mainly its business as usual. We need a clarion call for action from the academic community to accelerate and scale up the change processes that are being pioneered in a few of our universities and as an immediate priority we need to avoid the short termism of projectitis that currently prevails.

Steve Martin  25/09/2011


  1. Hi Steve. Scary what is happening to soil... Is Melbourne really delivering on this? I'm suspicious of strategies and would like to see impact. Powerful graduates that are boldly speaking and doing what needs to be done. Universities are SLOW. But they don't have to be, right??

  2. i've yet to see a UK that that doesn't have its soil moisture deficit wiped out in autumn or early winter!
    temporary shortages over dry spells, yes - so why not plan to supply water sustainably. How many moaned aobut excess water when Tewskbury became an island.
    Face reality - rain comes when it wants - we should manage our water supplies!