Education for sustainable development in Irish higher education : Policy, practices and change in a climate of (r)evolution

O'Donovan, Dermot and Trowler, Paul (2021) Education for sustainable development in Irish higher education : Policy, practices and change in a climate of (r)evolution. PhD thesis, Lancaster University.

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As part of the global response to planetary emergencies, higher education institutions (HEI) are considered a pivotal enabler for the transition to new and sustainable societal, economic and ecological models. The aim of education for sustainable development is to embed sustainability into the teaching, learning and operations of HEIs. This thesis examines the implementation of the National Strategy for Education for Sustainable Development in Ireland 2014-2020 (ESD Strategy) within a higher education (HE) context. A meso-level analysis of the emerging ESD landscape, set against the recommendations of the ESD Strategy, is presented, and the perceived barriers and drivers are identified. The process of change unfolding within HEIs is viewed through the lens of theories of policy implementation staircase and steering. Furthermore, two emerging, ontologically polar theories of change, behavioural insights and social practice theory, are considered within the context of sustainability-centred change. The research adopts a mixed qualitative methodology, examining the policy landscape, unpacking the ESD Strategy and carrying out in-depth semi-structured interviews with a range of stakeholders from within HEIs, government and non-government agencies (n=27). Adopting a critical realist perspective, data generated was analysed using NVivo software, applying both inductive and deductive approaches to thematic analysis to develop themes and subthemes. A common thread across all institutions is participation on the Green Campus Programme, though the findings demonstrate a three-tiered level of engagement with ESD. Barriers identified by participants include coordination, communication, power and resources. Drivers that emerge include agency, financial steering mechanisms, accreditation bodies and societal pressures. The research unveils a low level of awareness of the ESD Strategy and little by way of progress in the development of strategies for teaching and learning for sustainability. This critical enquiry highlights the potential of behavioural insights as a means of framing policy for the efficient management of campus resources and influencing individual pro-environmental behaviour by the implementation of green nudges. However, social practice theory is considered more applicable in providing a framework for the development of systemic, long-term changes to HEI structures that support current unsustainable practices. The development of a model based upon the concept of HEI practice architecture places an emphasis on collaborative, policy, teaching and learning and campus architectures. Finally, by analysing the elements of the practice of teaching and learning, the research suggests a method of reconceptualising this practice so that students and academics can better engage with the sustainability agenda.

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17 May 2021 09:25
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21 Jul 2024 01:22