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Education FellowshipsSustainability

Lifelong learning – understanding higher education’s role in sustainability

4 March 2024

Cardiff University is celebrating Sustainability Week between the 4-8 March 2024. In this blog, Laura Barritt, from the Fellowships Team at Cardiff University’s Learning and Teaching Academy explains Higher Education’s role in sustainability.

Sustainability discourses in Higher Education have long been recognised in the literature. However, in recent years, there has been an increased demand to enact these ideas in teaching practice to support learners with future employability and lifelong learning skills. Findings from Cook (2020)  highlight the need for students to develop cross-cutting skills and to embrace inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary ways of working and learning.  Previous ways of working in silos are not enough for tackling such complex issues and ‘wicked’ problems that arise from sustainability challenges (QAA/ Advance HE 2021; Cook 2020).  To support this development, we need to engage with sustainability discourses in our teaching practice, to support learners and our institutions with sustainable development.

‘Sustainable Development is an aspirational ongoing process of addressing social, environmental and economic concerns to create a better world’ (QAA/ Advance HE 2021 p8).

UN Sustainable Development Goals

The content that we teach and it’s relation to sustainable development can be supported by consideration of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (above). These goals provide a framework, a means for us to think about and discuss how we can relate our content to sustainability.

In the first instance, this might start quite broadly as we begin discussions that evolve our understanding of what this might mean for us in our practice. This idea can then be further enhanced through carefully developing sustainability awareness and practices with students through our teaching sessions (Education for Sustainable Development).

‘Education for Sustainable Development – the process of creating curriculum structures and subject-relevant content to support and enact sustainable development’ (QAA/ Advance HE 2021 p8).

In terms of building this into our teaching practice, certain competencies have been recognised as being of particular importance for sustainability. These have been developed by UNESCO into Sustainability Competencies (Advance HE/ QAA 2021). These aptitudes are ways in which we can begin to support learners to grow and evolve within a world that is evolving; where stable job markets, environments and society are becoming a memory, an illusion of the past.  The sustainability competencies support different aspects of a developing learner – not solely focused on the cognitive dimension, they seek to engage more holistically with the learner through supporting ‘ways of being’ (values, reflection), ‘ways of thinking’ (cognitive knowledge) and ‘ways of doing’ (practical skills).  This prepares students to be more adaptable, reflective and flexible in times of change and complexity.

This approach also supports the development of a commitment to lifelong learning rather than learning for a moment, a test; so the learner is able to engage in deeper learning and adapt as their experience changes over time.  This shift to a focus on the whole learner is quite different to previous traditional modes of teaching and learning in HE, as it requires us to consider how different of sessions are constructed to support each of the necessary aptitudes. To support education with this transition, UNESCO (UNESCO 2017) have released a range of Learning Outcomes that support each of these competencies in practice across a range of subjects and SDGs.

Moving towards encouraging and supporting holistic lifelong learning is a development that benefits all involved – the learner, the teacher and the institution. Setting up an interest in and need for a long-term relationship with higher level education, way beyond the end of traditional undergraduate degree.  It supports students to become more aware of how they learn, as well as what they learn. It encourages autonomy and self-regulation, and it supports students to make more informed decisions while thinking of long-term impacts rather than short term solutions. It develops the learner to enable them to take part in and even drive sustainability discourses; giving them agency, as well as supporting more complex, high-level thinking skills and practices that will benefit their future employment.

Top Tips

What can you do to get started with working towards sustainability in your role?

  • Look carefully at your content, can you see links to any SDGs? Is there a way in which you engage with societal, environmental or economic challenges? Making explicit links is a start – this makes it easier for students to make connections.
  • Look at the Sustainability Competencies. Are there tasks you already use that support these? Are there any tasks you could develop to enhance these competencies in practice?
  • Do you have opportunities for self-reflection and self-assessment? How might you develop these to support self-regulation in learners?
  • Think about the bigger picture and take action – link up to others in your area who are interested in making connections and developments in sustainability. What CPD could you offer to our graduates and alumni to further engage with and drive the sustainability agenda?

17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Available from

Advance HE & The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2021) Education for Sustainable Development Guidance. Available from:  Education for Sustainable Development Guidance | Advance HE (

Cook, I (2020) ‘Future Graduate Skills: A Scoping Study’. Change Agents UK. Available from: Future Graduate Skills: A Scoping Study (

Education for Sustainable Development Goals: learning objectives; 2017 – 247444eng.pdf (

UNESCO (2017) Education for Sustainable Development Goals: learning objectives. UNESCO digital library. Available from: