Creating spaces for sustainability transformation at universities : conditions and practices at a transdisciplinary, student-driven center for sustainability in Uppsala, Sweden

University essay from SLU/Dept. of Economics

Abstract: Universities are systemically implicated in local and global sustainability problems. They, like many other institutions, face the challenging task of transforming themselves towards sustainability across their domains of education, research, outreach, collaboration and campus operations. Yet still little is known about how they do or should carry this out. This study explains conditions and practices at a sustainability-focused university center (CEMUS) which implements a unique student-led model and functions as an inter- and transdisciplinary meeting point for two large Swedish research universities (Uppsala University and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences). Since 1992 CEMUS has developed and nurtured ways of operating that offer insights into new ways of organising university activities for sustainable development. Analysing innovative social practices for implementing sustainability in higher education, and institutional contexts for enabling such practices, this study explains the creation of a 'shadow space' for social learning, semi-detached from institutional context, in which some innovative capacities for meeting the challenges of implementing sustainable development at universities has built up and been nurtured over time. The findings explain how an innovation in practice has led to new social arrangements and structures within the university environment that are relevant for efforts at sustainability transformation. This is evident in its 1) creating new types of student-faculty relationships, 2) working across and between disciplines as a matter of practice, 3) re-purposing courses as a way to form knowledge bases for learning and action sustainability problems and 4) creating a community of practice semi-detached from institutional context, in which innovative capacity for meeting the challenges of implementing sustainable development at universities has built up and been nurtured over time. In this case we see on the one hand a well-established sustainability-focused center for education, research and outreach and on the other a student-driven, student-faculty partnership model – a combination that has so far not been explored in literature on sustainability in higher education. The findings and questions raised by this exploratory study may be valuable for 1) those interested in locating innovations relevant for transformation towards sustainability at universities and learning from them 2) decision makers at universities who are interested in the challenges of transitioning towards sustainability and embedding it across operations, enacting new types of student engagement, and finding ways to create interdisciplinary education for sustainability; 3) students and teachers who seek to develop teaching and learning environments in which students are empowered contributors to a community rather than only receivers of knowledge or consumers of education, particularly in sustainability education. Ways forward for further research are suggested.

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