On 13 January 2022, the European Commission published a Proposal for a Council recommendation on learning for environmental sustainability. EUA welcomes the initiative as it acknowledges the crucial contribution of education institutions in reaching the objectives of the United Nations' 2030 Agenda, the European Union’s Green Deal and the EU’s goal of leading global efforts towards a just green transition.
The proposal, and its accompanying staff working document, stress that: “Like all sectors, education and training must take also action to respond to the climate emergency and planetary crisis – in terms of its own operations and, crucially, how it prepares learners for the future”. This supports evidence of developing trends in the higher education sectors across Europe. EUA’s 2021 survey on greening in higher education found that many universities are already involved in initiatives on environmental sustainability. Specifically, they are working to mainstream the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in connection and cross-fertilisation with other ongoing transformation processes, such as digitalisation, social inclusion and the enhancement of learning and teaching. The new proposal for a Council recommendation encourages member states to “support education and training institutions to effectively integrate environmental sustainability across all their activities and operations”, particularly by “encourage[ing] and facilitating a whole-institution approach to sustainability, (…) encompass[ing] learning and teaching, vision, planning and governance, active learner and staff participation, management of buildings and resources, partnerships with local and wider communities, and research and innovation.”
Data collected by EUA provides evidence that environmental sustainability is already of high importance at the central level of higher education institutions, with three quarters of those surveyed across Europe addressing the topic strategically, or planning to do so in the near future. In addition, survey participants highlighted the importance of engagement among all actors across the entire institution, as well as exchange with other institutions, to enhance activities addressing environmental sustainability. Indeed, the proposal calls on member states to support institutional strategy design and implementation and calls for European funding to facilitate peer exchange.
Learning and teaching is a powerful way to foster student, teacher and institutional engagement with environmental sustainability. Lifelong learning is at the core of the proposal, with numerous actions suggested to embed environmental sustainability into study programmes and course contents. When supporting such activities, members states and the Commission should ensure that the sectors’ existing expertise is well considered: more than half of the institutions in EUA’s survey already have measures for including sustainability in curriculum reform and in most study programmes, or in dedicated modules.
The lack of funding and funding incentives were highlighted by respondents as major challenges. The proposal aims to address this by encouraging member state investment and through EU funding, mainly from the Erasmus+ budget.
In addition to funding for infrastructure, training and resources to increase the “preparedness of education and training for the green transition”, emphasis is placed on investment in monitoring and the development of common indicators and targets on environmental sustainability in education, notably through the European graduate tracking initiative. The proposal also aims to “focus part of the internal and/or external review and quality assurance mechanisms of education and training organisations on sustainability.” However, EUA’s survey shows that there are many other institutional, national and international instruments and tools (annual greening reports, ISO, different national green labels, etc.) that may already be a good fit for monitoring environmental sustainability issues. Instead of adding to quality assurance mechanisms, awareness of, exchange and training on, and links between the different existing monitoring instruments should be fostered to feed into comprehensive institutional policies and strategies.
According to the EUA survey, one third of higher education institutions expressed their wish to see an EU initiative dedicated to environmental sustainability. Therefore, the Commission Proposal for a Council recommendation is timely and responds to a growing trend and expectation in the sector. It remains to be seen how the proposal will journey through the EU legislative framework, and what means will be dedicated to its actual implementation. EUA will continue to monitor how the proposed funding and support measures will be implemented.