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News, Sustainability

(How) can Sustainability Education be ‘Discipline Relevant’?

The planetary emergency, particularly but not only climate change, is impacting the lives of all of us. Society will go through a time of rapid change – whether this is because we change the way we do things to live within planetary boundaries, or are forced to change by our failure to do so. For both practical and moral reasons, the education we offer needs to prepare our students for this. From a practical perspective, the jobs our students take and more broadly the way they live their lives will be reshaped by these changes, and it is better to be consciously prepared for this than swept by the tide. In particular, employers will increasingly expect graduates to have the skills and understanding to support the organisations they work for through this time of transformation. From a moral perspective, the future is created from the choices we each make and actions we each take. These in turn influence those around us, and shape the organisations, communities and societies in which we belong. We have a responsibility to ensure our students have the understandings and competencies needed to play an active role in building a better future. 

In response to this, the university has made ‘Embedding Sustainability’ a cross-cutting theme of its new strategy. This is manifest in our educational offering  through several objectives – and the one I wish to focus on here is to ‘integrate discipline-relevant sustainability education into the learning outcomes and experience of every University of Bristol student.’ As part of the Curriculum Enhancement Programme, it is my role to support activities across the university to meet this objective. 

‘Sustainability’ is a contested term, and can be interpreted in different ways. The university strategy mainly focuses on the environmental aspects – most notably, in the university’s commitment to decarbonise our estates. However, in education it would be remiss to consider the environmental crisis in isolation from social questions of justice – in particular but not exclusively the needs and aspirations of peoples in the Global South. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are one manifestation of this agenda, and were adopted by all UN member states in 2015  – but are also contested, both from the political left and right. 

The current approach in the University of Bristol is mostly bottom-up. Individual academics who are motivated by this agenda find ways to integrate it into the units they teach, and in some cases propose and create specialist (usually optional) units which focus on the link between their discipline and one or more aspects of the sustainability agenda. The imaginative ways in which they have done this is inspiring – you can find some examples of their work in the BILT library of Case Studies. However, this approach can only be a start. Relying *only* on motivated individuals risks the loss of their expertise when they move on, and also means those disciplines without such individuals do not get started. In addition, I would like to see schools adopting a programme-wide perspective on Sustainability Education.

So what would such a programme-wide perspective look like?

Key decisions would need to be made about what to include in a given programme, where and how to do so. What should be embedded in existing core units, and how can this be done without losing other important content? Should new unit(s) be created with more of a focus on sustainability? If so, should they be compulsory or optional? These are questions that often emerge when taking a programme-level perspective.

In my mind, before asking the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions, it is valuable to ask ‘why’? Not why should our students learn about sustainability, which I have addressed above, but rather: why would students in this particular discipline need or want to engage in specific aspects of sustainability? This in turn leads to scoping the questions of what and how. We need to consider what will motivate students to engage. This means accepting that not all students are primarily motivated by sustainability; they might be far more strongly motivated by an interest in their discipline, or a desire to get a good job after their degree. Many students will feel put off if they sense that sustainability education is something force fitted artificially into their disciplinary education or bolted on the side as an extra. We must find pedagogical ways of avoiding this. And, to do this, it means considering what motivations they might have. Furthermore, many programme syllabi are already overstretched with regard to content, leading to concern from staff as to how extra sustainability content can be shoehorned in. Again, by reflecting on the ‘why’ from the student perspective, it becomes easier (but not necessarily easy) to mesh sustainability with existing degree priorities. 

Based on conversations and reading, I have developed one framework to consider different reasons for engagement that students might have.  I consider four broad motivations  (Though they can, of course, overlap and blur into each other.)  Risk, Responsibility, Opportunity and Purpose. 


