A Reflection on Education and Sustainability

Professor Kathryn Williams
Associate Professor Kathryn Williams, Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne

The biggest contribution the University of Melbourne will ever make to a sustainable future is almost certainly through its teaching and learning programs.

As the Director of the University’s Office for Environmental Programs, it’s a privilege to be part of that endeavour. Over 14 years, we have supported over 1000 graduates of the Master of Environment.

Our alumni are passionate, knowledgeable and skilled people working for a more sustainable world - people like Guy Abrahams who believes the creative power of art can inform, engage and motivate action on climate change, and who founded CLIMARTE: Arts for a Safe Climate to harness this potential –  or Lorena Gallardo, not even a year out from her Masters but empowered by her studies to teach at an Ecuadorian public university and initiate the project ReciVeci (“Recycling Neighbour” in Spanish) to improve recycling and opportunities for waste pickers – or Christina Larkin, one of a growing number of graduates working for sustainability in the private sector, advising companies on strategic responses to climate change and sustainability challenges.

Since mid-2015, I have been part of the University’s Sustainability Executive, a group of academics, professional staff and students tasked with helping the University to realise its ambition to be ‘recognised as a leader in embedding sustainability in all aspects of the University’s operations, governance, teaching and learning, research and engagement’. Over the past few months we oversaw a critical first step:  development of the Sustainability Charter, which publically commits the University to action on sustainability.

In regard to teaching and learning activities, the draft Charter outlined commitments both to promote specialist education in environment and sustainability, and to inspire all students - future teachers, engineers, lawyers, artists, policy makers and more - to develop values and skills to lead for a more sustainable future.

During a three month consultation period for the Charter, it was encouraging to see widespread support for the University making these commitments, but also to be challenged by feedback.

Community and industry stakeholders challenged us to recognise that the University needed to avoid simply offering traditional environmental qualifications, and rather needs to commit to developing graduates of all disciplines who will ‘create, define and succeed in the future careers and industries of sustainable societies’.

Students challenged us to more explicitly recognise the role of students in leading change within Universities – the kind of leadership demonstrated by the students who initiated Melbourne becoming a Fair Trade University, and by Master of Environment student Sophie Lamond, who cofounded The Fair Food Challenge to call Australian universities to implement sustainable food policies.

The final version of the Charter responds to these and other calls for clearer and more ambitious commitments. But of course the value of the Charter will be judged by the action that flows from it, particularly through the Sustainability Plan 2016-2020 now in preparation.

Will the Charter make a difference to the way sustainability figures in teaching and learning of this University? It must!

In 2014, the University articulated its aspirations for graduates including an expectation that ‘through advocacy and innovation [University of Melbourne graduates] are able to lead for a sustainable future’. We now need to make that vision a reality. The recent announcement that there will be no intake to the Bachelor of Environments in 2017, raises important questions for how the University of Melbourne will provide undergraduate pathways for environment and sustainability specialists.

There is much work to be done. I have a deep hope that - with the effort and imagination of the whole University community - the Sustainability Plan 2016-2020 will identify ways to inspire and enable us to realise our commitment to be ‘an international exemplar of an ecological sustainable community’.

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