• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


The Decade of Education for Sustainable Development

The recognition that education, at all levels, can be a powerful tool in promoting sustainable development led to the concept of Education for Sustainable Development and, in 2002, the United Nations declared 2005-14 as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

January 4, 2015

When I was elected to the Administrative Board of the International Association of Universities (IAU) in 2000, the newly-elected President of IAU, Professor Hans van Ginkel, then Rector of Utrecht University, assigned me the responsibility of chairing IAU’s Working Group on Sustainable Development (SD). “But I hardly know anything about SD”, I told him. “Most university leaders don’t and that’s precisely why I am asking you to lead that group”, he replied.

Sustainable development is indeed complex and not easy to define or understand. IAU has been active in promoting SD since the 1990s and, in 1993, adopted a policy statement known as the Kyoto Declaration on SD. Although this Declaration dates back to over two decades, it is remarkably comprehensive and outlines all the fundamental issues concerning the role of universities in promoting SD. The opening clause urges universities to seek, establish and disseminate a clearer understanding of SD, defined as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations". IAU has continued to maintain SD as one of its key action areas and has developed an online portal on Higher Education for Sustainable Development in order to encourage Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) around the world to network and showcase their activities through the portal.  And in March 2014, IAU organized an international conference in Iquitos, Peru to examine how to blend higher education with traditional knowledge for promoting SD.

The recognition that education, at all levels, can be a powerful tool in promoting SD, led to the concept of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and, in 2002, the United Nations declared 2005-2014 as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), with UNESCO as the lead implementing agency. 

As the end of the decade, UNESCO prepared a final report on the DESD, providing a summary assessment of progress achieved during the decade and the challenges encountered. The report mentions that HEIs have stepped up their efforts to support SD, have made significant efforts to address sustainability in campus operations (commonly referred to a campus greening), have introduced new ESD-related programs and courses and are extending the value and impact of their teaching and research to their respective community. Perhaps the most impressive outcome during the decade has been the creation of networks of HEIs in all the world regions (MESA in Africa, ProsPER.Net in Asia-Pacific, COPERNICUS Alliance in Europe, ARIUSA in Latin America and the Caribbean) in order to build capacity, share experiences and expand the influence of ESD. More recently, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) created the Global Universities Partnership on Environment for Sustainability (GUPES), a network of 370 universities across the globe to implement environment and sustainability practices into the curricula. However, the report also highlights challenges. These include: lack of a coordinated approach at all the levels of the institution to implement necessary changes; insufficient staff development activities to empower staff to transform curricula and pedagogy towards a SD perspective; and the persistence of disciplinary boundaries that inhibit the potential to address complex SD issues.

The question of what happens to Education for Sustainable Development after the end of the decade inevitably arose. In 2014 after broad consultations with and inputs from a wide range of stakeholders UNESCO, came up with the post-DESD Global Action Program (GAP) on ESD and a Roadmap for implementing the program. The GAP is generic in nature and applies to all levels of education. It identifies five priority action areas:  mainstreaming ESD in both education and SD policies; transforming learning and training institutions by integrating SD principles in daily activities; building capacities in educators and trainers; empowering and mobilizing youth; and accelerating the implementation of sustainable solutions at local/community level.

In order to mark the final year of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, two major back-to-back conferences on ESD were organized in Achi-Nagoya in Japan in November, 2014. The first was the International Conference on Higher Education for SD, hosted by Nagoya University and organized by the United Nations University with the support of the Government of Japan and organizations including UNESCO, UNEP and IAU.  The Conference proposed that there was a need to adopt a ‘whole institution approach’, including transformative leadership, encouraging capacity development and undertaking an assessment of the institution for sustainability.  The Conference also proposed that HEIs should engage with different types of knowledge and work with critical community groups such as youth and the private sector, and engage with policy issues. In the ensuing Nagoya Declaration on Higher Education for SD, participants renewed their commitment to support activities towards SD, including implementation of the GAP, and called on world leaders to recognize the essential role and responsibility of HEIs towards creating sustainable societies.

The second major event was the World Conference on ESD, organized by UNESCO and the Government of Japan and attended by nearly 1,000 participants. Although the Conference covered the whole range of education and learning, most of the workshops and sessions were directly or indirectly relevant to higher education, such as Teacher Education, Lifelong Learning and ICT. Similarly, in the sessions dealing with SD challenges such as water security, renewable energy, biodiversity, urbanization, etc., it was clear that the involvement of HEIs is crucial. A Declaration on ESD was adopted at the end of the Conference, calling upon the commitment to ESD of all stakeholders and inviting governments to allocate substantial resources to enable the implementation of the GAP priority actions.

There is no doubt that higher education has played an important role in promoting SD during the decade, and will continue to do so in the post-2014 implementation of the GAP. The post-2015 Development Agenda is currently being formulated by the UN and the 8 Millennium Development Goals are likely to be replaced by 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A glance at the proposed draft SDGs shows that their implementation will require substantial input from higher education. This must be recognized by the relevant UN agencies, the governments and, as importantly, by the HEIs themselves.



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