+Education for Sustainable Development at Oxford Brookes University



In the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) this article explores how far ESD is being used in the curriculum and assessments at Oxford Brookes University. An appeal was made on the University’s internal ‘enviroforum’ email list for examples of ESD. This was followed by web site searches and follow-up queries to individual academics and support staff. Using this audit data, this article examines the efforts at Oxford Brookes University to create a sustainable campus and looks at the links between the formal curriculum and the campus curriculum.  It investigates prevalence of ESD in the university’s teaching and learning and proposes ways in which its importance could be enhanced. It identifies ways of improving the profile of ESD at Brookes and encouraging a greater external focus.

Author biography

Hazel Dawe has been a senior lecturer at London Guildhall and London Metropolitan Universities. She has taught at the University of Westminster and the London School of Economics. Whilst researching this article she was an Assistant Lecturer and Senior Admissions Tutor at Oxford Brookes University. Hazel has a long standing interest in pedagogy. She has a Post Graduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and has presented papers or run workshops on three occasions at the Learning in Law Annual Conference organised by the UK Centre for Legal Education.


2005 – 2014 has been declared the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has taken the lead on this issue. An important part of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is how tertiary education delivers on educating sustainably literate graduates. This article examines examples of ESD in the curriculum at Oxford Brookes University. Oxford Brookes has a commitment to sustainability in its own operations and has been awarded two Green Gowns: an environmental award specifically for universities. The object of this article is to assess the practice of ESD at the university.

The article initially explores the definition of Sustainable Development (SD) and the history of the establishment of the UN decade of ESD. It then examines studies which postulate the need to link formal teaching of SD with the ‘campus curriculum’ before moving on to reviewing the campus experience of students at Oxford Brookes and how far it showcases the University’s commitment to sustainability. This article therefore focuses to a high degree on the synergy between ESD in the curriculum and the everyday experience of students of sustainability on the Brookes campus. The article then considers the examples of ESD found in teaching and learning at the University. As well as the curriculum, the article also examines various SD related assessments: some of them very innovative.

What is Education for Sustainable Development?

In 1987 the UN created the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report they produced established a definition of sustainable development which is now widely accepted and will serve for the purposes of this article as a base line:

development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ (UN, 1987, p.43)

The Brundtland Report took sustainable development out of the exclusive purview of the environmental movement and gave it a wider application. It highlighted three fundamental components to sustainable development: environmental protection, economic growth and social equity. This has also been described as the ‘Triple Bottom Line of economic, social and environmental responsibility.’ (American Bar Association, 2010). By making clear that  sustainable development is not purely an ecological concept, Brundtland made it more accessible: including making it more accessible to academic disciplines other than those primarily concerned with the environment and ecology.

The Brundtland definition was later elaborated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992: commonly called The Rio Summit. The declaration produced by the Rio Summit uses a definition for sustainable development which builds on, and to some extent echoes, the Brundtland definition ‘Developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.’ (United Nations, 1992, Principle 3) The Rio Summit then instigated a programme called Agenda 21, which evolved its own definition: ‘socially responsible economic development while protecting the resource base and the environment for the benefit of future generations.’ (United Nations, 2002). Another element of the Rio Summit was the recognition that education had a key part to play in achieving sustainable development. It mentioned education as ‘critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of people to address environmental and development issues’ but only barely managed to mention tertiary education as something which governments could choose to support.. It was not until UNESCO was tasked with leading the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development that tertiary education began to be seen as an important component of ESD.

Staff attitudes to Education for Sustainable Development

A research project at the University of Plymouth found that ESD is not universally welcomed by lecturers. One concern was ‘the problematic, contested nature of sustainable development (Cotton et al., 2007 p.586). Sustainability is described as a ‘contested and controversial subject’ i.e. there is substantial variation in understanding of what sustainability means (Cotton et al., 2007, p 590).  This was linked with difficulties around the vocabulary used and the lack of a common understanding of the meaning of some of the specialist vocabulary (Cotton et al., 2007 p.587). One interesting finding was that lecturers found it easier to understand sustainable development as a concept than they did sustainability (Cotton et al., 2007 p.584). Other researchers have identified resistance linked to the idea of academic freedom: the perception that sustainable development has no place in a particular discipline (Jones at al., 2010, p.9). Indoctrination is also cited as a problem with ESD (Cotton and Winter, 2010, p.40). These two issues are linked by some academics, ‘The concern of some respondents about the relevance and value-laden nature of sustainable development…’ are cited (Cotton et al., 2007, p.593). However, some lecturers see the contested nature of sustainable development as an opportunity. It is therefore linked to more thought provoking teaching methods. The perception is that, because it is contested, it cannot be taught by didactic methods but demands more discursive teaching. This has the potential to invigorate teaching methods. “Encouragingly, respondents were not deterred by these controversies but saw them as an opportunity for enhanced learning through debate or discussion.” (Cotton et al., 2007, p.590). 

