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Sustainable Development Goals and the University of Bristol: Are they the future?

The Covid-19 crisis has unleashed a hunger for verifiable evidence, rigour in evaluation and independent critical thinking of a high order – in sum, what typically a broad university curriculum delivers.” – Lucian J Hudson 2020

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established in 2015 provide the world with a unified direction. There are seventeen major goals that cover climate change, gender equality, no poverty and the list goes on. Love them or hate them, they are here to stay, with COVID-19 demonstrating the importance of collaboration and unity between organisations, governments and nations.

At a local level, the One City Plan has taken the SDGs and used them to demonstrate how Bristol will contribute towards these ambitious targets, but unfortunately, the progress has been thrown into jeopardy: everything from childcare to climate change has been ground to a standstill and suddenly what was an attainable goal last year seems like it is slipping out of reach.

However, the SDGs, battered now they may be, present an opportunity for Bristol University: to collaborate, to transform education, for research and to demonstrate clear goals and vision for the future as we emerge from lockdown. Many individual units already use the SDGs: in computer science, they are used to teach about sustainable businesses, they are widely taught throughout SPAIS and the unit Sustainable Development which is open to all students uses them extensively. Yet, in order for them to be truly beneficial to all students and the city of Bristol itself, the SDGs must be imbued at every level of decision making, and not just the global goals, but the local ones as well. Nikhil Seth, Head of UNITAR, said this week “Imagine a world where every university in the world supports learning throughout their city”, imagine if Bristol was not isolated on top of its lofty hill but instead connected with all local schools in true partnerships. By using the SDGs Bristol could not only solidify its status as a leading university but contribute to making Bristol the best city on earth (I already think it is but I’m biased). There are literally hundreds of goals in the One City Plan, but for the purpose of this article, I want to demonstrate the particular importance of engaging in two: Quality Education (SDG4) and Partnerships (SDG17).

Quality education SDG 4: The thirst for knowledge at the moment is clear. The number of people signing up for online courses since lockdown began has been staggering, with universities globally making many of their modules free at the point of use. Courses on climate change, photography, pandemics, wellbeing, happiness have all become available due to the sudden ease of access to online courses. Bristol is a university that already offers quality education, but the question becomes, what is this education being used for? Who is it being used by? Is it reducing inequalities embedded in our city? And perhaps most importantly, is the education we are providing making the world a better and more sustainable place to live?

By 2025 the city of Bristol aims for “Every older person in Bristol will have the opportunity and support to participate in an intergenerational learning activity”. With the support of the University of Bristol, given the new tools available for mass learning and courses of upwards of 500 people, this is a clear and demonstratable way that the university can significantly impact the future of Bristol’s citizens outside of the university bubble. Particularly given the success of Linkages with Bristol Hub, there is a demonstratable keenness on both sides for intergenerational learning. This is one of many goals that the University of Bristol could use to strengthen both opportunities for students while also helping to support the city achieve and thrive.

Partnerships SDG 17:

The University of Bristol has had some truly extraordinary research published since the outbreak of coronavirus from a wide range of disciplines. The make-up of the virus, campaigning for equality of access to testing and how lockdown effects gender-based violence. Yet, the way that knowledge is disseminated is fragmented and often only accessible to academics. Knowledge gaps can only be overcome by the co-operation of universities, governments, businesses and community organisations, which means that knowledge should no longer be viewed as a commodity but as a tool for bettering society. Programs like the VSCE (Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise) run by the Black South West Network encourage all of the voluntary sectors and community organisations to collectively pool their research in order to create the best responses and service delivery as possible. In order for responses to COVID to be truly evidence-based this has to be the attitude of academia as well: how can we pool our knowledge, how can it be used most effectively, how can it be available to everyone who needs it.

This brings me on to my favourite Sustainable Development Goal (yes, the lockdown has made me into quite the party starter): “Bristol universities are active community learning hubs for people of all ages and backgrounds”. This goal is not set to be achieved till 2043, and yet COVID has demonstrated how quickly communities can pull together, how dramatically curriculums can change over the course of a month. This shouldn’t be a distant goal; this should be interwoven into the recovery of Bristol University. Through collaboration, knowledge sharing and true partnerships that are long-lasting and mutually beneficial, it will not just make the recovery from COVID easier and more effective but will ensure that the university is benefiting the community that it thrives upon.

All this week UNITAR are running free online sessions on how to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in a post-COVID era. Access them here.

If you have any examples of knowledge sharing from the University of Bristol, or occasions when yourselves or colleagues have gone above and beyond to meet the SDGs in your teaching, please let us know in the comments below so BILT can promote and share the universities efforts to achieve an inclusive and sustainable Bristol.

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

Head shot of Prof. Bruce Macfarlane

Freedom to Learn at University


Abstract

The student engagement movement has become a worldwide phenomenon and national student engagement surveys are now well-established internationally. Curriculum initiatives closely associated with student engagement policies include compulsory attendance requirements, class contribution grading, group and team working assignments and reflective exercises often linked to professional and experiential learning. These types of initiatives grade students for their ‘time and effort’ and commitment to active and participatory approaches to learning. They are justified largely by reference to improving retention rates and achievement levels. However, these policies have led to practices that constrain the extent to which higher education students are free to make choices about what to learn, when to learn and how to learn. Three forms of student performativity – bodily, participative and emotional – have been created that demand academic non-achievements to be acted out in a public space. A higher education is, almost by definition, intended to be about adults engaging in a voluntary activity but the performative turn in the nature of student learning is undermining student rights as learners – to non-indoctrination, reticence, choosing how to learn, and being trusted as an adult – and perverting the Rogerian meaning of ‘student-centred’. This presentation will be based on arguments presented in a recent book entitled Freedom to Learn (Routledge, 2017).

