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HEA Report: First-year student attitudes towards, and skills in, sustainable development March 2011

29 March 2011

HEA Report: First-year student attitudes towards, and skills in, sustainable development  March 2011

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", which 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 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;

* 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 HE 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.

Executive summary

Research into first-year attitudes towards, and skills in, sustainable development was

conducted in 2010 as a two-phase study encapsulating purposive desk research, which

informed an online survey conducted in October 2010, gaining 5,763 respondents.

Respondents were first-year students in higher education who had not taken

more than one year away from formal education and were taking their first degree.

Desk research indicated:

—— some excellent case studies across the member nations account for only a

minority of FE colleges and higher education institutions;

—— ESD is considered a nebulous concept; a nationally accepted working definition

is required;

—— employers anticipate a need to employ staff with skills for sustainability literacy

in a future workplace;

—— delivery of education for sustainable development is disjointed at a national level;

—— a standard assessment procedure across the four member nations will allow

understanding of national progress;

—— communication of the tangible benefits of inclusion of SD in curricula is

necessary to secure national buy-in in FE and HE;

—— student attitudes towards SD have not been extensively covered; there is a

national need to understand student demand;

—— Scotland and Wales lead the UK in understanding the impact of ESD with

national baselining studies completed.

This informed the empirical research, which demonstrated:

—— schools are the key vehicles of sustainable development schemes and 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;

—— the majority of respondents believe that skills for sustainability literacy were at

least partially covered during their time in further education;

—— with the majority of students reporting conducting skills for sustainability

literacy at least sometimes, further work remains on understanding how

students choose to conduct these behaviours;

—— variation in skills and attitudes differ only slightly depending on type of FE

institution attended and course studied;

—— understanding of SD as a concept is good, although in practice most

respondents only focus on the environmental dimension of sustainability;

—— overwhelmingly, skills in sustainable development are viewed as significant for

employability and over 80% of respondents believe these skills are going to be

important to their future employers;

—— respondents placed high value on many of the aspects of sustainable

development for use in HE in relation to increasing their ability to perform well

in their course;

—— sustainability concerns are significant in students’ university choices;

—— the vast majority felt that sustainable development is something universities

should actively incorporate and promote;

—— opportunity exists to state the case for a contextual shift for curricula;

—— 65% of respondents believe that sustainability skills should be delivered

throughout the curriculum rather than through a separate module;

—— 63% of respondents would sacrifice £1,000 from their salary to work in a

responsible company;

—— skills in sustainable development are slightly more relevant to students from

Scotland, where there is a history of national policy in ESD.

These findings inform recommendations targeting pro-vice-chancellors, Government

officials, students’ unions and funding councils:

—— An online resource for those delivering curricula should be made available to

improve the baseline skills and knowledge of students in HE.

—— Pro-vice-chancellors should consider adopting the components of the

Melbourne Model to support a holistic delivery and unified understanding of the

skills for sustainability literacy within an institution.

—— Partnership with business will raise awareness of the employability significance

of skills in sustainable development among students, helping SD gain further

foothold within the curriculum.

—— A resource, utilising case studies for contextual reframing of existing courses

will be well received among those responsible for curricula and delivery.

The Higher Education Academy – 2011 7

—— Senior management support within universities is essential and a mandate such

as that in Wales for sustainability champions from senior management groups

at each university will support the formation of a national forum to progress

thinking and delivery of the sustainability literacy agenda.

—— Acceptance of an interim working definition of SD is essential, with the HEFCE

working definition recommended to make the concept more actionable.

—— Media and sector support of initiatives is essential.

—— An important need exists to understand the impact of tuition fees on student

aspirations and expectations of the role of higher education.

—— It remains to be understood whether ‘price of course’ translates as perceived

indicator of value or whether ‘unique identifiers of university’ will come to the

fore should courses be priced similarly nationally.