A Living Handbook for Tertiary Sustainability Educators

Introduction edit

The purpose of this handbook is to provide ongoing support for tertiary sustainability practitioners to embed sustainability content and principles in tertiary level education curricula, campuses and communities. The intention is to build on previous work by tertiary educators in this field and to draw on the knowledge and skills of members of the SUSTAINed network.

The concept behind a “living handbook” is that it becomes an open community of practice learning resource that develops through an organic process of practitioners sharing experiences and knowledge to support each other. For this reason an open online platform will be used so that members of the SUSTAINed network can post entries to the handbook and take shared responsibility for developing the content and shaping the direction of the handbook. This idea was proposed by participants at the last national symposium held in October 2014.

Sharing the collective wisdom of tertiary sustainability education practitioners.

There is no one way to do this and it would help if Handbook contributors could add to this section about how we can best share our knowledge and skills in this online community of practice. Although there are some general protocols for posting and editing materials in Wikiveristy and other wikimedia sites, these are general and we may want to suggest some additional ways of interacting on this Handbook project. After all we want it to be a sustainable and sustaining practice!

A starting point: You can read some information about putting materials and projects onto Wikiversity HERE

Some suggestions about protocols for editing others' work:

1. Posting information

  • The information posted in the Handbook is primarily intended for tertiary educators who are relatively new to working in the EfS field. Contributors should bear this in mind when posting material and check that concepts and terminology are clear for this intended audience.
  • There is a box at the bottom of each page where you can record what changes you have made and why you have made them. This will provide a helpful record if contributors note key changes and reasons in this box each time they are made.

2. Editing content

  • To ensure that this Handbook development is a respectful, collaborative process please edit existing content only if it needs to be up-dated, corrected or added to. A brief explanation for the edit in the box at the bottom will help create a record of changes and reasons for them.
  • If contributors have a different perspective on something that is already in the Handbook please add your own views and reasons for them while leaving other views in place (rather than deleting them) will allow readers to learn of a range of approaches and recognise that there is not a “one –size-fits-all” way of establishing EfS in tertiary institutions. For example, you may add a section entitled: ‘An Alternative View’
  • A good place to start is to watch the video tutorial linked to the main page. CLICK HERE
  • You can practice in a thing called the "Sandbox" then just have a go!

3. Keeping records

Every so often we propose to save Handbook content and post it on the SUSTAINed website as a means of archiving material and of recording the organic development of the Handbook.

The landscape of sustainability education in Australian tertiary institutions. edit

This section provides and overview of the "landscape" and background to some of the issues involved in incorporating sustainability into tertiary education courses.

“One of the optimum ‘moments’ for engaging learners with sustainable development is through their experience of higher education: for many, this is the arena for significant encounters with critical thinking, provocative questions and alternative ideas about our current patterns of development and our potential to devise new ways of living. It is fertile space for ESD. However, changing the higher education curriculum is recognised to be one of the most intractable, difficult and complex areas of ESD (GUNI, 2011)". (Ryan & Tilbury, 2013, p. 273)

Ryan and Tilbury’s assessment sums up the state of play in Australia for embedding ESD or EfS in the curriculum of higher education institutions. Despite a widely recognized need for graduates to be sustainability literate and a United Nations decade devoted to establishing ESD in education curricula, there is sporadic uptake in most higher education institutions. Ryan and Tilbury attribute this situation to complex structures of higher education systems and institutions that impede systemic change.

Anthony Cortese’s (2003) paper on the Critical Role of Higher Education in Creating a Sustainable Future provides a vision of higher education taking a leading role to tackle unsustainable and unjust practices and ethics. He discusses some of the ontological and structural challenges for higher educators and higher education institutions in learning to think and organize according to sustainability principles. It follows from David Orr’s concern in 1994 that:

“Many of the things on which our future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world and biological diversity … this is not the work of ignorant people. Rather it is largely the results of work by people with BAs, BScs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs….” (Orr, 1994, pg. 7)

This is not to say that sustainability education is not being addressed at all in higher education, just that change has not often been planned systemically. A whole -of -systems approach requires a paradigm shift towards a more relational worldview (Sterling 2007) that considers all the different functions and operational levels of education institutions as connected. The current challenge faced by sustainability educators in universities and other HE organisations is how to instigate and enact such a shift. Some universities have embarked on this journey. Sharing ideas in this Handbook is one way to help move these processes forward.