Another research project examined how lecturers perceive the relationship between teaching and sustainability. (Reid and Petocz, 2006) Here in depth interviews were carried out with lecturers from a variety of academic subject areas to ascertain how they perceive the links between teaching and sustainability both as to how it might affect their teaching (teaching sustainably) as well as what it means to incorporate thinking about the ideas behind sustainability into their teaching (teaching sustainability). The results were organised into a hierarchy of conceptions of teaching and a hierarchy of conceptions of sustainability, ranging from the broadest views or conceptions to the narrowest. When exploring thinking around sustainability in the context of teaching, i.e. teaching sustainability, three conceptions were discovered. The narrowest was ‘distance’ focussing around a definition of sustainability. The broadest was linked to ‘justice’. The most common conception, which was the middle of the three, appeared to be that sustainability is about resources. ‘[S]ome aspect of [resources] was mentioned by almost all the participants’ (Reid and Petocz, 2006, p.117)

The broadest category ‘justice’ was described as both inter- and intra-generational fairness with one academic explicitly referring to inter-species justice. The idea of intergenerational justice was raised at a workshop on ESD at the Learning in Law Annual Conference in 2011. Specific legal subject areas concerned with intergenerational justice were identified as tax law and inheritance law. Family law could be considered to be relevant to both intergenerational and intra-generational fairness although this was not covered at the conference (Dawe, 2011).

The broadest conception of teaching sustainably where ‘sustainability and teaching are intrinsically connected, or the ‘integrated’ view contrasts with the narrow view that teaching and sustainability are seen as two completely unrelated ideas: the ‘disparate’ conception of teaching and sustainability. The integrated view was regarded as a key aspect of their teaching by participants from very different subject areas (Reid and Petocz, 2006, pp 115). This is perhaps unexpected given that the authors also identified an assumption ‘both academically and amongst the general community that ESD is located within the domain of the life sciences’ (Reid and Petocz, 2006 p.108). Similarly the Plymouth research found that ‘no clear subject bias emerged [on beliefs about incorporating sustainable development into their curriculum] when it might have been expected that sustainable development would be viewed as more clearly relevant to some disciplines (e.g. geography, environmental science, biology and ecology) than others (e.g. occupational therapy, psychology).’ (Cotton et al, 2007, p589).

Four pedagogies linked to staff perceptions of how to teach sustainable development were also identified in the Plymouth research. Two of these, modelling good practice and experiential learning, resonate with the idea of the hidden curriculum and how students learn by observing the behaviour of the tutor and/or the university.  Illustrations given of modelling good practice were mainly concerned with lecturers’ own personal behaviour. However that did include providing one positive example of staff behaviour on campus i.e. limiting the use of printed handouts by providing material electronically( Cotton et al 2007, p.590 – 591) Experiential learning is more closely tied to students learning by experiencing their immediate environment: this could quite naturally include the campus environment.

The necessity of linking the formal curriculum with the campus curriculum

The argument has been made that ESD does not belong purely in the classroom, but rather must be fully integrated into the campus curriculum. The formal curriculum is what we teach in the classroom; the campus curriculum describes the practical experience of the student of their institutional environment. The institutional environment needs to be informed by sustainable development otherwise its teaching  lacks credibility and legitimacy. Academics have identified problems with teaching environmental courses where they are contradicted by what was happening around them and their students in the campus environment. ‘In some institutions… ordinary academic staff associated with environmental courses…were becoming more and more uneasy at the disparity between what they were teaching and what was being practised throughout their campuses.’ (Alabaster and Blair, 1996, p. 87). This accords with the idea of the hidden curriculum:  ‘…the messages sent by an individual tutor or an institution to students, often unconsciously and covertly, about how they ought to think and behave.’ (Cotton and Winter, 2010 p.45). The power of these subliminal messages is all the greater because of the apparent authority of the tutor or the institution compared to the status of the student. Conversely, any disconnect between the professed view incorporated into teaching and the implicit views observed within the hidden curriculum will reflect badly upon the tutor and or the institution. ‘…it is clear that students will react cynically to any indication that the lecturers’ expressed views conflict with their own behaviour.’ (Cotton and Winter, 2010, p.50).

