Formally launched! QAA-HEA ESD Guidance for UK higher education providers

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Education for sustainable development: Guidance for UK higher education providers was formally launched at the University of the West of England (UWE) on Friday 17 October 2014.

This one-day event that attracted around 100 delegates was jointly hosted by The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and UWE.

This ESD Guidance, published in June 2014, was developed by QAA working in partnership with the HEA, with the help of an expert advisory group chaired by Professor James Longhurst and co-convened by Dr Laura Bellingham and Simon Kemp. An earlier version of the guidance was subject to public consultation between November 2013 and January 2014, which also included a consultation event.

The event started with a brief introduction to the day by Professor James Longhurst (Chair of the QAA/HEA ESD Group and Assistant Vice-Chancellor for Environment and Sustainability UWE).

Welcoming the delegates, Professor Steve West (Vice-Chancellor, UWE) emphasised that, although embedding ESD in the curriculum is not an easy task, it is important to do so because ESD directly concerns the future of our children and grandchildren as well as our planet. He revealed that UWE is engaging students in ESD via both the formal curriculum and extra-curricular activities with the help of the students union.

The morning comprised two panel presentation/discussion sessions. Panel one introduced the purpose and expected use of the Guidance. Panel 2 was a respondents’ panel of an academic user, a professional body and student representatives. In the afternoon five parallel workshops gave the delegates an opportunity to explore working with the new guidance within their own institutional context.

Panel one

Panel one, chaired by Professor Longhurst, comprised:

  • Dr Victoria Lindsay (Director, Quality Development Group, QAA)
  • Professor Philippa Levy (Deputy Chief Executive, Academic Practice, HEA)
  • Andrew Smith (Head of Estates and Sustainable Development, Higher Education Funding Council for England HEFCE)

Dr Victoria Lindsay (Director, Quality Development Group, QAA)

Dr Lindsay outlined the origins of this ESD Guidance, namely the HEFCE-funded two-year Quality and ESD project Leading Curriculum Change for Sustainability: Strategic Approaches to Quality Enhancement, operated through an institutional arm (a consortium of five universities comprising Gloucestershire, Aston, Brighton, Exeter and Oxford Brookes) and a sector arm (working with QAA, the HEA and an Expert Advisory Board chaired by Anthony McClaran, CEO QAA). Among other things, this project organised a national conference in July 2012 and developed an online resource titled ‘Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability’. When the project came to a successful conclusion in September 2012, the sector decided to build on the good work and the eventual fruit was this ESD Guidance.

Observing that ESD is not a single degree subject but one that is taught across and outside the curriculum, she highlighted that it is one of the educational themes in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education that cuts across academic disciplines.

Turning to the public consultation on the Guidance, she revealed that the feedback on the initial draft was wide ranging with much debate on several aspects, including the definition of sustainability, use of examples in the document, inadequate coverage of equality and social justice and concerns of prescription. These have been taken into in the development of the final version, she said.

Responding to a query on whether the Guidance is mandatory, she said that it is not but added the expression ‘mandatory by stealth’!

Professor Philippa Levy (Deputy Chief Executive (Academic Practice), HEA)

Professor Levy outlined the expected use of the guidance for strategic and individual enhancement, innovation and CPD – for example in embedding ESD in curriculum, co-curriculum and extra-curricular activities; in discipline-specific and interdisciplinary learning focusing on ‘big challenges’; and in informing joining-up of enhancement agendas (e.g. employability).

She stated that ESD is relevant to HEA’s all four workstreams, namely curriculum design, innovation pedagogies, student transition and staff transition. She said that the Guidance would inform HEA enhancement activity in a variety of ways, e.g. HEA’s commissioned research (fifth NUS survey of student attitudes and perceptions around ESD), ESD strategic enhancement framework and toolkit resources and Green Academy change programme 2015-16. Her particular mention that the Guidance would inform the Green Academy programme must have reminded some of the audience the successful Green Academy 2013-2014, including the recent seminar/workshop series.

Stating that a strong feature of the guidance is that it is not prescriptive, she said that commitment to ESD should come within enhancement and teaching excellence. Observing that higher education is co-created, she expected that the Guidance would be used in the same spirit.

Andrew Smith (Head of Estates and Sustainable Development, Higher Education Funding Council for England HEFCE)

Andrew Smith said that students wanted ESD in the curriculum and it was good to see the Guidance emerging in response. He praised the Guidance for its clarity and inter-agency collaboration.

