William Scott

William Scott is an emeritus professor at the University of Bath, a director of the South West Learning for Sustainability Coalition and, until 2011, Chair of the UK National Commission for UNESCO’s ESD Co-ordinating Group and ESD Forum. Bill’s research has focused on the role of learning in sustainable development, on the contributions that education (viewed broadly) can make to this, and on the problems of researching the effectiveness of such activities. He blogs at http://blogs.bath.ac.uk/edswahs

In this interview William Scott, emeritus professor at the University of Bath and director of the South West Learning for Sustainability Coalition, highlights that students need to be helped in seeing connections between the sustainability-related issues they study formally in their degrees, and real-world sustainability activities.


1. We would like to start this interview by paraphrasing two questions which you expressed in one of your recent publications: What can higher education (HE) do for sustainable development, and what can sustainable development do for higher education?

From your expertise in the ‘sustainable schools’ initiative in the UK, what are the lessons learned from it, that can be transferred to the context of higher education institutions (HEIs)?

Transfer between sectors and cultures is never straightforward, and any lessons from schools in one jurisdiction (which not everyone would agree with anyway) are not obviously applicable to universities in others. As such, it’s for others to decide what to make of these lessons from England’s sustainable schools initiative:

  1. Students find learning about sustainability interesting and motivating, and have experiences to bring to this.
  2. Top-down encouragement is helpful providing it doesn’t inhibit or distort creativity through prescription or targets.
  3. Senior leadership is key for whole-institution change.
  4. Language needs to resonate with professionals’ own interests if they are to see the relevance of what’s proposed.
  5. Developments within disciplines are important and students need help in seeing connections between these, and with wider-world issues.
  6. Activities across curriculum, campus and community need to be linked.
  7. Institutions need positive visions of themselves as inter-dependent nodes of socio-economic change in their communities.
  8. External groups can be useful for ideas and resources, but these are never value-free.

Research marks out higher education as different from other education sectors, and many institutions are now exploring solutions to the issues that face us in the quest for sustainability. Such research is taking place across disciplines, and arises both from the ‘push’ of academics’ own interests, and from the ‘pull’ provided by research councils, government, business and professional body accreditation. As the amount of research effort focused on sustainability continues to grow, so does teaching associated with this through specialist Masters courses, PhD studentships, and by extension into undergraduate degrees, with much sustainability-focused teaching now well-established in ways that make contextual sense.

Unsurprisingly, there is less evidence of universities successfully providing formal courses on sustainability that all students have to take, irrespective of specialisation or interest. Although not all see this as a priority, there may well be an evolution of such approaches as staff expertise, student interest and institutional leadership develops, and to establish them prematurely may be counter-productive. A more pressing point is that students need to be helped in seeing connections between the sustainability-related issues they study formally in their degrees, and real-world sustainability activity, beginning, most obviously, with the campus itself where all students are exposed to sustainability-focused learning in two further ways: the informal and hidden curriculums.

In terms of the informal, there are encouraging accounts of universities linking what they do around energy, waste, water, procurement, etc with students’ life experience of the campus, mostly with the collaboration of student guilds and unions. In such ways, an institution’s practical efforts and its thinking can be explained to students and staff who can be enlisted as participants in efforts to reduce carbon / ecological footprints, and re-orient practice. Thus what is normally hidden from student and staff view can be made more apparent.

This does not mean that an institution’s hidden curriculum is not still there, however, as a potent mode of instruction about what’s really important and valued. The hidden curriculum represents what is experienced, rather than what is said, and offers the possibility of a daily (and usually negative) counterpoint to institutional practice and rhetoric: I am writing this, for example, in a building with large single-glazed windows and single-skin walls – the legacy of a cheap energy era – which sits oddly with the university’s energy-saving and sustainability priorities and successes. There is no obvious communication to users of this building (and others like it) of how the institution is addressing the issue, and so an opportunity for informal learning is lost.




Learning accrues from the aggregated experience of the formal [what’s learned in degrees, etc], the informal [what’s learned from other experiences on campus], the hidden [actual institutional practice as opposed to assertion], and, of course, what the student brings to the mix. The formal, informal and hidden are additive, but not necessarily mutually reinforcing as the hidden can detract from the others if what the institution espouses is not what happens in practice.