A report for the Higher Education Academy examining existing teaching approaches to sustainable development in higher education confirmed the need to integrate the campus curriculum: ‘Unless there were links between the curriculum area [and] the whole institution’s approach to sustainable development, then ESD would be largely ineffective. This is because it would be contradicted by the students’ daily experience within the institution’ (Dawe et al 2005, p. 23). ESD appears to be particularly susceptible to the need to lead by example i.e. to demonstrate the practical expression of sustainable development in everyday campus life.  When trying to identify good practice around ESD the report established a basic principle of good practice as being the need to ‘[c]onnect very closely with their own institutions’ environmental practices in their courses’ (Dawe et al, 2005, p.25). Tutors also stated that in their opinion ‘Student motivation around ESD had become much stronger simply by being in buildings which were designed to have minimal environmental impact.’ (Dawe et al, 2005, p. 23). A view from a slightly different perspective sees campus sustainability projects as an opportunity which is being missed ‘Campus sustainability projects are a unique opportunity to explicitly link and supplement campus operations with this academic mission. Yet many campuses are not taking advantage of sustainability projects as an academic resource’ (Savanick et al, 2008, p. 667).

The campus experience for students

This section will evaluate the campus environment at Oxford Brookes and how far it adheres to sustainability principles. The University has a well established programme of corporate social responsibility which includes sustainability and community action. It has a Sustainability Group and a sustainability page on its institutional web site. Oxford Brookes University was the first Fair Trade University in the world, is known for its recycling scheme and is attempting to reduce its carbon footprint by improving the energy efficiency of its, mainly 50s and 60s, building stock. As part of its energy efficiency drive, Oxford Brookes University is currently undergoing a major building programme to replace many of the poorly insulated existing buildings on its main campus site. It was the first university to be accredited Gold Ecocampus status for implementing an Environmental Management System (EMS) which was later upgraded to Platinum status in 2010.

In collaboration with their contracted catering firm, the University has created space for 24 allotments at its Wheatley campus outside the City. The allotments were advertised to both students and staff at the freshers’ week in 2011 and the allotments were officially opened by the Vice Chancellor in November 2011.. The newest building at Oxford Brookes, prior to the current redevelopment was the John Payne Building which was opened in December 2009. It incorporates several state of the art technologies designed to reduce the building’s carbon footprint.

These include a green turf sedum roof that absorbs rainwater and provides a steady temperature. The building has been awarded a ‘Very Good’ BREEAM rating from the Building Research Establishment and marks the first stage of Oxford Brookes’ redevelopment plan (Oxford Brookes University, 2010).

This provides students with the positive environmental experience mentioned in Dawe et al. as improving student motivation in relation to ESD.

There is an Energy and Carbon Manager tasked with reducing the university’s energy use and carbon footprint. The long term goal at Oxford Brookes is to have a net positive impact, i.e. that the University makes an overall positive contribution to society and the environment.

Oxford Brookes has a commendable Green Transport Plan, which includes the Brookes bus scheme: probably the most visible expression of the University’s commitment to sustainable development in its campus operations. This is a cooperative venture between the University and a chosen partner, a local bus company, in order to encourage students to use public transport rather than private cars. Two major reasons for this initiative are the high level of traffic congestion in the city and the split site nature of the University. Oxford Brookes has a main site within the city, at Headington, and two out of town sites: Wheatley to the East of Oxford and Harcourt Hill to the West. This increases the need to travel for both students and staff in and across the city. The Brookes buses have a distinctive dark blue livery which includes the slogan ‘everyone is welcome’ i.e. the buses are not for students and staff of the university alone, they can be used by the general public. Students are introduced to the Brookes bus before they even arrive at the University as the buses are free to use on University Open Days – this is made clear in advance publicity and in individual mail shots to those booking to attend. Indeed, Open Day publicity material encourages attendees to use the nearest Park and Ride site and come to the University by Brookes bus to avoid congestion in the city.

Later, students’ use of the Brookes bus is again encouraged. An integral part of the student halls contract is a Brookes bus ‘key’ which entitles the holder to free travel on the Brookes bus for a specified period of time: in this case for the whole of the academic year. Having acquired the habit of bus travel, the aspiration is that students will be more likely to then continue using this mode of transport for the rest of their time in Oxford.