Revealing that sustainable development is now a core of HEFCE’s work, he outlined the progress of the forthcoming HEFCE Sustainable Development Framework, which comprises three sections: Reducing the environmental impact of the sector, creating a model sustainable economy, and engaging students. Last winter, the initial draft was subject to a public consultation, which included two events and webinars and also saw students being invited to a HEFCE consultation for the first time.

He believed that the HEFCE SD Framework, to be published in November 2014, would provide a solid support base for higher education’s other sustainability-oriented efforts such as this ESD Guidance. He was also of the view that UK is leading the world in sustainability in higher education.

Panel two

Panel two, chaired by Simon Kemp (University Lead in ESD, University of Southampton, former academic lead for ESD at the HEA and co-convenor of the QAA-HEA ESD Group), comprised:

  • Chris Willmore (Academic Director of Undergraduate Studies, University of Bristol)
  • Iain Patton (Chief Executive, Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges EAUC)
  • Hannah Khan and Laura-Kate Howells (UWE Students’ Union)

Chris Willmore (Academic Director of Undergraduate Studies, University of Bristol)

Asking whether the ESD guide would make any difference, Chris Willmore looked at its potential impact on three types of institutions, namely green, keen and grey, and argued that the biggest impact would be on the middle group, the keens.

She observed that this guidance would give permission and validity for ESD to move up the agenda in UK higher education while nudging creative ESD journeys at universities. However, she said that if it was made mandatory, it could become tokenistic.

She also declared that this was the first QAA document that allowed academics to have fun.

Iain Patton (Chief Executive, Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges EAUC)

Welcoming the symbolic leadership from QAA and HEA on ESD, Iain Patton saw the guidance as a stepping stone and said that its value lies in the impact on quality. Are graduates ready for the complexity in the outside world? he asked.

He observed that the Guidance would be capable of crossing the Rubicon between curriculum, campus and community and would help institutional leaders see opportunities and be empowered. However, he feared that the Guidance would not work properly if it was made a tick-box exercise.

He felt that the time was right for the sector to step up the sustainability agenda and proposed that ESD enthusiasts should hold a sustainability summit now.

Hannah Khan and Laura-Kate Howells (UWE Students’ Union)

Hannah and Laura-Kate stated that NUS-HEA annual survey on students’ attitude towards sustainable development consistently demonstrates that they want sustainability in the curriculum. They emphasised that, because employability links with sustainability skills, the former could be used to engage students with ESD. Moreover, they elaborated on the UWE Green Leaders programme.

Parallel workshops

In the afternoon five parallel workshops gave the delegates an opportunity to explore working with the new guidance within their own institutional context. They selected a workshop depending on where their institution was in its ESD journey, i.e. starting to address ESD, some way along in its ESD journey, or more advanced in its ESD activity.

In the workshop feedback session that followed, five facilitators and also members of the QAA/HEA ESD Group – Professor Debby Cotton, Simon Kemp (co-convenor), Dr Laura Bellingham (co-convenor), Dr Sarah Speight and Dr Alastair Robertson – reported back key points, which included the following:

  • Academics’ belief that ESD is not relevant to their discipline is a key barrier to advancing ESD
  • The QAA-HEA stamp on the Guidance is extremely useful
  • The Guidance is a stimulus for debate
  • The Guidance enables to use external recognition for ESD to drive the agenda internally in institutions
  • To engage students, promote the Guidance in other forms
  • Set up some sort of support mechanism such as a resource bank
  • There should be a platform to continue to talk and to share ideas, case studies and experiences

The last two points on ‘What Next?’ resonated the thoughts of ten (hypothetical) staff from UK higher education on supplementing this ESD Guidance.

An end with a high note…

Delivering the closing remarks, Professor Longhurst observed that there exists enormous enthusiasm and energy around ESD in the sector and announced that a Sustainability Summit would become a reality next year…

With the ESD Guidance, it seems that UK higher education has a bigger opportunity in using sustainability as a vehicle to position itself at the pinnacle of global higher education….

Photographs by Asitha Jayawardena

See also….

New QAA/HEA ESD Guidance | Complementing UK Quality Code for Higher Education

Ten ways to supplement QAA-HEA Guidance on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)? Some food for thought

ESD Guidance for UK higher education providers


LinkedIn posts on ESD and Sustainability in HE 

New QAA/HEA ESD Guidance | Complementing UK Quality Code for Higher Education

Note: For LinkedIn posts on 16 exemplars of UK universities (Bradford, Edinburgh, Essex, Gloucestershire, Keele, LSBU, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford Brookes, Southampton, Staffordshire, Surrey, UCL, UCLan, UWE and Worcester), please visit

Why universities should lead their wider communities’ sustainability endeavours | Three reasons

Is UK Higher Education taking a GREEN turn? Sector bodies, student community, award schemes and universities – a look at their recent activity

Positioning itself at the pinnacle of global higher education | Can UK higher education use sustainability as a vehicle?