By risk I don’t mean the (very real) risk of serious societal impacts, but rather the more short-term risk to graduates in their lives and careers that comes from not integrating certain discipline-appropriate considerations of sustainability into their degree programme. For example, a mechanical engineer who graduates without an understanding of electro-mechanical systems now necessary for the energy transition will be at a disadvantage in the job market. A humanities graduate entering advertising, who doesn’t have a basic understanding of life cycle and systems thinking with regard to the environment, risks accidentally making false or greenwashing claims. An Accounting and Finance graduate without an understanding of the new approaches to the incorporation of Environmental and Social Governance into financial reporting may be less desirable to an auditing company. Risk, in this context, mainly applies to vocational degrees or thinking about common career paths of graduates in a given discipline


Responsibility can also be connected with likely careers of graduates but goes beyond this. What do graduates of this discipline need to understand to allow them to play a ‘responsible’ role in society in the future? I have seen different perspectives on this from academics and in the literature. For example, Petra Molton-Hill argues that every graduate should be ‘carbon literate’; knowledgeable about the carbon footprint of different activities and how to reduce them, with particular focus on those activities connected with their likely future careers. In Bristol, one example of this is the work in the School of Medicine to encourage students to understand more about the different ways in which medical and health services can have environmental impacts, and what can be done to reduce them. Engineering, Life Sciences and Innovation students can potentially have significant impacts in the future through the innovations they are involved with – and such impacts can be unanticipated and negative. So introducing models and methods for responsible innovation, anticipating and reflecting on possible futures consciously, is appropriate for such students. Other aspects of responsibility relate to research practices in a discipline – for example, how can an archaeological dig be conducted in a way which is respectful to the communities within which it is situated? How can social research be conducted in the Global South  without perpetuating and reinforcing post-colonialist hierarchies and stereotypes? Finally, many (myself included) believe that it is important for students to reflect consciously on their values and politics with regard to environmental and social challenges. Ideally, though this is difficult in a packed curriculum, they should  have at least a basic understanding of some of the ideas and controversies around reformist vs radical approaches, Green New Deal Growth vs Degrowth, individual vs collective approaches, and other open questions. 


Opportunity is the potential for approaches, insights and skills from the discipline to be applied to the challenges of sustainability. How can humanities disciplines open up new perspectives, ways of knowing and possible futures which allow us to reimagine the world in which we live? How can politics, economics and social sciences shine a light on existing mistakes and point to alternative ways of structuring society? (This can be both ‘in the small’ such as ‘how can existing Emissions Trading Schemes be made more effective in creating absolute reductions’, and ‘in the large’ such as ‘how would a post-growth society function, and how can we get there’?) How can engineers redesign transport systems – whether it be reducing the impact of our existing model, or finding radical alternatives to it. How can geographers provide genuinely useful water and crop information to rural communities impacted by climate change?  And how can computer scientists use pattern recognition techniques to monitor endangered species populations, such as the Grevy’s Zebra?

All three of these perspectives allow a discipline-focused view on sustainability, and can help identify what might be appropriate to include in a syllabus. Risk and responsibility factors are likely to be relevant to all students in a given discipline, and so are best incorporated through core modules. For example, final year projects that have a focus on innovation could be required to include a responsible innovation assessment. Opportunity factors can be signposted  in core units – for example through examples and case studies: The compulsory first year ‘Thinking Politically’ unit engages with climate change as one of its case studies. These can be explored further in optional units in later years.


Purpose as a motivation, though, is less straightforward to integrate into a disciplinary framework. For a student who is strongly engaged with sustainability as a motivating purpose, a disciplinary perspective is not enough. For such students, we would ideally offer genuinely interdisciplinary, challenge-focused educational options and pathways – and the shapes this might take is something for future discussion.

I am now engaging with a number of schools across the university, using this framework as a starting point for conversations; the aim is to identify what they already have in place, and what more it would be appropriate to include in the future to provide a genuinely disciplinary relevant engagement with sustainability. I will share some of our reflections in future articles – and welcome your views, perspectives and ideas.

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