By Dr Diana Pritchard , External Evaluator, University of Bedfordshire

13 July 2021 - 14:11

Members at the University of Bedfordshire (UK) participate in world climate change negotiation simulation, a model adopted by universities across the globe, where students develop knowledge about climate change; understandings of futures scenarios; skills relating to communication and teamwork; empathy and creativity; and ultimately, as research has evidenced, change behaviours to become more responsible and active change agents.

In this blog Dr Diana Pritchard from the University of Bedfordshire, a core member of the SPHEIR external evaluation team, gives an overview of the preliminary findings from a research study she is leading to look at higher education practices that are being adopted by institutions across the world in order to prepare graduates for employment, entrepreneurship, and community work against the backdrop of complexity, precarity and uncertainty in the 21st century.

The research study is undertaken as part of the external evaluation of the SPHEIR programme and focuses on identifying higher education practices that prepare graduates to respond to the challenges of their time, communities and economies – an objective that aligns closely to SPHEIR’s wider objectives.  

The research aims to provide a snapshot of educational approaches that respond to the environmental, social and political challenges of the present day, in contrast to dominant pedagogies and higher education practices which – many observers agree - have contributed to perpetuating the prevailing inequalities and unsustainability. The research comprises a scoping review of studies which examine the type of practices that educators and institutions - in different cultural and resource contexts - are implementing to develop graduates who, in their future professional and community work, can shape and adapt to social and economic transformations.   

The research includes studies from countries in all geographic regions of the world and World Bank income categories, except low income countries, and was conducted using studies produced before the Covid-19 pandemic. As such, it shows that wherever there is a significant higher education sector, educators and institutions are seeking to provide relevant and transformative learning opportunities through a range of practices that develop relevant and future-proofed learning.  

While many studies frame higher education practices in terms of delivering education for sustainability, a few emphasise their significance in terms of local delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Notably, many within the applied sciences stressed the imperative for new, more holistic practices to develop competences for emergent job markets, which the prevailing emphasis on knowledge acquisition or practical acumen were failing to develop for graduates. Typically, these studies emphasise the need for higher education practices to be critical of the concept of value-neutrality within these vocations, and the need to prepare professionals to work in changing contexts (such as complex healthcare scenarios), to design solutions for low carbon economies and to nurture entrepreneurship to create new economic and social value.   

To be included in the research, the studies had to not only describe relevant higher education practices but also identify and measure their impacts on learning –be it cognitive, behavioural and affective, or socio-communitive dimensions of learner development.  Seen from the perspective of the UN pillars of learning, the studies examined the ‘to know’, ‘to do’, ‘to be’, ‘to work together’ and ‘to become’ aspects of learning.    

The preliminary findings from the research were presented at the session ‘Higher education practices for our threatened world’ at the British Council’s Going Global conference in June 2021 and are presented below.

Key findings

  • Most of the practices occur within formal education programmes and vary enormously in scale – largely reflecting the extent of institutional buy-in.  On the one hand they include the design of authentic assessments, such as participatory research to address an eco-justice challenge identified by the local community. On the other hand, they include the design of entire study programmes. These are typically interdisciplinary, which facilitates the integration of perspectives from distinct disciplines to understand underlying causes of complex or ‘wicked’ social or environmental challenges in order to identify responses or solutions. Most adopt the title ‘sustainability’ to signify the transdisciplinary nature of such provision.  
  • Likewise, most of the practices adopt approaches that have already been established - in other research contexts – as effective to develop key academic skills and relevant 21st Century competences for students from diverse backgrounds. They share central elements of ‘good’ pedagogy on account of being student centred, and involving active and experiential learning or inquiry. As such they represent a departure from didactic educational practices.  Critically, these practices emphasise the ‘how’ of learning, as much as the ‘what’.    
  • More specifically, half of all the practices involve some form of collaborative learning and, as such, embed social learning by involving dialogue and interactions between diverse actors within and beyond the institutions, in practices that are not necessarily confined to institutional settings.  
  • Most of the practices are oriented to develop not just critical understandings of the causes for key local and global challenges, but also to identify solutions and encourage students to take an active role in changing the status quo in personal, community, organisational or wider social domains.   
  • Many of these, and others, serve to connect students with their physical and geographic vicinity, namely the place and environment, or to explore local and diverse ecological knowledges. Increasing numbers use the campus and its operations and management as a learning resource.  Unsurprisingly, a significant number adopt online and other digital technologies, used mainly to connect students and their work to other students, or to communities of commercial audiences across the globe.
  • Emergent practices adopt role play and simulations, including virtual realities. By their immersive nature, these provide intense learning experiences. Since they are typically fun activities, they are important in mitigating against the overwhelming and typically disempowering feelings that can be generated from learning about existential threats, such as climate change. 

Feedback from international attendees at the workshop session where the findings were presented reiterated the significance of these approaches to strengthen the connection of students to social and ecological communities near and far. It also reiterated both the imperative that higher education adopts such practices more widely to assume its role to create social good and the fact that these practices remain marginalised given the prevailing context of administrative and bureaucratic constraints.

As for the prospect of rendering these practices mainstream, co-facilitator of the session, Professor Daniella Tilbury (Commissioner for Sustainable Development and Future Generations, HM Government of Gibraltar) who advised the research as a subject expert, commented that ultimately “The question is whether universities are mirrors or lighthouses. If they are mirrors, they help students learn and understand the social, economic and environmental issues that face us; if they are lighthouses, they will also create spaces and pathways for students to experiment, and to learn their way through these rather tricky scenarios. Ultimately, we do not know our way out of these major issues, we are learning our way out of this threatened world, and learning requires experimentation experience.” 

This scoping review will be completed with a view to publication later this year. For details contact

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