Bio

Bruce Macfarlane is professor of higher education, Head of the School of Education at the University of Bristol, UK and distinguished visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He has previously held chairs at a number of universities in the UK and Hong Kong. Bruce’s publications have developed concepts related to values in higher education such as academic freedom, the ethics of research and teaching, the service role, and academic leadership. His books include Freedom to Learn (2017), Intellectual Leadership in Higher Education (2012), Researching with Integrity (2009), The Academic Citizen (2007) and Teaching with Integrity (2004).

News

‘myopportunities’ and the launch of the Bristol Futures Engagement Opportunities badge

The Professional and Community Engagement Manager, Jordan Hurcombe, shares this exiting news around the launch of a new system to support students and staff in engagement opportunities.

Bristol Futures Engagement Opportunities connect our students, the University and wider stakeholders through the sharing of knowledge, resources and skills. We achieve this through collaborating with local, national and global organisations on projects that support all students to develop key personal and professional attributes aligned to the Bristol Skills Framework.

Engagement Opportunities allow students to build roots and connections outside of their existing networks, apply their learning outside of their formal curriculum and develop new skills. Opportunities range from internships and employer vacancies, through to volunteering, student leadership and mentoring. These opportunities non-credit bearing and mutually beneficial, with no minimum time commitment.

We know there are already lots of exciting ways our students can engage outside of their studies. We want to support colleagues delivering these opportunities to promote them, as well as ensure students are aware of the opportunities available to them. From March 2019, we will be launching an online platform, to help students easily find opportunities to develop their skills outside of their studies all in one place.

Already involved in delivering engagement opportunities? Promote your project using myopportunities and be recognised by applying for a Bristol Futures Badge.

If you would like a demo of the system or support to add your opportunity, we will be holding drop-in sessions for staff on the dates below;

  • Tuesday 22 January, 2pm-4pm, Priory Road 4, Room B16
  • Tuesday 12 February, 2pm–4pm, Priory Road Complex F Block, Room 2F4

Please confirm your attendance by registering here.

For more information on the badging and guidance on promoting your opportunity, please visit the Bristol Futures Engagement Opportunities Staff Page.

If you would like to meet a member of the team to discuss how we can work with your specific School, Faculty or Department, or if you’d like us to present at a meeting, please do contact us.

News

An introduction from Tansy Jessop, our Visiting Professor

Tansy

Here I am in my Christmas jumper, looking slightly silly #dachshundthroughthesnow, and telling you a bit about myself. First things first, I do have a twelve year old black and tan sausage dog whose origins are close to Bristol. So call my stint at BILT a bit of a return on behalf of my hound! I am absolutely thrilled and honoured to be a Visiting Professor at BILT for the year. My undergraduate years were spent at the University of Cape Town, not dissimilar in size and feel to Bristol but a campus university rather than a city one. From my four years in the fraught 1980s at UCT, I remember feeling both adrift and excited; mystified, enthralled and slightly confused at the relevance of T S Eliot and Catullus. My studies seemed slightly irrelevant in a context of tear gas and angry fists thrust in the air.  As I look back I now know I was experiencing what many students feel but cannot name in relation to their studies. Sarah Mann has written the best work on student alienation and as I read it, I know for myself that this is the root of much of student disengagement in higher education. Particularly for first generation students.  

My interest in alienation and in engaging students is a huge spur to my work in learning and teaching. In leading the ‘Transforming the Experience of Students through Assessment’ (TESTA) research and change process for nearly ten years, and working with students and staff in many UK universities, I have encountered alienation in many guises. The defining feature of alienation is an absence of meaning or connection with something expected to bring meaning.  In the context of assessment, it is students disgruntled with the treadmill of repetitive assessments; overloaded with content; finding that their curiosity is not ignited by assessment; that they have little in the way of pedagogic relationship with their tutors in feedback, for example.  Students often experience their modular curriculum as fragmented and knowledge on one unit seems unrelated to another one. TESTA exposes some of the structural flaws in compartmentalised modular curricula. It calls to a much more programmatic and joined up approach to teaching and learning. 

But alienation is not all bad. It is part of what higher education is about as students wrestle with multiple perspectives and try to pick their way through different ways of understanding their disciplines. The soupy sea of ambivalence that higher education invites students to swim in is bound to be a bit unsettling. However, there are wonderful pedagogic ways of lighting beacons along the way for students. Through TESTA, I have seen academics embrace new ways of doing formative assessment, engaging students in challenging, playful and exciting learning which prepares them for summative tasks. I have seen academics stand back and see the whole programme for the first time. This new way of seeing is often a catalyst for programme teams drawing back from content-heavy, facts first approaches, and inviting them to partner with their students in slow learning. The ‘slow professor’ approach to teaching, learning and assessment is all about creating spaces for students to engage, integrate and apply their learning.  I hope over the coming months to share some of these ideas and engage various programmes in the TESTA process. I am really looking forward to getting to know the community at the University of Bristol, with or without my dog.  Definitely without my Christmas jumper.  

 

Berg, M. and Seeber, B. 2016. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto. University of Toronto Press. 

Mann, S. 2001.  Alternative Perspectives on the Student Experience: alienation and engagement. Studies in Higher Education. 26 (1).