Figure 1. Interaction of the formal, informal and hidden curriculums


It’s clear from all this that the totally of students’ learning about and around sustainability is represented by the sum of the formal, informal and hidden curriculums, but these are not necessarily mutually reinforcing. Because of this, it seems a priority for institutions to take a more integrated perspective on the student learning experience (and the context of that learning). Clearly, as students develop, the more they will be able to acquire iteratively more nuanced conceptual understandings that can engage the deep with the broad, and theory with the practical – if the institution provides the necessary prompts and opportunities at appropriate times.

It remains an open question whether an institution should be ‘transformative’ in its stance towards sustainability, as opposed to (merely) reformist or evolutionary? That is, as Stephen Sterling put it in a 2009 Thinkpiece for the UK’s Universities that Count project, to embody “a systemic shift of culture towards a more holistic, participative and engaged form of education reflected across the whole institution”. Implicit, here, is whether a university can really be addressing sustainability without being transformative, and opinion is polarised on the question.

Clearly, however, a university cannot be on such a transformative road unless it has formally endorsed this trajectory with policies both enacted and funded, whereas it can be reformist at a much lower level of commitment, and evolutionary merely by being open to ideas. However, it seems clear that significant activity over time across the institution both in a practical sense (teaching, researching, outreach, etc) and in an argumentation one (seminars, working groups, policy proposals, curriculum conventions, etc.) would be needed before an institution would be in a position to declare for the transformative. Thus, in terms of identifying potential indicators of development (or even progress) along the transformative road, it may make sense to think of the journey, rather than the destination, and to conceptualise this in terms of developmental stages.


2. Education for sustainable development (ESD) can helpfully be seen as an education in citizenship. It can be argued that in schools, there has been an overemphasis on personal agency with a tendency to view the student as an individual actor. At the university, education and training tend to focus on job specialization. These individualized views seem to neglect the picture of the student as a social and more public actor, what that doesn’t help in promoting collective actions in order to change structures, when needed. How can HEIs include the citizenly element and determine the optimum balance between depth and breadth of study, and the theoretical ideal and the socially practicable?

Much of sustainability-focused activity in schools is directed at changing personal behaviours in relation to energy, waste, transport, etc, in part because it’s more straightforward for teachers to do this than to provide experience of working collaboratively on more difficult issues (wicked problems) that are rooted within wider social and economic structures and systems. Although there are curriculum niches where this fits reasonably well, geography, for example, where there is a tradition of sorts of this kind of community-based, collaborative activity, it remains at the margins of school life, and students are largely denied experience of shared skill-development which is distinctly citizenly in that there are social goals and collaborative action towards these where skills of interaction can be learned, as in action competence, for example.

Even more than secondary schools, universities have been structured around separate subjects and teacher-specialists whose restricted pedagogies have generally militated against such explorations. And yet, universities are the most important educational institutions in relation to sustainability because of their links with research and with employment as research-informed graduates enter the workplace where a range of sustainability factors are variously in play. Opportunities to address sustainability arise unevenly across the subject spectrum, but exist most naturally in those degrees where the link with the economy and work is direct. Thus it is no surprise to find engineering, architecture and fashion degrees prominently featuring sustainability.

Students on such courses can experience sustainability as a natural emphasis, and universities’ strong links with employment and the professions offer students experiences in relation to sustainability through work placements and the like where real problems can be addressed and experience gained both in relation to compliance, and/or in explaining and justifying actions to the public through working collaboratively with them within the emerging ‘green economy’. Either way, it will affect the graduate-employee and how they think and work with others, and shape, and be shaped by, how they live in their personal lives in society with its interplay with sustainability.

All this widens the doorway to sustainability through the idea of an academically and vocationally-informed citizenship education, and the interplay between different forms of this – between promoting particular behaviours and shifts in habit, and the building of capacity to think critically about, and beyond, what is known – and what experts say. All this seems important as we cannot in some instrumental fashion teach now for sustainability in the future because the precise requirements for this will depend on a range of factors, one of which is certainly the influence of the research-informed higher education curriculum itself.


3. And a final question: What are your expectations regarding the outcomes of Rio+20 and the role of HEIs?

Clearly there will be an emphasis on moving to a green economy, though this won’t be welcomed by everyone. However, as strong economic performance is needed to meet global social and environmental goals, such an emphasis seems realistic and overdue. It will be good news for many universities as they are well placed to both aid such a transition because of their expertise, and benefit from it through research and outreach activities.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government