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Jonas Andreasen Lysgaard

Assessing Danish efforts to develop environmental and sustainability perspectives in higher education. Or: How to steer the direction of a road paved with good intentions?

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Since the early days of the Brundtland report in the 80’s, HEIs Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have worked with different strategies and practices in order to include sustainability perspectives in their core activities (Rieckmann, 2017; UNESCO, 2017; Wals & Jickling, 2002). The UN SDGs have only accelerated this process with explicit emphasis on the role of HE and a mounting political pressure to ensure the role of HEIs towards 2030 (Leicht, Heiss, & Byun, 2018; Rieckmann, 2017). HE research focusing on ESE has also for a while emphasized the importance of transforming HEIs and their culture in a holistic manner rather than adding an ESE-oriented course to an otherwise conserved curriculum (Mulà, 2017; Sinakou, Boeve-de Pauw, & Van Petegem, 2019). Even organizations with little to no history of implementing sustainability perspectives now commit to strategies of implementing sustainability (Burford, Tamás, & Harder, 2016). However, the mainstreaming tendencies regarding ESE and HE does not alter the wicked core of both sustainability and ESD in HE (Block, Poeck, & Östman, 2019; Poeck & Lysgaard, 2016). Current perspectives on the role of HE in modern societies as energizers of economic development rather than a more classic Bildung imbued approach is also evident in Scandinavian welfare societies (Lysgaard & Reid, 2020). The potential long-term and critical perspectives when dealing with wicked issues such as sustainability and climate change presents paradoxes and dilemmas in a HE setting. On one hand the profound impacts of sustainability and climate change issues resists easy and seamless managerial implementation into institutions that are to a growing degree output focused and on the other hand the SD and Climate change issues is becoming more important among students, teachers, researchers and management alike (Mulà, 2017). In a Danish context, we have witnessed examples of HE managerial strategy development struggling to gain real-world effect along with “add-on” courses as well as open schooling initiatives, co-creation, and democratization experiments where informal and non-formal education is copied or included in formal educational programs. This latter type of experimental ESD experiments is often based on passionate, individual teachers leaving the sustainability and knowledge gain from these experiments very vulnerable. Systematic assessment and documentation of such initiatives and their impact is lacking, and further efforts to develop, transfer or generalize initiatives into other contexts are difficult. Overall, procurement, transportation and green campus activities have, in many places, been the top-down strategic low hanging fruit, while research and educational activities have been delegated to a less well funded bottom-up approach (Brockwell, 2019). This corresponds well with the tendency to emphasize measures that can easily be measured and that have a direct, positive relation to the economical, institutional bottom-line (Patton, 2019). HEIs have witnesses the implementation of a range of documentation tools and accountability instruments intended to facilitate effective achievement of societal demands towards the HEIs in terms of both research output and educational quality. The holistic, Building-oriented long-term perspective of ESD may represent a challenge to the institutionalized ways of assessing output of HE systems, and the dynamic, wicked nature of an ESD pursuit calls for diverse methods of evaluation and assessment of its progress and impact (Poth et al. 2012, Dahler-Larsen 2012, Block et al. 2019). The aim of this paper is twofold. We will: 1) map and understand the different strategic approaches to implementing sustainability in HEIs in Denmark and 2) comparatively analyze whether the different contextual conditions of universities and university colleges in Denmark respectively are experienced to have implications for their implementation and evaluation of ESD initiatives. Methodology This paper takes its outset in an analysis of four large Danish HE institutions, two universities and two University Colleges. In a Danish context, HE follows a two-tiered system with universities offering long-cycle educational programmes, and university colleges offering practice-oriented medium-cycle educations. Both HEI types are public funded, comprehensive regarding the disciplinary spectrum of their fields, and research producing organizations, although universities have a longer research tradition and more funding allocated for research, and university colleges are obligated to have a practice-oriented research focus. Both types of HEIs must provide research-based education. The criteria for selecting these HEIs are variation across institution types along with the ambition to cover broad variety in institutional approach to ESD. We therefore include a university college and a university that have both taken active initiatives towards ESD, however in very different ways, along with a university and a university college where ESD has played a less explicit role in institutional communication and strategy. By means of document studies, an initial analysis of how the institutions address sustainability in their HE activity at a strategic, policy level is undertaken. Our selection of texts for the document study follows two strands; we scan the institutional web pages of the four HEIs for all formal communication on sustainability