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Accelerating Education for Sustainability: Sunway University, Together with Others

Photo credits: Chris Barbalis

Accelerating Education for Sustainability: Sunway University, Together with Others

Leong Choon Heng & Cheng Mien Wee

Had universities incorporated sustainability in their education of business managers, scientists, technologists, engineers, marketeers, communicators, social scientists, government administrators and politicians in the last 100 years, we might have avoided this large-scale environmental mess that the world is in today and the wide social inequality that is tearing the social fabric of every nation to pieces. After all, the people who run and dictate matters in organisations and public institutions today studied in universities. They are not in high positions today because of some ingenious ability to tinker and discover without having to go through a university education. Universities are duty-bound to teach sustainability to the next generation to lead organisations, this time sustainably, to avoid catastrophe for humanity.

For sure, universities have always had faculty who taught sustainability but they were too few in number and far overwhelmed by curriculum and teaching content that emphasised optimal outputs, economic and material gains, and creation of products, infrastructures and services that have made our lives better while giving great returns to investors. Research, funding, publications and career promotion had not been in favour of those working on sustainable practices and development. We need to readjust and reprioritise university education to meet the needs of our time. Fortunately, the pace for this has accelerated since the adoption of the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030.

“Universities are duty-bound to teach sustainability to the next generation to lead organisations, this time sustainably, to avoid catastrophe for humanity.”

A lot has taken place since Sunway University embarked in this direction in a systematic and whole-hearted manner. We wish to share some of the key features here to add to the variety of efforts undertaken in other universities so that together, we can further enrich and accelerate the sustainability process.

Accelerating sustainability education requires us to be part of a global effort and network. In December 2016, the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development (JSC) was established at Sunway University through a grant of US$10 million from the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation to be part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). JSC will play the role of a regional centre for sustainability education of SDSN in Southeast Asia. In the university, it serves as the focal point for promoting curriculum development and delivery and for faculty across different schools, departments and research centres to work together. The regular communication and sharing with SDSN members from all over the world as well as the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Academy, which is a part of SDSN, has helped to move things a lot faster than if JSC were doing it alone. JSC and Sunway University also gained access to a large number of learning materials and Massive Open Online Courses of the SDG Academy, in addition to having the opportunity to participate in numerous seminars, conferences, webinars, calls for papers, invitations to forums and workshops, and offers of fellowships, scholarships, research funding, sponsorships and travel grants around different themes of sustainable development.

By necessity, the teaching of sustainability is multidisciplinary and, in many cases, has to be
contextual even though the issues are global and of planetary scale. It will require many types of
expertise to help guide the learning process in order for students to understand the complex and
multifaceted nature of sustainability problems. The solutions are also complex and multifaceted.

Through a large number of conferences, seminars, workshops and training programmes, the narratives of sustainability gradually became embedded in the day-to-day activities of faculty members, researchers, staff, administrators and students. This spawned university-wide initiatives by the faculty of Sunway University to incorporate sustainability issues and solutions into their current syllabi and teaching, as well as developing new courses on sustainability in their fields of studies. Our Sunway experience demonstrates that the ability to catalyse university-wide adoption of sustainability in teaching and research is fundamental. Organisational and administrative structures and procedures will sooner or later respond.

JSC began by offering formal sustainability education at the postgraduate level, starting with the Master in Sustainable Development Management programme and soon a PhD in Sustainable Development. The programme is offered to both full-time and part-time students with the purpose of training a large number of people who will in turn help lead sustainability practices in their organisations or create enterprises and civil society activities with sustainability missions. In the first year of enrolment in 2019, the programme attracted more than 80 students, the majority of whom were working adults from private corporations and non-governmental organisations. There were also a small number from the government, international organisations, and owners of small businesses and social enterprises. Diversity is key, and it has helped made the teaching and learning lively and generated innovative solutions in and outside classes.

The efforts laid by the postgraduate programme helped create curricula and content for undergraduate education on sustainability. Core or general curriculum subjects on sustainability topics will be offered across all schools and departments to allow students from different majors and programmes to study together.

There is currently great excitement around the teaching and creating of class projects on sustainability themes, as the subject matter lends itself to the use of creative teaching tools. This ranges from blended learning platforms to software for interactive learning, including the likes of Blendspace, Socrative and Padlet. These tools and learning platforms allow faculty members to reach a larger audience, as well as fulfil the aspiration to make learning interactive, collaborative, engaging, practical, inspirational and reality-like. Augmented reality and virtual-reality tools are also used to demonstrate sustainability-related situations. Faculty members working with students with creative and engineering dispositions are experimenting with sustainability solutions using devices and software such as Arduino and Raspberry PI, without the need to create costly, high-end facilities. Students have the chance to invent and deploy simple sustainability solutions for the use of communities, social enterprises and individuals in project-based activities.

The opportunities and enthusiasm in a university embarking on the sustainability mission certainly help enhance the vibrancy of the academic ecosystem as felt at Sunway University. Student clubs and societies are all fired up and have a better understanding of their sustainability journeys each time they carry out their activities. Given that Sunway University is located in an urban township, on land rehabilitated from discarded tin mines, much of the sustainability activities are around urban themes such as waste management, responsible consumption, eco-mobility, efficient and renewable energy, recovery of water, “Think-before-Print” and “The-Last-Straw” campaigns, and the like. It starts in the university, but once sustainability has taken root in the university, the momentum for accelerating sustainability goes beyond the campus. Sunway University student volunteers, for example, have taken the cause to the forests, mountains, beaches, rivers, lakes, rural poor and indigenous people of Malaysia. We look forward to working together with other universities on this common journey.

Leong Choon Heng is the Deputy-Director of the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University. Cheng Mien Wee is the Director of Pre-University Studies at Sunway College and Executive Director of Sunway International School, Malaysia.

This article first appeared in the print version of HESB Issue #07. Click here to read the full, online issue.
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