Sustainability Education and Practice

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is recognized as an integral element of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on quality education and a key enabler of all other SDGs. As the lead UN agency on ESD, UNESCO is responsible for the coordination of the ESD for 2030 Framework. Several tools have been developed by UNESCP to facilitate introducing sustainability. These tools however limit to developing national sustainability education strategy with emphasis on school and college education. The program as well as tools do not delve much when it comes to higher education on sustainability for practice and provide a guidance.

It may be worth therefore to first to understand the journey towards sustainability in higher education. I am limiting to India as a global coverage in this post is not possible and will be both challenging and overwhelming.

Few decades ago, sustainability was not a subject commonly taught in the university curricula for higher education. The postgraduate programs gradually moved from the “traditional” Public Health Engineering and Sanitary Engineering to Environmental Engineering widening the scope to address industrial pollution, air emissions and hazardous waste management. During this transition, programs on Environmental Science and Engineering emerged making the structure interdisciplinary. In India such a program was introduced at IIT Bombay in 1978 that was taught by faculty from civil, mechanical and chemical engineering, chemistry and physics. Post 1980, you saw a proliferation of MSc programs on Environmental Sciences across the country attracting students of life sciences such as botany and zoology. Getting employment in the industry for these MSc graduates has however been a challenge and thats my worry.

Programs that blended environmental science and engineering were followed by specialized programs that focused on environmental planning, policy, law and economics.  Examples are courses on environmental planning at CEPT University (which unfortunately does not operate today) and the School of Planning and Architecture. In 2000-2001, we see emergence of one of the popular courses offered as PG Diploma on environmental law by the Centre for law, education, research and advocacy (CEERA) at the National Law School in Bangalore.  In 2010, the Madras School of Economics started offering a 2-year PG Diploma program on Environmental Economics. Today you see dedicated master’s programs on Environmental Communication, Environmental Health and even Environmental Forensics.

Perhaps, it was in these years of transitions, the subject of sustainability was introduced in few of these courses. At a global level, you will see several programs that offer post graduate degrees in sustainability science, engineering and management. India is not an exception. Today MBA programs on business and sustainability in India seem to be sought for. Many management schools (e.g., IIM Lucknow) and universities like TERI, Amity etc. launched Master’s program on sustainability. To address sustainability in a more rounded perspective, courses on climate science and carbon management emerged and these programs that are already offered in Europe and United States. Certainly we will see a traction on “climate-based sustainability education” in India.

Sustainability is not (and should not be) regulated. And hence you see that the “sustainability market” is driven mostly by the corporate world, financing institutions and the communities. Expectations on sustainability reporting or disclosures, need to address sustainability over supply chains (that is thinking beyond the factory gate) and responding to regulations on extended producer responsibility have made the corporate ecosystem think and internalize sustainability in the business processes. The question remains however how much of this interest is an optics. We see very few organizations have understood that only the sustainability strategies will make them “future ready”.

To move the “sustainability wheel”, the Government is expected to provide the “enabling framework” through policy, planning and economic measures. It also has an important role to track the sustainability indicators by reporting on the targets under the Sustainable Development Goals.  It is important therefore that sustainability is understood and appreciated by policy makers and administrators as a strategy towards smart growth.

Indeed, we see over the last five decades, a gradual invasion of the subject of sustainability in our higher education. I must add here that demand for sustainability graduates from the market has risen sharply over the past five  years due to interest on ESG. ESG is now the buzz word shadowing sustainability. I expect this trend to continue.

Let is now in this context understand the “demand” side. Between April and October 2020, SOS International invited higher education institutions and student organisations across the world, and sent  out a survey designed to gather insight into student experiences of sustainability and education. More than 100 organizations took part and SOS International received just under 7000 responses from students in higher education around the world.  Following were the takeaways

  • 92% agree that sustainable development is something which all universities and colleges should actively incorporate and promote.
  • 40% report low or no coverage of sustainable development concept in their course curriculum
  • Interestingly, 90%of respondents say they are willing to accept a salary sacrifice to work in a company with a good environmental and social record
  • Finally, when asked to identify the word that best describes their feelings about climate change and their future, 75%say they’re worried.

I find these observations very interesting and relevant.

The next logical question is to ask to what extent are we meeting this demand or expectation?

Perhaps, we have following challenges to address (there could be more)

  • Sustainability based higher education programs have to introduce India’s context in a global perspective. We need good “teaching case studies”.
  • The curriculum should not be a kind of a “green wash” where the students get the coverage of all the “buzz words” no doubt but not a deeper understanding. When I interview students from such schools, I find that if you dig a bit more, then you see that there is only a superficial understanding of the subject
  • Amongst various key topics to be covered, I would suggest to include circular economy, decarbonization in the interest of climate change and stakeholder engagement and conflict resolution.
  • The course should be ideally taught by both professors and practioners as a lot of critical understanding and problem-solving strategies resides in the practice experience. We lack “Professors of Practice” in academia that is critical in sustainability based higher education.

While one can address these issues by restructuring the graduate programs on sustainability, the challenge today is on providing opportunities to the professionals, policy makers, planners, administrators, financial experts and community-based organization in the form of continuing education.  Today, despite interest to learn on how to put sustainability into practice,  we see a paucity of courses that offer such options for individual as well as for an organization. To be practical, we need such a course structured in the form of modules offered over time (i.e., with gaps) allowing flexibility with feasible engagement models e.g., 12 hours a week.  Its like learning while doing.

I have been thinking about introducing such programs in India for quite a while. Recent discussions with National Institute of Industrial Engineering (NITIE) took final shape and we have now launched a Certificate Program on Sustainability for a year beginning from August 2, 2021. Do visit to learn more about this Certificate program. We will have some of the best “Professors of Practice” with a pedagogy and we  will use interactive tools to make sessions engaging. There will be individual assignments structured in such a way that the submission on editing will become a compendium of resources to the students.

The course will be conducted on virtual mode due to COVID 19 pandemic. A 24×7 based e-learning version is targeted by July 2022 and an on campus full time certificate program is also envisaged as a follow up.

To me, the proposed course structure in the form of six modules, sessions and instruction design is going to be very exciting. And I am optimistic that the “experiment” will work well as I will be roping in my Professor Friend for overall guidance taking out his precious time! Please send your comments. I look forward to your active participation and support.

Cove image – credits to  Richard Matthews at

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