A green tale of four UK universities | HEA Green Academy workshops – Worcester, Canterbury Christ Church, Bristol and Nottingham

UNEP Greening Universities Toolkit | A global resource for advancing green and sustainable campuses

The Sustainable University: Progress and prospects | Handbook to ‘the University of the Future’

LSBU MSc in Education for Sustainability | How it enriched my perspective

Embedding sustainability in the curriculum – Gloucestershire style | Nine projects, from Fashion through Sports to Religion

A PBL toolkit for Sustainability Education | A Keele-Manchester-Staffordshire collaboration

Education for Sustainability MSc at LSBU | A pioneer that brings together environment, development and education

Embedding sustainability in Civil Engineering curriculum | Some bricks for thought

UWE’s Institute for Sustainability, Health and Environment | Towards a healthy, sustainable and low carbon future

Southampton’s Sustainability Action Programme | Sustainability across CORE – Curriculum, Operations, Research and Experience

UCL Grand Challenges | Global Health, Sustainable Cities, Intercultural Interaction and Human Wellbeing

A visual celebration of good practice in sustainability | 40 photos from 18 UK universities

Sustainability | A balancing act? Four of them?

Making sense of sustainability (or sustainable development) | A look at seven definitions

Sustainability-oriented poetry | Ten unforgettable pieces from Byron to Tennyson

Sustainability-oriented quotes and sayings | Twenty gems from Native Americans to Einstein

Related posts on The Sustainable University News & Info website (this website)

New QAA/HEA ESD Guidance to complement UK Quality Code for Higher Education

Online consultation on QAA/HEA draft guidance on ESD for UK higher education open until 3 January 2014

QAA/HEA ESD Guidance Document for UK higher education goes under consultation

New website: The Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability in Higher Education

CONFERENCE: Quality Assurance, Enhancement and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD): Creating a Framework for Dialogue

ESD London Conference | Sustainability is a core theme in higher education today and will remain so tomorrow, says VC LSBU

Education for Sustainability (EfS) is enriching curriculum and student experience at Gloucestershire, says Professor Tilbury

Informal communication has a key role in sustainability-oriented institutional change, says Green Academy Lead at Worcester

Sustainability leadership is all around us, says Director SD at Canterbury Christ Church University

Disciplines speak ‘Sustainability’ in different languages, says ESD academic lead at Bristol

Online learning is a driver for sustainability, says Dr Speight at HEA-Nottingham seminar

ESD has made inroads in new pedagogical ideas in future flexible higher education – HEA report

HEFCE London event: NHS Sustainable Development jab to higher education

Sustainable Lifestyles conference | Good life of the good person is only possible in a good society, says Prof Jackson

UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

Five questions and 100 delegates from 15 countries: COPERNICUS conference on higher education, sustainability and ESD

UNEP publishes Greening Universities Toolkit

Inaugural AGM of London RCE on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

HEA-NUS Report 2013: Student attitudes towards and skills for sustainable development

NUS announces 25 Students’ Green Fund projects in England

London South Bank University (LSBU) in Africa: Education for Sustainability (EfS) Residential 2013

Gloucestershire workshop on Education for Sustainability in Higher Education

Delivering ESD and graduate attributes through Hybrid Problem-Based Learning

New TOOLKIT: Problem-Based Learning: A Case Study of Sustainability Education

Related posts on The Sustainable University Notes blog

Education’s role in addressing sustainability and ESD

Higher Education’s role in building a sustainable world

Pathways to a sustainable university

EDUCATION pathway to a Sustainable University (Part 1): curriculum content and delivery

Opportunities for integrating sustainability across curricula (Part 2 of EDUCATION pathway to a Sustainable University)

How a blog shaped the Planetshire University (PU) Model (v2) | Sustainability in the curriculum as a driver of reputation enhancement and stakeholder engagement


The Sustainable University One-stop Shop |

Its satellite websites:  News & Info | Research | Good Practice | Quotes | Blog | Reflective Diary | Twitter

Project PROPOSAL for universities | Sustainability as an enhancer of reputation and financial position | The Planetshire University (PU) model (v2)

LinkedIn GROUP | Sustainability, Education and Engagement | ESD at Planetshire University

LinkedIn POSTS | Posts on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) & Sustainability in Higher Education

Profile & Portfolio | Asitha Jayawardena | Strengths, Accomplishments & Recognition

Online Shelf | Examples of past work (PDFs, booklets, press articles, logos, etc)

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