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Rebuilding higher education with an interdisciplinary approach

Updated: May 29

These summary insights are from the roundtable on the theme: Tackling the Sustainability Skills Gap: Transforming higher education opportunities. Learn more about our roundtable series here.

It’s time to align our actions with our intentions

While the sustainability skills gap undoubtedly exists, it’s not because institutions are ignoring the scale of the challenge. Almost every university, business school and even corporate now has a sustainability agenda, often tied to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In the case of higher education institutions, a lot of sustainability concepts and knowledge already being integrated into the curriculum. What’s more, nearly every ranking, impact metric and corporate governance standard now considers sustainability in its rubric (though even staunch advocates admit there is a lot of room to improve the metrics and standards).

The motivation is there, too. It’s well-established that younger generations — comprising the majority of students today, and increasing young professionals as well — have a values-led approach to their life and work and are willing to change their behaviour and habits in order to make the world a better place. 

However, as pointed out by a participant in the roundtable, there is still something critical missing in our approach to sustainability education: we are not equipping people to navigate the complexity associated with actually implementing sustainability ideas and practices. This means that, while well-intentioned, our pedagogical efforts are currently falling short when it comes to empowering students and graduates with the practical skills and experiences they need to make a tangible difference in the working world. 

One participant suggested that higher education institutions need to align their action with their intent, taking bolder steps to confront students with the hard questions and tradeoffs that real-world implementation of sustainability requires. That means not just focusing on problems and examples that “look good and feel good,” and are therefore “easier,” but rather tackling examples that require difficult decisions and compromises, creating “does good, but can feel bad” context. This prepares students and graduates with a more nuanced, and much needed, approach to problem-solving.

Balancing global approaches with local agendas

Higher education thrives on global knowledge exchange and case examples, and there are strong pushes for developing and aligning sustainability standards globally. But, at the end of the day, real sustainability solutions need to be implemented locally. In this context, while it’s easier for faculty and programs to teach using global examples and knowledge, it’s essential that students have the opportunity to learn approaches and hands-on (and often messy) practice of developing and implementing local solutions. This requires skills and experience with engaging with stakeholders, balancing local and global priorities, and applying theoretical frameworks and knowledge to tangible, real-world, local problems.

"We must also prepare [students] to consider the human dimensions of any challenges and proposed solutions, seeing the world through an intersectional lens."

Transversal skills are essential for an unpredictable world

Many attendees raised the difficulty of identifying the specific sustainability skills that modern businesses need, particularly in a fast-changing world. As well as “hard” skills, like using sustainability metrics and monitoring methods, participants raised repeatedly the idea that all students (and, indeed, professionals of all ages and stages) must cultivate transversal skills like systems thinking, adaptability, empathy, curiosity and communication so that they can adapt quickly and apply their “hard” skills in any context. The necessary “hard” skills are also evolving fast; educators therefore must develop flexible curricula in the face of an unpredictable future, while also cultivating a continuous learning mindset and skillset amongst their students.

In this discussion, experiential learning approaches were identified as essential to supporting students to develop and practice these skills. As well as real-world challenges and internships, one participant encouraged educators introducing diverse disciplines and activities such as comedy and theatre workshops into their programs to encourage broader collaboration, develop communication skills and boost students’ confidence. 

Sustainability is about more than the environment 

While many associate sustainability with climate action, in reality it is a hugely interdisciplinary area, taking in social and economic, as well as environmental, impacts. As such, it is not enough for higher education institutions to equip students with language around green sectors, biodiversity standards and climate tech. It was repeatedly raised that we must also prepare students — across all disciplines — to consider the human dimensions of any challenges and proposed solutions, seeing the world through an intersectional lens. Interdisciplinary learning environments can be an effective way to do this, getting students used to working in collaborative environments and balancing different perspectives. However, attendees at the roundtable flagged the difficulty of breaking down silos between university schools and disciplines — something which is essential to cultivating true interdisciplinary approaches.

New technology presents both problems and potential solutions in equal measure

Updating pedagogies to be fit for purpose will require faculty to be upskilled too. “Train the trainer” programs were identified as vital to ensure educators can learn how to keep providing students with the knowledge, skills and experience they need to thrive, in the ways they want to learn. With increasingly free content and AI tools rapidly disrupting traditional educational delivery models (like the traditional lecture), participants highlighted the urgency of supporting faculty to adapt and evolve their teaching methods.

Along these lines, some institutions are working to harness both modern technology and ancient wisdom as they integrate sustainability throughout their organisation. Virtual learning platforms give students the chance to collaborate across disciplines, institutions and geographies while keeping costs low. When used well, these types of technologies can increase engagement of diverse knowledge communities in the classroom. For example, engaging with Indigenous communities, such as Aboriginal elders in Australia, enables university leadership to model a truly intersectional, respectful approach to sustainability — one which does not disregard the wisdom of these populations, nor assume that modern approaches hold all the answers. 

Thank you to our partners, Times Higher Education and the Global Business School Network, and to everyone who attended the roundtable. We look forward to continuing the conversation as we work to create educational models and opportunities that better prepare students for a changing world. 

If you’re interested in learning more about future roundtables, please click here


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