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Student Demand for Skills in Sustainability - HEA Report

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A major new research report, published on 10 March 2011 by the Higher Education Academy (HEA), shows first-year students believe their university should be responsible for actively incorporating and promoting sustainable development to prepare their students for graduate employment.

The HEA commissioned the report, "First year attitudes towards, and skills in, sustainable development", was undertaken by NUS Services, the sister company to the National Union of Students, in collaboration with StudentForce for Sustainability and the University of Bath. With increasing tuition fees on the horizon, it provides Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) with timely information on the expectations of current students, and gives insight into students’ decision-making processes on where to study.

Results from the desk-based phase of the report were used to inform an online survey, which gathered responses from over 5760 first-year students. Key findings include:

  • over 80% of respondents believe sustainability skills are important to their future employers;

  • employers anticipate a need to employ staff with these skills;

  • 63% of respondents are prepared to sacrifice £1,000 salary to work for a sustainably-aware company;

  • awareness of sustainable development schemes is up to five times more likely in first-year students who have come from a sixth-form attached to a state school than those who have come from a standalone sixth form college or private school;

  • sustainability concerns are significant in students’ university choices;

  • Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is considered by many practitioners to be a nebulous concept with a need for a nationally accepted working definition;

  • the research indicates that skills in sustainable development are slightly more relevant to students from Scotland, where there is a history of national policy in ESD;

  • 65% of respondents believe that sustainability skills should be delivered throughout the curriculum rather than through a separate module;

  • ESD content is avoided when teaching staff feel they do not know enough about the issues;

  • there can be limited institutional drive to encourage the embedding of ESD into the curriculum which is often seen as already overcrowded.
     

Professor Craig Mahoney, chief executive of the HEA, believes the report will be a vital source of up-to-date information as institutions increase their commitment to sustainable development. He said:

“Over the last few years, education for sustainable development been moving up the Higher Education agenda, with a Government White Paper in 2010, and targets to reduce carbon emissions discussed. Many vice-chancellors have already signed a statement of intent to incorporate sustainable development into the curriculum, and this report will give all institutions a better understanding of what their students think is important when it comes to sustainability.

The research represents groundbreaking findings on student attitudes towards skills in, and aspirations for, sustainable development. It will support staff at all levels to focus their efforts where they can be most effective, not only for the institution’s carbon footprint, but for the future employment of their students.

At the HEA, we support institutions in their ESD requirements through our research, reports and workshops. Programmes such as Green Academy, which is currently enabling eight institutional teams to address key aspects of sustainability, are making a real difference to students across the UK.”

The research highlights a range of recommendations targeting pro-vice-chancellors, academic staff, government officials, student’ union representatives and funding councils, including:


  • an online resource for academic staff from all subject areas, but particularly of interest to those where ESD content is less recognised, such as mathematics, arts and languages, to increase knowledge;

  • partnerships with businesses to raise awareness of the employability significance of skills in sustainable development;

  • case studies of contextual reframing of existing courses will be well received by those responsible for curricula development and delivery;

  • an interim working definition of sustainable development is essential, with the HEFCE definition recommended in the first instance;

  • further study is vital to understand the impact of tuition fees.
     

The research was carried out by the National Union of Students on behalf of the HEA. Aaron Porter, president of the NUS said:

“As students are being asked to pay more for their degrees, they will make increasing demands of their institutions about what is taught and how. This study shows that students believe sustainability skills will be central to their future working lives and that universities should reflect this in course content.”

In 2007 the HEA commissioned a report, "Employable graduates for responsible employers" and "First year attitudes towards, and skills in, sustainable development" builds on this work. The HEA will use the new report’s findings to put forward tangible and measurable recommendations for future sustainability policy.

To view the full report, click here

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