Amy Walsh is currently undertaking an MSc Education (Policy and International Development) and also works for the Student Union at Bristol as Student Engagement Projects Coordinator. Here, she shares with CIRE members her work and what it means for higher education.
I joined the MSc programme through a slightly alternative route. I work at the University of Bristol Students’ Union (Bristol SU), facilitating students to develop their skills, values and confidence through sustainability campaigning and volunteering alongside their course. I led Bristol SU’s Get Green project, which was funded by the National Union of Students (NUS) Students’ Green Fund between 2013-15, and have since been working to embed Get Green’s legacy at the University and SU.
Bristol SU Get Green
Get Green’s primary aim was to mainstream sustainability at the University of Bristol. My team developed a four-step approach – Learn Act Engage Create – to engage students in economic, social and environmental sustainability. The approach was underpinned by active learning theory and maximised peer-to-peer engagement. The four-step approach involved students engaging with Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) through their formal curriculum and then building on their experiences by participating in and leading projects and campaigns outside of their course. You can read the full project report on the EAUC Sustainability Exchange.
ESD can provide a much needed and radical alternative to neoliberal curricula (Blewitt, 2012), but it needs to encompass more than just increasing students’ knowledge of international development and sustainability (Jickling, 1992; Dillon & Huang, 2010). Education should help us to better understand our own values and beliefs including how they relate to, and are different from, others’ frames of reference. ESD needs to facilitate the development of skills to create positive change, be critical and challenge the status quo, and help us to understand the impact each of our decisions has on the world. In an attempt to work towards this vision, Get Green took a holistic approach to engaging students with sustainability through their formal, informal and subliminal curriculum, in a similar way to the University of Plymouth (Sterling, 2010).
Over the two-year project we recorded a shift from 26% to 44% of students identifying as “positive greens” according to the DEFRA Segmentation Model, with a decline in the number of students leaning toward the negative end of the spectrum. My experience working with students on ESD has been inspiring and I have seen many flourish into environmental and social justice activists determined to make the world better for everyone and teach their peers about sustainability.
What next for ESD in HE?
A major challenge we continue to face is the ironically unsustainable funding for sustainability projects. Since the Get Green project funding ended, the team’s capacity has been vastly reduced so the team are prioritising work around the Learn and Create steps of the four-step approach. This has left a hole in sustainability activity at Bristol, relying on students to deliver projects within the ‘Act’ and ‘Engage’ strands of the Learn Act Engage Create framework. This is theoretically great for peer-to-peer engagement but some student groups haven’t managed to reach out beyond their usual audiences and therefore students who would probably identify in the mid-sections of the DEFRA segmentation aren’t being reached. It also relies on having a pool of interested and driven students, which can be difficult given the high turnover of students as they graduate each year.
If the HE sector seriously wants to “make a real contribution to the emergence of a more socially just and environmentally sustainable society it must embrace an alternative and radical critical pedagogy” (Blewitt, 2012, p.1). The HE sector must stop bolting-on ESD and greenwashing as a result of the new requirements from the QAA and TEF. It is time to invest in radical curriculum change that includes transformative and active learning inside and outside of the formal curriculum, co-designed with students, academics and the community.
If you are interested in finding out more, the Bristol SU Student Sustainability Committee have organised a speaker series focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, workshops and a student research conference for this term. Find out about these events and how you can present your UG or PG sustainability-related research at the ‘A Student’s Guide to Sustainability’ conference by visiting the Bristol SU website.
Bristol SU, 2015. NUS Students’ Green Fund: Bristol SU Final Project Report, Bristol: University of Bristol Students’ Union. See: EAUC Sustainability Exchange
Sterling, S., 2010. Sustainability Education: Perspectives and Practice across Higher Education. London: Taylor & Francis.