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The Fierce Urgency Of Now: reflections on the 5th Sustainability in Higher Education Conference

Between the 18th and 21st of May, the fifth annual Sustainability in Higher Education Conference took place, jointly hosted by Canterbury Christ Church University and Plymouth University.  

The Paradox Model 

Welcomes and discussions engaging with the themes of paradoxes in sustainability education framed the event. Participants were invited to reflect on “The Paradox Model” that articulates challenges and tensions for educators. 

The Paradox Model

Resistance and alignment asks how radical universities should be, how able or willing they are to resist neoliberal tendencies (student satisfaction, employability, standardisation of experience).  

Fast and slow explores the pace that we respond to pressures, and the pace of learning. Right now, we see the demand for quick action, not just because of Covid-19, but also provocations like Extinction Rebellion. A key question is how we reconcile the fact that learning is a slow process, but we have urgent demands now. Both slow and quick responses have a place in our practice.  

Individual and society is at the centre of the diagram. Universities are complex and diverse, so we can’t assume an institutional level response is felt by other levels and vice-versa with regards to grass-roots action.  

The pedagogical concept of wicked problems prompted much of this thinking on complexity, uncertainty and how interconnected issues are. The paradox model is a response to the wickedness of what universities are responding to. Often, we are pushed towards positions of certainty and it can be difficult to resist linear thinking. 

The final talking point in the welcome section concerned wisdom. Here, the presenters asked how universities make choices and judgement in difficult and ambiguous situations. How can wisdom become a practical tool? One book that spurred reflection was Jonathan Rauch “The Happiness Curve”. Here we see how the language of wisdom provides greater richness in how we can make wise choices, rather than “good” choices. Wisdom encompasses cognitive domains of knowledge and understanding and also foregrounds affective experiential learning and reflection. 

University of Bristol 

I presented alongside colleagues in Geographical Sciences (Dr Eleni Michalopoulou) and Computer Science (Prof Chris Priest) on the theme of Fast Resistance. We reflected on our award-winning open online course “Sustainable Futures”.  

Since 2017, the course has run three times a year and is free to everybody worldwide. Thousands of participants have joined and shared their experiences. With a few years of the course completed, we now have lots of raw data on which elements of the course resonate best with our learners. We were able to share our course principles and design, such as viewing challenges from multiple perspectives, using personal stories to encourage reflection, and reflecting on a broad and integrated perspective on sustainability.  


The first two days offered asynchronous links to pre-recorded videos. The last two days were live sessions with Q&As and workshops in two half-day blocks. This format successfully minimised the time demands on participants. It was an interesting way to deliver a conference that allowed attendees to review material at their own pace and prepare for the discursive sessions. 

A major theme that emerged, perhaps unexpectedly, was that of postcolonial dialogues and non-Western perspectives in the curriculum. In retrospect, this was a timely concern given current social activism for Black Lives Matter.  

One question asked: why is scholarship outside the Western academy and policy decision making outside of these frameworks not more evident? This prompted discussion on issues of equality and justice in academia, policy making, identity politics and awareness-raising. Discussants challenged the concept of a “monolith of Western ideas” and asked why alternative voices are not published or accessible in English, asking us to fight against our own unconscious biases. 

For my own part, I offered tangible and actionable steps to address these concerns. This included starting steps such as revising reading lists with respect to inclusion, diversity and non-white voices.  

Disagreement broke out for a minority of attendees who place priority on tackling “hard science” Climate Change above all other considerations, noting the failure of political regimes around the world to solve this problem. Others, myself included, noted that no action can be hoped for without societal buy-in.  These are familiar critiques for anyone working in Education for Sustainable Development over the last few decades. In particular, technology is often seen as the savior of humanity, an eternally “futured” resolution to current problems, but one that has yet to live up to expectations or pressing need. 

A chorus of voices chimed together that Universities always de-prioritise sustainability, that it always plays second fiddle to the latest neoliberal concern, so that sustainability becomes subservient rather than radical. 

Special mention must be given to the trance-like experience of Dr Hilary Leighton’s workshop “coming back to life – an invitation to experience the work that reconnects” (School of Environment and Sustainability, Royal Roads University, Canada). As an eco-psychologist who uses first nation (Native America; First Peoples) perspectives, we were invited to become emotive and personal connect on questions of interconnectedness, purpose, storytelling and remembering. 

Less exhilarating, but certainly of worthy relevance to the UK HE sector was the workshop on QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) update to the current UK guidelines on Education for Sustainable Development. Several crowd-sourced ideas from the attendees will now feed into future work on this agenda. 

The conference had several technical hick-ups that detracted from the vibrant discussions, but overall, there was more than enough food for thought to propel ESD further into our hearts, minds and curricula.  