The transport plan also includes measures to increase both cycling and walking. There is widespread provision of cycle racks, including secure cycle racks, and free cycle maintenance sessions once a week during term time. Brookes also provides a limited number of subsidised cycle storage lockers for home use by staff once a year. Priority is given to those staff living furthest away from the university. Walking is encouraged by the provision of ‘walk to university’ leaflets and directions on walking from the railway station to the university which includes a calorie count for the walk (Oxford Brookes University no date, p.6).. Oxford Brookes University Green Transport Plan initially won a Green Gown award in 2004 and was then highly commended in the 2007 Green Gowns for sustained improvement. The Green Gown judges in 2007 commented that the university has achieved a ‘decline in car usage, and increased levels of cycling and walking’ (Green Gown Awards, 2006 – 07). In other words, in the judges’ opinion, the Travel Plan was achieving its objectives.

Some examples of Education for Sustainable Development in the curriculum at Oxford Brookes University

An appeal on the university’s internal ‘enviroforum’ email list was made asking staff for examples of ESD. Five academic members of staff responded. Examples proffered were in Geography, School of the Built Environment, Life Sciences, Real Estate and Construction and in Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism Management. Follow up queries were initiated with all staff who responded and their permission was obtained to use the answers given in this research.

The School of the Built Environment and the School of Life Sciences co-operate on teaching modules which incorporate ESD. One lecturer teaches Environmental Sustainability on a Department of Planning undergraduate module and Environmental Management Systems to postgraduates jointly with the School of Life Sciences (Durning and Esvelt 2010). The undergraduate module, Environmental Sustainability, delivered by the Department of Planning, has sustainable development as a major focus: ‘This module introduces students to the concept of sustainable development, and examines how issues of sustainability affect the UK’s built and natural environment’. The module includes a field trip to a local meadow which has legal ‘village green’ status after a campaign by the local community to prevent the meadow being built on (Friends of Warneford Meadow, no date).The learning outcomes include ‘examine…planning policy responses to sustainability and sustainable development… and ‘to compare different approaches to sustainability (Nunes and Durning 2011). This is discussed in more detail in the later section on assessment.

The Geography Department runs a module on Environmental Management which includes a fieldwork exercise. The field trip to two land reclamation sites in Wales asks students to evaluate the issues around land reclamation of such sites. It uses problem based learning (PBL) and ‘aims to connect classroom theory to field realities…by engaging learners in proposing the causes and solutions of problems that affect its sustainability’ (Haigh, 2010, p.256). This field trip takes students out of the classroom to experience sustainability issues in the real world. The down side is that “one thing a short field trip cannot adequately address is the long term perspective needed to understand environmental dynamics.” (Haigh, 2010, p.261)  However an unexpected side effect was the voluntary adoption of team work by the students. This was attributed to the recognition by the students that a wide range of prior learning, which no one student could possibly have command of, was essential to the problem solving aspect of the field trip. They were acknowledging, to some extent, the complexity of such problems and the need for a multidisciplinary approach to solving them. Another motivation seemed to be that, faced with the difficulties of the exercise, being part of team helped boost self-confidence (Haigh, 2010).

Within the School of Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism Management the dedicated module, Environmental Management in Hospitality and Tourism, which has run for ten years has been discontinued as of the academic year 2011/ 2012. The explanation was that the module is no longer necessary as sustainability now permeates the syllabus. This claim was checked by inspecting the currently available modules.

The School of Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism Management offers two BSc programmes from year one: BSc International Tourism Management and BSc International Hospitality Management. Stage I (Level 4) of the BSc International Tourism Management contains no overtly recognisable modules on sustainability or the environment. However, two of the compulsory modules were examined in more detail as they demonstrated the potential to include such topics.  According to the module description, Context of International Tourism did include physical environmental systems as one of the areas within which tourism would be analysed. However, the module description of Contemporary.  Issues in Tourism did not mention either sustainability or the environment. An enquiry to the module leader elicited more detailed information which demonstrated that, in fact, sustainable development did form quite a substantial element of the curriculum. Videos on sustainable development issues, used as teaching materials, have been prepared by the travel industry working in collaboration with Forum for the Future (an environmental NGO.) The issues explored in the module using these videos include:

Some [which] are directly environment related (climate change), some social impact related (community integrity), some consumer related (trends towards ethical consumerism but also new forms of consumption such as gifting) and some economic. (Hawkins, 2011)

Stage 1 of the BSc in International Tourism Management therefore includes two compulsory modules which contain substantial elements of SD within the curriculum. The other BSc in the School, International Hospitality Management, includes one of these modules, Context of International Tourism, as compulsory with the other module merely recommended for this programme. It is therefore possible to take Stage 1 of this BSc with only a single module of the eight taken containing obvious elements of SD. This does not obviate the possibility that there may be elements of SD in other modules. However, if that is the case they are not readily identifiable.