In Australia, Living Sustainably, the National Action Plan for Education for Sustainability, published in 2009 aimed to “reorient education systems to sustainability”. This plan, along with political recognition of the issues associated with human induced climate change, provided much needed impetus for the higher education sector to take sustainability education seriously. The political will may have waned since then but the determination of tertiary sustainability educators has kept EfS on the agenda of many universities, TAFES and related organisations.

The Turnaround Leadership Project edit

The TurnAround Leadership for Sustainability in Higher Education (TALFS) project (Scott et al. 2012) brought together an experienced international team to identify the: • _distinctive and complex mix of challenges facing higher education leaders as they seek to transform universities and colleges to give central focus to Education for Sustainability (EfS) in their curriculum, research, engagement activities and operations; • _incentives, strategies and processes necessary to address these challenges and embed EfS in our institutions of higher education; • _change leadership capabilities needed to effectively and consistently enact this agenda; • _optimum focus for the work of EfS leaders, both centrally and locally, and the • _most productive approaches to leadership selection, support, performance management and development for the area.

Funded by the Australian Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT), the study looks specifically at Education for Sustainability (EfS), recognizing that sustainability needs to be embedded in learning programmes – the core business of higher education. A summary of the report, and the full report, are available from the OLT-TALFS website at .

Conclusions from the report are that:

  • Higher education needs to transform itself if it is to assist societal transformation for a more sustainable future.
  • Good ideas with no ideas on how to implement them are wasted ideas.
  • Change doesn’t just happen but must be led – and deftly.
  • The key to progressing sustainability in HE is to identify and systematically build viable leadership capabilities, competencies, support systems and pathways.

Ten interlaced areas of recommendation for higher education institutions interested in pursuing EfS in a more systematic way have emerged from the study:

1. Acknowledge the distinctive challenges and complexity of EfS leadership. 2. Sharpen the focus and understanding of EfS as it applies in higher education. 3. Context counts: ensure organisational integration and system alignment to support EfS and its leaders. 4. Track and improve EfS program quality more systematically. 5. Put in place the right incentives. 6. Engage the disengaged and the institution’s senior leadership. 7. Apply the key lessons on successful change management in higher education. 8. Focus on the change leadership capabilities identified in this study. 9. Review EfS leadership position descriptions, selection processes and succession strategies in the light of the study’s_findings 10. Apply the most productive approaches to leadership learning identified in the study to the professional development of EfS leaders.

Of particular use to practitioners just starting to work on developing EfS in higher education, the TALFS project has developed resources for those at various levels of a tertiary education institution, and in particular the EfS Program Coordinator’s Resource Booklet, that provides:

"both quantitative data (in the form of a set of comparative tables on the relative importance of various factors and strategies for your EfS leadership role and others) and qualitative data (direct comments) on what these local EfS program leaders see as being most important for effective change leadership of EfS in universities and colleges. The various tables of importance ratings show the results for your role area (highlighted in red text) compared with those from other central, middle and local EfS leadership roles in the 100 universities and colleges involved in the study."

For example, the information provided in the booklet can help you to:

  • Evaluate where you set your priorities as a change leader for EfS in the light of these comparisons;
  • Look for ideas in the qualitative data on how to manage the challenges of the job and leverage its satisfactions;
  • Consider adopting the various strategies identified as being most productive in building your capability as an EfS change leader;

More detail on the ten Key Recommendations of the TALFS report are as follows:

Key recommendations of the broader study

1. Acknowledge the distinctive challenges & complexity of EfS leadership. This study acknowledges the general complexity of leading change management in higher education but has also identified distinctive challenges that make the EfS change leader’s role particularly testing. These include addressing system transformation; a focus on futures’ thinking not just solving immediate issues; on building connections across traditional academic silos and supporting interdisciplinarity and interportfolio initiatives.

2. Sharpen the focus & understanding of EfS in higher education. The study has captured the widely varied and often confused interpretations of ‘education for sustainability’ in higher education. It is important to build processes where staff and students can make meaning of sustainability in their own context and enjoy opportunities to share understandings. Successful examples of practice need to be made accessible and available on interactive websites such as

3. Context counts. Ensure organisational integration and system alignment to support EfS & its leaders Turnaround leadership for sustainability in higher education requires an amenable operating context and environment. Effective leaders can reshape this context to be more supportive. Ten key steps identified in the study can be taken to address this issue in order to ‘embed’ EfS into the core activities of our universities and colleges.

