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Education for Sustainable Development entails learners being empowered to make informed decisions and take responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society.

Considering the far-reaching demands sustainable development places on individuals and societies, it is widely acknowledged that education has a key role to play, even though its meaning is not always agreed upon; it is even contested.

What’s clear is that a major change in mindsets and actions is needed for development that ensures environmental integrity, economic viability, and a just society for present and future generations.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is generally regarded as a particularly promising approach in this regard. In fact, ESD has been formally included as a target within the Sustainable Development Goals:

“By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

ESD is referred to in other SDGs as well, and it can safely be argued that ESD cuts across all 17 SDGs — an argument championed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

As lead agency for ESD, Unesco in 2014 launched a Global Action Programme (GAP) to promote ESD in policy, educational institutions, local communities, and among educators and youth.

ESD is generally understood to mean education that empowers learners to make informed decisions and take responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society, for present and future generations, while respecting cultural diversity.

It is about lifelong learning and is an integral part of a quality education. ESD is holistic and transformational. It involves content and outcomes, teaching practices, and the learning environment.

Education and learning-based responses to the increasingly complex and urgent sustainability challenges are needed as part of a comprehensive, systemic response. Other areas in need of reform include legislation, governance and current lifestyles and economic models.

Just as ‘‘business-as-usual’’ cannot continue in light of global sustainability challenges, the same applies to ‘‘education-as-usual’’.

What’s required is a fundamental reorientation of education at every level and not just in formal education, but also in non-formal and informal learning.

Whereas sustainability in higher education has a dedicated international handbook, ESD in non-formal education is just being explored. It encompasses processes ranging from traditional outdoor learning, first-hand experiences of nature, to helping young people become change agents for sustainable development and responsible citizenship.

In response to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014), United Nations University’s then-Rector, Hans van Ginkel and I, as Director of UNU’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), initiated Regional Centres of Expertise (RCEs) to promote ESD and address local sustainable development challenges through research and capacity development.

A RCE is not a physical centre but a network of existing local/regional institutions mobilised to promote all types and levels of learning for a sustainable future. Thus, the RCE is an institutional mechanism to facilitate capacity development for sustainable development. RCEs, both individually and collectively, aspire to achieve the goals of ESD.

RCEs facilitate the sharing of information and experiences, promote dialogue and partnerships, develop regional knowledge bases, promote training, facilitate research into ESD, raise public awareness, and increase the quality of and access to ESD in the region.

RCEs promote four major ESD goals in an effective way:

RE-ORIENTING education towards sustainable development by tailoring curriculum to address issues in their local community context;

INCREASE access to quality education that is most needed in the regional context;

DELIVER train-the-trainer programmes and develop methods and learning materials for them; and,

LEAD advocacy and raise public awareness about the essential role that ESD plays in achieving a sustainable future.

RCEs promote the long-term goals of ESD, such as environmental stewardship, social justice and improvement of the quality of life. RCEs are important not only in their local region but at international level too, helping to constitute the Global Learning Space for Sustainable Development.

Launched 14 years ago, the RCEs are still facilitated through UNU-IAS and there are more than 170 of them around the world today, testifying to their relevance. Four of the RCEs are in Malaysia, with Universiti Sains Malaysia having the distinction of being one of the seven pioneering members of the global network.

This was a tribute to the vision of the then-vice chancellor, Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, who was ahead of the curve in championing sustainable development through the concept of “University in the Garden”.

As we map the future landscape of education in the country, it is instructive to reflect deeply on the role that education for sustainable development can play to enrich the educational experience of our future generations, and the world in which they will live.

The writer was an academic at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia and the United Nations University

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