Dr Aisling (Ash) Tierney – get in touch to discuss any aspect of our teaching and learning at Bristol: a.tierney@bristol.ac.uk https://twitter.com/IrishAshyT.

The Sustainable Futures Theme: what we have learnt about interdisciplinary education so far, and what is next


Sustainable Development poses perhaps the defining social and environmental challenges of the 21st Century, and will impact the lives of our students in many ways, both personally and professionally. What role does a university have in preparing students to meet these challenges, and how best can it do this?  What role does interdisciplinary education play in this, and how can we effectively offer it? Is a values-based approach complementary or in conflict with a more instrumental approach to education focused on the acquisition of skills and attributes to make one more employable? How can students be more effectively involved and engaged? How can the formal curriculum and non-credit bearing activities and opportunities offered by the university work together?

In this talk and discussion, I will offer an overview, reflections and learnings on the University’s engagement with Education for Sustainable Development through the Sustainable Futures theme of Bristol Futures, look at where we are going next (and how you can get involved) and consider how the university can scale things up in response to its recent declaration of a Climate Emergency.


Chris Preist is Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems in the Department of Computer Science. He is the Bristol Futures Sustainable Futures Theme Lead and is responsible for supporting Education for Sustainable Development throughout the university. His research focuses on the environmental impacts, both positive and negative, of digital technology.

Meet the BILT Associates

Meet the Associates… Ash Tierney

The following post was written by Ash Tierney, a Research Associate and Project Manager for Bristol Futures. Ash has been a BILT Associate since May 2019.

I’ve been working in curriculum development roles at the University of Bristol since 2012. My focus started with Education for Sustainable Development and saw me conduct curriculum reviews on this theme across all degree programmes. I represented higher education in the UK at the House of Commons discussions on “Enabling the future we want: Education for Sustainable Development in the UK”. Outside of the formal curriculum, our team collaborated with the Students Union, Bristol Hub, the National Union of Students and UWE. One of our biggest achievements in this time was the Bristol Green Capital project “Green Capital: Student Capital. The power of student sustainability engagement”. The effort resulted in over 100,000 hours of student volunteering for sustainability across both UoB and UWE.

I was delighted to be one of three academics who co-developed the “Bristol Futures: Sustainable Futures” open online blended course, hosted on FutureLearn. It was the first time I had collaborated pedagogically with such interdisciplinary peers, one from Chemistry, the other from Engineering. The result is a four-week course that is freely accessible to everyone globally and runs three times a year.

Since late 2017, I’ve become Project Manager for the University’s Bristol Futures project covering areas of the core and optional curriculum. In 2018/2019, we delivered four new interdisciplinary optional units. The units have challenged traditional teaching approaches, experimenting with new forms of assessment and blended learning delivery. This role includes typical project management responsibilities (budget, staffing, evaluation, etc.), but also encompasses dynamic elements of content development such as script-writing for documentaries.

While completing my PhD on Historical Archaeology, I ran public engagement activities within archaeological fieldwork. In the USA, I led engagement efforts for three seasons on “Embedding Sustainability Thinking into Fieldwork: placing student learning at the heart of community engagement”. This was divided into two foci: research-led outreach in the local high school; and co-produced research with the local community archaeology interest group. Within Bristol’s archaeology degree training fieldwork at Berkeley Castle, I led the engagement team to work with the community in novel ways, most notably “The Town Museum Project”. In this project, our Bristol students created displays of excavated material culture and placed them on display in the homes and businesses of Berkeley village. By bringing the archaeology into community-led temporary curatorship, we demonstrated trust in the community and allowed those unable to visit the excavations to feel more involved. My student-led public engagement efforts are noted by HEFCE as national best practice.

Following completion of my PhD in 2017, I have taken on the role of Project Director of Archaeology within Project Nivica, in the Kurvelesh mountains of Albania. The project sits within eco-tourism domestic initiatives, with the overall ambition to compile a detailed understanding of the history, archaeology and ecology of the village of Nivica and its environs. The aims of the project are: to understand how the inhabitants of Nivica shaped their identity in relation to Epirus, Illyria and Rome; and to situate heritage practice and participatory engagement within the principles of the Sustainable Development Goals. I am working in collaboration with the Municipality of Tepelenë, the National Coastline Agency, and the Institute of Archaeology.

Within my BiLT Associate role, I am looking to focus on outputs that cross both my interests in sustainability and heritage. Over the next two years, I will engage at sustainability conferences in the HE sector, disseminating our innovative work at Bristol, including the operational and logistic aspects that make pedagogic ambitions possible. I’d like to create podcasts with other educators on topics of professional practice and ethics within teaching, exploring methodological approaches, and how to embed the Sustainable Development Goals into student-led discussions and action. Given my Arts background and involvement in the Cadbury fiasco, I would also like to work with others to create a brief for international corporations on why Arts graduates are integral to their success.