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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 – a.tierney@bristol.ac.uk  

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