Guest blog: What Is a University Education For? Are We Educating Earth Literate Leaders? Is there a Case for Re-Purposing our Universities?

Guest blog by Professor Stephen Martin and Professor Stephen Sterling (Dr Stephen Sterling is Emeritus Professor of Sustainability Education at the Centre for Sustainable Futures, and an advisor on UNESCO’S Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) programmes. Dr Stephen Martin: Hon FSE; FRSB; F.I.Env Sci is visiting Professor in Learning for Sustainability at the University of the West of England recently he was the founding Chair of the Higher Education Academy’s Sustainable Development Advisory Group and a former member of the UK‘s UNESCO Education for Sustainability Forum)

We are now citizens of the Earth joined in a common enterprise with many variations. We have every right to insist that those who purport to lead us be worthy of the task. Imagine such a time! (Orr, 2003)
Hundreds of delegates met late last year in Madrid(Cop25) to discuss  climate change and the UN’s Secretary-General headlined with his statement that” we have reached a point of no return!” The UK will hold next year’s climate conference (Cop26 )in Glasgow and our government is making much of how well the UK is mitigating greenhouse gas emissions despite our increasingly prolific use of fossil fuels and our unsustainable consumer lifestyles.

If we look back on the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (2002) and many of the other international summits which followed, and reflect on their impact, the overriding conclusion is that political leadership the world over has failed to rise to the challenges of sustainability. And yet it is likely that most of the hundred or so leaders who attended the earth summit would have had a higher education degree from some of the world’s most prestigious universities. This raises some serious questions for our university leaders and their governance structures. Why, as the American academic, David Orr once remarked, is it that the people who contribute most to exploiting poor communities and the Earth’s ecosystems are those with BAs, MScs and PhDs and not the ‘ignorant’ poor from the South?  And, why is the illiteracy amongst the world’s politicians as to how the world works as a living system so widespread? Why is it so rare that we encounter in our leaders the qualities needed to enable sustainability: humility, respect for all forms of life and future generations, precaution and wisdom, the capacity to think systemically and critically challenge unethical actions? And more worryingly based on current performance, what hope of improvement is there for future leaders? 
The fact that the higher education sector is seriously failing society by producing leaders incapable of addressing our most pressing problems should trigger some critical consideration about the fundamental role of universities in society, based on three key assumptions:  If universities are the nursery of tomorrow’s leaders and educate most of the people who develop and manage society’s institutions, then the sector bears “profound responsibilities to increase the awareness, knowledge, technologies, and tools to create a sustainable future”, as the Talloires Declaration (signed by many of the world’s university leaders) stated in 1990 (ULSF, 1990). This clearly implies that graduates of every discipline (whether as engineers, teachers, politicians, lawyers, architects, biologists, banks managers or tourism operators, etc.) will need a sound working knowledge of sustainability.

Moreover, sustainable development is now a mainstream policy issue around the world ( in 2015, 150 world leaders  signed up to implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals and there is an increasing demand for graduates with a broad interdisciplinary training in sustainable development and problem solving. Universities as centres of the most advanced knowledge can through their teaching and their institutional practice, act as role models for wider society and be overt, ethical leaders and advocates of best practice for the future. 

Last September the proportion of young people in England going to university passed the symbolic 50% mark for the first time and a further 2.5 million optimistic students arrived at our universities. Should we celebrate these significant milestones? Or is their optimism misplaced and is the achievement of this 20-year-old policy target good for our society? OECD's education director Andreas Schleicher believes that achieving this target is a good thing, whilst at the same time he argues that UK’s record in measuring the learning in schools is “leading the world”, we are less effective in measuring the learning taking place in our universities. If we are not adequately measuring the output of a university education how can we assess its effectiveness and how does this influence a student’s choice of a university? And, more fundamentally, how does the absence of clear learning outcomes, help us to understand the purpose of a university education?

