Australian Researchers Study What Professors Mean by “Sustainability”

The final installment of a three-part series on the sustainable development of sustainability education.

Jumping into the controversy surrounding the role of Sustainable Development in higher education, Anna Reid and Peter Petocz, two researchers at the Institute for Higher Education Research and Development at Macquarie University (Australia), conducted a research study where they investigated how academics across a variety of disciplines understand sustainable development and envision its integration into their teaching.

Accepting the notion put forth by the Johannesburg Earth Summit, namely, that sustainable development should be integrated into educational systems “at all levels of education in order to promote education as a key agent for change,” Reid and Petocz argue that the first step is to identify/create/formulate/nail down a shared language of sustainability, used by higher education professionals.

Reid and Petocz conducted a series of interviews, querying professors as to what they understand sustainability to be about and also, how they include notions of sustainability in their teaching. Their paper, “University Lecturers’ Understanding of Sustainability” (published in Higher Education vol. 51 no. 1) offers a categorization of the data they collected into three hierarchical conceptions of sustainability, as it relates to the context of teaching at the university level.

Three conceptions of sustainability (in the context of teaching)

1. Distance

In this first conception, sustainability “is approached via a definition” (such as the dictionary definition of “keeping something going”). Reid and Petocz conclude that in this usage, the dictionary definition is often employed in an effort to “keep the concept at a distance and avoid engagement with it.”

2. Resouces

This second common understanding approaches the idea of sustainability through the notion of resources. A “resource” might be material (minerals, water, soil), biological (fish, crops), or human (minority languages, populations) in nature. Regardless of the type, these “resources” are understood through economic terms (i.e. their availability, distribution, supply and demand, risk of shortage.)

3. Justice

The third conception of sustainability is understood through a notion of justice. Whether the emphasis is placed on equity “from one generation to the following one, or even within one generation” the idea is that sustainability depends on a prerequisite “fariness.”

While these three conceptions are not mutually exclusive, Reid and Petocz argue that they tend to be “hierarchical and inclusive” meaning that a broader understanding (the justice view) tends to incorporate a narrow one (‘resources’), but not the reverse. Their hope is that by promoting a broader understanding of sustainable development they can demonstrate how the concept is applicable beyond the purview of a specific discipline (environmental studies), and may be integrated into educational systems in a more comprehensive way.