At Stage 2 (levels 5/6) the BSc in International Tourism Management contains at least four modules with an SD component amongst the 18 optional modules: Environmentally Sustainable Business; Independent Study (Community Engagement); Food, Drink and Culture and Tourism Impact Analysis. The first two are, quite obviously concerned with elements of SD but further research demonstrated that the second two also cover elements of SD. According to the module description on the intranet the module Food Drink and Culture includes:

“examin[ing the] consequences, not only for health, but also for the environment, the distinctiveness of cultures, and on the cohesiveness of communities.”

The equivalent description of Tourism Impact Analysis does not contain any mention of SD. However, examination of the module hand book reveals that SD forms a substantial component of the module. After covering economic impacts the module considers: environmental impacts – overview; sustainability and climate change; socio-cultural impacts; environmental case studies and eco-Tourism case study (Elwin, 2011). A substantial part of the course is therefore SD themed – although this is not readily discernible. A further module with SD content, Sustainable Destination Development is an alternative compulsory module i.e. it is optional but there is a strong bias in favour of this module as, if it is not taken then one of the other alternative compulsory modules must be taken.

These five modules are all present in Stage 2 of the BSc in International Hospitality Management but in a slightly different configuration. All five are amongst the list of optional modules i.e. none of them is listed as compulsory. With eight compulsory modules, this degree programme leaves very little room for the SD modules. It mitigates against them because the larger number of compulsory modules at Stage 2 leaves fewer ‘empty slots’ to fill with optional modules thus making it possible to fill the eight empty slots entirely with modules which do not include ESD in the curriculum. A student can therefore graduate from this degree programme with no SD modules at Stage 2 and only one at Stage 1.

The School offers a further BSc as an alternative progression at Stage 2 from either of the two above mentioned BSc programmes: when entering Stage 2 students can choose to take the BSc International Hospitality & Tourism Management. This degree programme contains the same five Stage 2 modules which include SD elements. One of them, Sustainable Destination Development is compulsory; the other five are all optional. It is therefore possible to have completed this degree with only one SD module at Stage 1 and one further SD module at Stage 2. This means that a student on this BSc could take a degree programme where Sustainable Destination Development was the only module of the sixteen taken at Stage 2 which included an element of sustainability.

It therefore appears that there is significant provision of ESD by the departments of Planning, Built Environment, Geography and Tourism and Hospitality Management, albeit not always immediately obvious to students choosing to take these courses. The next section will examine examples of ESD in assessments in these departments at Oxford Brookes and explore how far these make use of the campus curriculum.

Do assessments in sustainable development modules involve the campus curriculum?

In an assessment run by the Geography Department students participate in a reflective exercise which involves tree planting. In the first instance 250 trees were planted within the university estate thus improving the campus environment. The option is known as ‘Connecting with Hope’: students first reflect on their hopes for the future and have to choose their most deeply held hope for the future. They then have to write this across three labels. The labels are later attached to three different trees planted by the students. Originally part of a module called ‘Gaia: the Earth as a living system’, the planting exercise has since been moved to a new module ‘The Ethical Geographer’ as an optional assessment.  Trees have been planted on the Oxford Brookes estate on six separate occasions.. This demonstrates how the campus curriculum can be used both for the benefit of the students and to improve the environment of the campus.

Three plantings were also made in the surrounding area in conjunction with the Wychwood Volunteers for the benefit of the wider community. The Wychwood project encompasses the area of the historic Royal Forest of Wychwood which covered much of what is now West Oxfordshire and involves volunteers inter alia in conservation projects (Wychwood project).This resonates with the Oxford Brookes corporate responsibility programme which aims to benefit the local community.