A recent book written by Professor Kerry Shephard (Higher Education for Sustainability) asks a more fundamental question: “What does guide our beliefs and actions?  and, to what extent might higher education  be guiding the beliefs and actions of our students?”  Without assessing the outcomes of a university education, there is no answer to this question. Shephard argues that universities should develop and enhance their student’s critical thinking and related dispositions because this captures more precisely the social, environmental and ethical needs of civil society in a complex and rapidly changing world. In the absence of this kind of explicit purpose, then as one Finnish academic has recently commented, the university “has already become an empty shell, or a soulless organism reduced to dead matter”
The traditional view is that a university education provides a basis for extending and deepening human understanding in a disciplined, ethical and illimitable manner. But this liberal view has been overtaken in recent years by the prevailing commercial wisdom which holds that the purpose of higher education is to advance knowledge, promote social mobility and help ensure perpetual economic growth and competitiveness. As one commentator has suggested:

‘This commercialisation of higher education serves a bigger purpose, though. It softens students up for the rigours of globalisation. By creating a market, young people are encouraged to think and behave like rational economic man. They become ‘human capital’, calculating the rate of return on their university investment. A degree becomes a share certificate. Commercialisation conditions students to expect no help from others, or society, and therefore never to provide help in return. Debt and economic conditioning discourage graduates from going into lower-paid caring jobs - and instead into the City, where the real ‘value’ is. It fashions a Britain that competes rather than cares.’ NEF University Challenge

This commercialisation creates citizens who remain as mainstays of the prevailing economic system and, consequently, are unable to lead as agents of progressive social change. But complexity, volatility, and potential social collapse increasingly define the lives of today’s graduates, as well as most (around 87%) of our political representatives in parliament who have undertaken a university education.  If our universities are to provide us with leaders capable of making a positive rather than a negative impact on human survival and wellbeing in these changing times, they need to rethink their purpose.

We recognise that there are pockets of outstanding and relevant work in research and teaching but overall universities are not responding urgently or at scale to the growing global challenges that face societies. The narrowness of policy and practice in universities is in stark contrast with emerging social change movements such as the Youth Strikes for Climate initiative and Extinction Rebellion. Young people fear for their future. Recent reports from the IPPC, FAO, WWF, Stockholm Resilience Centre, highlight the unprecedented nature of the systemic challenges that currently face humanity. Our universities are part of this systemic problem and yet potentially the solution too, not least if they can embrace and build on the passion, commitment and creativity of young people who are switched on to assuring their future.

Universities have a significant role to play in developing ‘sustainability literate’ leaders, thereby optimising their contribution to the future of society, the environment and the economy.  Sustainability in this sense does not feature in quality assurance systems of many of our universities. And herein lies the problem. Universities the world over are facing some serious challenges as demand grows for a better qualified and more flexible workforce in an increasingly complex and dynamically changing world.  But are universities sufficiently reading the signs of the times? Are they capable of themselves being learning organisations in the light of a rapidly changing world context? 

The recently launched IPPR report This is a crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown states that young people are beginning ‘to realise the enormity of inheriting a rapidly destabilising world’. Conditions of urgency require emphasis on agency, and this requires higher education to embrace a higher purpose than it has assumed to date.


  1. why is it that the Sustainable development goals are NOT holistic in their format, are repetitive, and clearly not using the best thinking available today. Have we not learned in the functionality of the MDG's and the Millennium Project that a more holistic perspective is required and the design of the final goals ought to be more comprehensive and easier to understand.

  2. The SDGs are the most comprehensive global agreement we have. They involved over 4 years a huge around of engagement form all stakeholders including the global science community as well as member states and the UN agencies and Programmes - they were the most open process to anyone to engage in so if you feel that they don't represent the Millennium Project then tis because the MP didnt lobby very well. The difference between the MDGs and SDGs are the MDGs were for developing countries, the SDGs for all countries. The MDGs about the sectors and the SDGs about he sectors and their linkages and the MDGs were about development and the SDGs about sustainable development


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