implementation and strategy; and we approach the institutions to gather internal institutional documents such as minutes of meetings in decision-making fora on sustainability strategy and initiatives. At each institution, we then select 2 key informants with strategic roles providing insight into the institutional implementation processes and evaluation processes, respectively, for a semi-structured, in depth-interview. All empirical data is coded by means of a computer assisted qualitative data analysis software following a grounded, explorative approach allowing relevant perspectives to emerge in our interaction with the data. Systematic, qualitative analysis is used to map and categorize implementation strategy and practice. Our approach to the textual analysis is partly inspired by Fairclough’s later critical discouse analytical contributions emphasizing the transformative power and potential for “…emancipatory change’’ (Fairclough 2003: 209) of text as social practice. At this level of social practice, analyzing text encompasses a discussion of the societal implications of the performative statements, practices and experiences found. Furthermore, theoretical thoroughness in the efforts to understand and explain the empirical findings and their wider implications is pivotal. (Bhaskar 2008, Flick 2002). Conclusions Tentative findings indicate that ambitions to implement sustainability in educations at Danish HEIs are abundant. The same holds for the number and variety of concrete examples of ESE-oriented practice. Whereas, some institutions choose a top-down strategy others tend to valuate bottom-up initiatives that nurture from a sense of necessity or passion of individual educators. However, a consistent implementation approach in coherence with strategy is rare if at all existing. Institutional solutions to assess and evaluate ESD practice are also sparse. Evaluating and documenting the course of the many different initiatives undertaken would provide a good source for qualifying future initiatives to advance ESD. However, the reflection on the impact of these initiatives holds a large potential for systematic attention, and we find hardly any empirical data-collection serving to knowledge-base further ESD strategy and decision-making. Our contribution is intended to provide a knowledge-base to the discussion of developing HE sustainability implementation and evaluation practices in order to support ambitious, substantive top-down and bottom-up initiatives aligning HE institutional structures with sustainability perspectives. Key words References: Bhaskar, R. (2008): A Realist Theory of Science, Verso [1975]. Block, T., Poeck, K. V., & Östman, L. (2019). Tackling wicked problems in teaching and learning. sustaianbility issues as knowledge, etichal and political challenges. In K. V. Poeck, L. Östman, & J. Öhman (Eds.), Sustainable Development Teaching. London: Routledge. Brockwell, A. J. (2019). Measuring What Matters? Exploring the use of values-based indicators in assessing Education for sustainbility: Wageningen University. Burford, G., Tamás, P., & Harder, M. K. (2016). Can we improve indicator design for complex sustaianble development goals? A comparison of a values-based and conventional approach. Sustainability, 8. Dahler-Larsen, P. (2012). The Evaluation Society, Stanford University Press, California. Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing discourse. Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge. Flick, U. (2002). Qualitative research – state of the art, Social Science Information, 41, 1, 5-24, Sage Publications. Leicht, A., Heiss, J., & Byun, W. J. (2018). Issues and trends in Education for sustainable Development. Retrieved from Paris: Lysgaard, J., & Reid, A. (2020). Navigating the decade of impact - ESE Research-Policy relationships past, present and future. Environmental Education Reseaerch. Mulà, I. (2017). Catalysing Change in Higher Education for Sustainable Development: A review of professional development initiatives for university educators. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 18(5), 798-820. doi:10.1108/IJSHE-03-2017-0043 Patton, M. Q. (2019). Blue Marble Evaluation: Guildford Press. Poeck, K. V., & Lysgaard, J. A. (2016). The roots and routes of Environmental and Sustainability Education policy research. Environmental Education Research, 22(3). Poth, C., D. Pinto & K. Howery, 2012, Addressing the Challenges Encountered During a Developmental Evaluation, The Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 26,1, 39-48. Rieckmann, M. (2017). Education for sustainable development goals. Retrieved from Paris: Sinakou, E., Boeve-de Pauw, J., & Van Petegem, P. (2019). Exploring the concept of sustainable development within education for sustainable development: implications for ESD research and practice. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 21(1), 1-10. doi:10.1007/s10668-017-0032-8 Smelser, N.J., 2003, On Comparative Analysis, Interdisciplinarity and Internationalization in Sociology, International Sociology, 18, 4, 643-657. UNESCO. (2017). Accountability in education: meeting our commitments - Global Education Monitoring Report. Retrieved from Paris: Wals, A., & Jickling, B. (2002). 'Sustainability' in higher Education: from doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. International Jounral of Sustainability in Higher Education, 3(3), 221-231.
Original languageEnglish
Publication year2020
Publication statusPublished - 2020
EventECER 2020 - European Conference of Educational Research 2020 - Online
Duration: 23 Aug 202028 Aug 2020
Conference number: 2020


ConferenceECER 2020 - European Conference of Educational Research 2020
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