More directly involved with campus management is the assessment for the Environmental Management Systems module which involves the students doing an environmental review of part of the university (Durning, 2011). The head of the sustainability team is involved with this to attempt to ensure that the university benefits from the students’ efforts. As the title of the module indicates, sustainability is at the heart of this particular course. It is ‘designed to introduce students to the tools, techniques and approaches which are currently being developed and applied by organisations in all sectors to try and meet the challenge of sustainable development and environmental protection.’ The task is to ‘Carry out a baseline environmental review of part of an organisation and report the results in a formal written report and by means of an oral presentation’ (Durning and Esvelt, 2010). In this case, the lecturers have chosen to use part of the Oxford Brookes estate as the subject of the environmental review.  Again this is a co-operation between Life Sciences and the School of the Built Environment – the lecturers coming one from each department respectively.

‘Internal audits will be carried out by postgraduate students undertaking the ‘Environmental Management Systems’ module at Oxford Brookes University. The module leader carries out an annual review of the module every August. In August 2010 the process for carrying out the internal audit will be confirmed to ensure the process meets the internal audit criteria and the course requirements. This procedure will be updated in September 2010 to reflect this process.’ (Waters, emails, 2010)

It was later established that it was impractical to expect masters’ students ‘to be able to perform an internal audit to the level we need for the system at the moment.’ A compliance review was, however, considered viable. (Waters, emails, 2011) This demonstrates the difficulties inherent in involving students in the statutory duties of a university where compliance with legal standards can be hard to achieve through the voluntary work of students.

In the Environmental Sustainability module, there are three separate assignments which combine to make up the coursework assessment: keeping a research journal; the students’ individual contributions to an on-line discussion board and designing and creating a poster as a group. For the first assignment, the research journal, the students are given broadly framed reflective questions to start their journal. The second and third assignments are based on case studies with environmental themes. For example, one case study used in the module was ‘South Downs (Lower Hoddern Farm, Peacehaven) water treatment plant: an actual planning application, which was contentious (Durning, 2011). The students were provided with a list of stakeholders in the dispute around the planning application and a list of web resources: all articles in the media on the issue. Although this assessment does not use the campus curriculum it does use the wider environment and, combined with the field trip to Warneford Meadow, utilises engagement with the immediate environment and the local community.

The Department of Real Estate & Construction runs a project at level 5 i.e. stage 2 of the undergraduate degree, which puts sustainability at the heart of the project. The project attempts to simulate as closely as possible the actual work of an architectural design team or a contractor team on a construction project. In doing so it aims to encourage the students to incorporate sustainability into the design of large construction projects.  The background briefing to the project tasks emphasises sustainability as a basic principle to be applied in the project. It gives background information on a low carbon economy and climate change using several reports stating that ‘[The] challenge [of creating a low carbon economy] creates an immense pressure to improve design and building practices in order to deal with a changing climate by substantially reducing buildings’ energy use’ (Kurul & Hull 2010). The course content also contains multiple references to various aspects of sustainability: ‘Sustainable development & construction; Identification and analysis of project constraints and opportunities, including environmental, social and economic issues’ (Kurul & Hull, 2010). The lecture programme includes several explicit lectures and other events on sustainability: a group meeting in week three on sustainable building technologies; a guest lecture on reducing energy requirements through renewable energy and water management and one on sustainable developments in the UK.  A list of issues to be reflected on during the field trip for the project includes several mentions of sustainability, including; the Dutch approach to development and planning with specific reference to creating ‘sustainable communities’; sustainable and innovative building technologies and the role for designers and/or contractors in achieving sustainability.

However, it is puzzling that the ‘learning outcomes’ and the ‘teaching and learning experiences’ sections of the handbook then omit to mention sustainability or the environment. The same is true of the criteria against which the assessments are to be judged. This contrasts with other modules which are explicit about the sustainability or environmental elements of the assessment. For example, learning outcomes in the Environmental Management Systems module handbook include inter alia: ‘Think critically about the…pressures facing…organisations in responding to all the environment related risks to which they are exposed’ (Durning and Esvelt, 2010).   The Environmental Sustainability module handbook includes the following in the learning outcomes: ‘identify….planning policy responses to sustainability and sustainable development’ (Nunes and Durning, 2011). Looking at the more atypical modules, Tourism Impact Analysis includes a learning outcome ’developing approaches to wider environmental impact assessments and social impact assessment’ (Elwin, 2011).