4. Track & improve EfS program quality more systematically. A range of key indicators can be used to determine the extent to which an institution is taking a comprehensive approach to embed EfS in its core activities. These key indicators for assuring and improving the quality of inputs and outcomes of EfS initiatives can be used for setting and assessing the KPIs and vision for EfS in our universities.

5. Put in place the right incentives. A combination of 19 extrinsic and intrinsic incentives is necessary to encourage and support engagement of university staff and students with EfS initiatives. Examples include having the active support of senior leaders, rewards for transdisciplinary programs, acknowledgement of successful initiatives, having peer support and access to successful solutions in other institutions, knowing one is playing an active role in addressing key world issues, working with inspiring people, positive student feedback and creating a legacy.

6. Engage the disengaged and the institution’s senior leadership. Successful implementation requires consistent delivery of each EfS innovation. 11 proven strategies for engaging ‘the disengaged’ with EfS initiatives have been identified. These need to be consistently adopted by those leading EfS change in universities and colleges. It is particularly important to ensure active senior leadership support for what is being undertaken.

7. Apply the key lessons on successful change management in higher education. Good ideas with no idea on how to implement them are wasted ideas. Ten key strategies for ensuring successful and sustainable change implementation in EfS have been identified. Professional development of institutional leaders of EfS should give situated focus to how these lessons can be applied in the unique context of each institution and leadership role.

8. Focus on the change leadership capabilities identified in this study. Change doesn’t just happen but must be led, and deftly. To successfully negotiate, reshape and implement the challenging context and transformation agenda identified above requires a distinctive set of leadership capabilities. The most effective change leaders of EfS have a particular combination of personal, interpersonal and cognitive capabilities in addition to specific EfS skills and knowledge. The highest ranking capabilities should be given specific focus in leader selection and development processes.

9. Review EfS leadership position descriptions, selection processes and succession strategies in the light of the study’s findings. Each university and college should review its current suite of leadership position descriptions and selection and succession procedures against the key capabilities, areas of role focus and effectiveness indicators identified in the study.

10. Apply the most productive approaches to leadership learning identified in the study to the professional development of EfS leaders. Eight productive approaches to professional development and support of EfS leaders have been identified. These quality checkpoints and strategies should be used to guide the development, delivery and monitoring of EfS leadership development programs. Existing national and international EfS networks need to be linked and leveraged into an integrated learning exchange and support system for EfS leaders.

The highest ranking capabilities should be given specific focus in leader selection and development processes. 9. Review EfS leadership position descriptions, selection processes and succession strategies in the light of the study’s findings 10. Apply the most productive approaches to leadership learning identified in the study to the professional development of EfS leaders

Interdisciplinary approaches to Sustainability Education in Higher Education edit

One of the key issues in embedding sustainability across all education sectors is whether and how to develop interdisciplinary approaches that enable holistic study of social, political, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability issues and solutions. This is a particular challenge in higher education where institutions are structurally organized according to discipline-based silos and hierarchies.

Different terms are used for working across discipline boundaries, often used interchangeably but with different meanings (Dillon, 2008) :

  • Interdisciplinary work involves integration of knowledge and methodologies requiring mutuality and reciprocity to break out of discipline boundaries by transferring methods and knowledge.
  • Multidisciplinarity implies combination and usually refers to studying more than one discipline simultaneously (ie. side by side but not necessarily transferring knowledge skills across the discipline boundaries).
  • Transdisciplinary work is different again as it involves transforming knowledge beyond disciplinary boundaries to create new knowledge.

The view that sustainability is best incorporated via inter-disciplinary subjects or other program initiatives is widespread in tertiary education (Stibbe & Villiers-Stuart, 2009; Tilbury, 2011). This aligns with the view, at national and international level, that sustainability education needs to transcend discipline boundaries. For example, at the National level in Australia, one of the principles in the National Action Plan for EfS expresses the interdisciplinary nature of EfS as: “Systems thinking: Education for sustainability aims to equip people to understand connections between environmental, economic, social and political systems.” Australian Government, (2009), pg. 9.

This parallels the results of an Australia wide project to investigate the incorporation of sustainability into higher education courses:

“What you can do [to embed sustainability]:
Start to embrace complexity and uncertainly rather than trying to simplify and control change.
Do this by searching for multiple influences in situations and exploring how things link together. Take a ‘helicopter view’ rather than focusing on just one cause” (Hunting & Tilbury, 2006, pg. 35)

It is likewise reflected at the international level:

“The review [of Education for Sustainable Development for UNESCO] has identified that certain key processes underpin ESD frameworks and practices. These include: processes of collaboration and dialogue (including multi-stakeholder and intercultural dialogue); processes which engage the ‘whole system … “ (Tilbury, 2011, pg. 7)

Some examples of inter and multidisciplinary research and practice in sustainability education can be accessed from:

  • the Higher Education Academy
  • Plymouth University
  • the University of Utah
  • La Trobe University

Further Information edit

General edit

To find more information on the state of play of EfS in the Australian tertiary sector you can go to the following websites:

SUSTAINed – Australian tertiary EfS educator network:

Learning and Teaching Sustainability:

ARIES – the Australian Research Institute for Environment and Sustainability:

Turnaround Leadership for Sustainability in Higher Education project:

Further afield, you may gain insights from the experiences of tertiary educators in other countries on these websites:

Higher Education Academy (UK):

Universities UK:

Higher Education Sustainability Initiative:

Talloires Declaration:

Higher Education edit

The Australian National Learning and Teaching Sustainability website contains sustainability education curriculum resources, examples of subjects and courses, and a list of people who are active in Australia in bringing sustainability into their learning and teaching – the website be searched in multiple ways.

The Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future (International) website is a UNESCO resource that provides professional development for student teachers, teachers, curriculum developers, education policy makers, and authors of educational materials. The modules are divided into 4 themes: Curriculum Rationale, Sustainable Development Across the Curriculum, Contemporary Issues; and Teaching & Learning Strategies.

The Canterbury University Christchurch University (UK) website Futures Initiative: Developing Futures Thinking is an excellent and easy to follow guide for why sustainability education is important in Universities and how this can be pursued.

La Trobe University is introducing sustainability across all undergraduate courses. Sustainability Thinking is one of three La Trobe Essentials being introduced into all courses. Details can be found on the La Trobe Website Essentials For Staff. This is linked to a range of resources that assist staff to embed sustainability across a diverse range of courses. There is also currently a La Trobe Essentials blog site that provides a range of information, perspectives and examples of how sustainability is being embedded.

RMIT University have an excellent set of resources, including a practical toolkit and templates, to support staff in enhancing and embedding sustainability within the curriculum, for all programs – see RMIT Learning & Teaching for Sustainability and the RMIT Learning & Teaching for Sustainability Tool Kit.

Authored by Professor Stephen Sterling from the Centre for Sustainable Futures, Plymouth, the Future Fit Framework provides readers with a detailed practical introductory guide to learning and teaching for sustainability in higher education. The resource is primarily for academics (including curriculum and educational developers and practitioners), but policy makers, senior managers and support staff who want to know more about ESD will also find it helpful. The Framework was developed out of the experience of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) ESD Project, which ran from 2006-2011, and led the HEA’s work on ESD. This work is now carried on as part of the HEA’s overall programme, which identifies ESD as one of seven key priority areas.

Vocational Education edit

The Australian Green Skills Agreement established in 2012, is the Australian Government initiative to introduce sustainable practices in all national training packages. The agreement established a framework, with Australia’s eleven Industry Skills Councils1 tasked with embedding “green skills” across all training packages. More information on the Green Skills Agreement and on other Green Skills Policies, Reports and Information is available from the Swinburne University National Centre for Sustainability website.

Swinburne University also houses the Education for Sustainability Hub . The Hub provides VET (Vocational Education & Training) practitioners with the tools, guidance and contacts they need to effectively deliver skills for sustainability training and apply EfS principles and practice. The Hub provides a one-stop-shop for teaching resources, pedagogical guidance, delivery tools, learning activities, industry and sector relevant case studies and state and territory EfS practitioner networks and contacts. This contains a section on Teaching Resources for Sustainability that is oriented towards supporting those introducing sustainability into vocational education.
Created by Beth Akister in 2011, access the EfS Hub at

There is also a set of Useful Weblinks that include: ▪ Climate Questions, Science Facts Climate Questions, Science Facts. ▪ Industry Specific Links Industry Specific Links ▪ Government Agencies Government Agencies ▪ Industry Skills Councils Industry Skills Councils ▪ Eco products Eco products. ▪ Green Jobs & Recruitment Agencies Green Jobs & Recruitment Agencies.