The Decarbonised Desires assessment for fifth year architecture students is based on the requirement of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) that ‘Graduates of architecture require a rapid up-skilling in carbon literacy and sustainable design strategies in order to meet this new challenge’ (Hariss and Parrack, 2010). The declared aim of the project is ‘To engage students with climate change imperatives and the carbon debate through an imaginative and evidence based project as required by RIBA’ (Harriss and Parrack, 2010). The students are given lectures and tutorials to equip them with the necessary technical skills and then groups of students are given specific buildings within the University estate as the focus of their project. They are required to measure the existing energy performance of their assigned building and survey the building physically, identify the heat loss and find out the actual fuel bills and running costs from the facilities manager. Already, at an early stage of the project, facilities management is being involved in the process. The students then use architectural software, known as Ecotect, to analyse heat loss, ventilation and light quality and levels. Armed with this wealth of information, the students then design a means of improving the performance of the building in terms of reducing carbon emission. This has to be done whilst still keeping the building use attractive to the university and its students. In fact, some of the projects in 2010 proposed innovative uses which would make buildings more attractive to students – several included means of brewing beer.

Although not specified in the written briefing, closed cycle waste streams appears to have formed part of the instruction to students during the teaching which accompanied the project The ‘Mount Wheatley goat farm’ student project, was concerned with closed systems waste streams and reuse of all materials generated as well as minimising inputs into the system by using self generated materials. The project included inter alia the following closed waste streams: goats’ hair from the mountain goats to be used as insulation on site and later, when this need had been fulfilled, for creating knitted clothing; manure from the goats was to be used to fertilise the food growing: the food then to be used for university catering.

This project clearly involves the campus curriculum. The subject matter of the project is to measure, analyse and suggest improvements for the university’s own estate. Facilities management is involved in the students’ collection of data and information on the estate. Invitations to the presentation of the projects go electronically to all university staff, including estates should they wish to attend.


This audit is, of necessity, a limited one and incomplete. However, the presence of lecturers on the ‘enviroforum’ list and their responsiveness to a query about ESD can be taken as a measure, albeit subjective, of the level of their interest in ESD. In addition, further research using the university’s own internal information systems was undertaken to establish the detail of particular degree programmes and individual modules. However, that research was confined to academic subject areas which had already been indentified using the ‘enviroforum’ appeal: it was not used to identify any additional subject areas which might include ESD subjects. Follow up queries were made to individual lecturers where further information was required.

It is not entirely surprising that those subject areas which have most enthusiastically embraced ESD are those where there is a natural environmental aspect to their subjects: Planning and the Built Environment, Life Sciences and Geography. There are individual examples of creative use of the campus curriculum and also some which resonate with the University’s corporate responsibility programme. Use of the campus curriculum is also evident where some of the ESD assessments involve either staff or students cooperating with the Estates staff and a degree of integration of estates management with ESD: although this has proved to be problematic.

However, in many cases where SD was present in either teaching and learning or in the assessment it was not mentioned in the publicity material – including university internal module descriptions. Tourism and Hospitality Management is not a subject area with ’natural’ ecological content. It would therefore seem important to make explicit the ESD in such modules. However, ESD was not made evident to students as a marketing tool or as a meaningful element of their module choices. In many cases discussed in this paper, it was not obvious that a module included elements of ESD until the module handbook was examined. This means that students would not be aware of the ESD component until they actually started studying the module. This seems surprising in a university as committed to having a ‘green campus’ as Oxford Brookes. It could also be argued that the students are being misled as to the module content.

A strong and overt emphasis on a sustainable campus contrasts with what appears to be a patchy and almost implicit approach to ESD in the curriculum. With an integrated and more overt approach to ESD the opportunity exists to attract students who are more interested in SD and therefore more responsive to such teaching and learning. There would seem to be an argument for including ESD in publicity material, at the very least in the internal module descriptions, to allow students a more informed choice. An externally focussed increased profile for ESD could improve the public image of the university and increase student engagement with the corporate responsibility programme.

Where ESD is present at Oxford Brookes it is not always evident in all phases of the student experience of the module. There is a need to ensure that ESD is fully integrated at all stages of learning and teaching as well as being followed through in the assessment criteria. There is a considerable body of research evidence suggesting that students study to the assessment: incorporating ESD into the assessment criteria is therefore essential if students are to take SD and its principles seriously.


This article would not have been possible without the help of Oxford Brookes academics and the Sustainability Manager who generously and helpfully responded to my many queries about their work. Thank you to all of you.


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