The radical digitalisation of higher education due to the Covid-19 crisis offers an opportunity to engage in deeper institutional change addressing the digital and green transitions. As Natalia Timus from Université Côte d’Azur writes, universities must embed sustainability in their education provision through bottom-up and top-down reforms, as well as provide internal and external venues and capacity for staff and students to engage with sustainability.
The digital and environmental revolutions are sparking fundamental societal challenges – as well as opportunities. In the current Covid-19 context, the digitalisation of higher education has become a new reality with 90% of European universities moving online. While this radical change was unexpected and caught many universities unprepared, now is the right time to seize the opportunity and engage in a deeper reflection on institutional change management. There is a great need to harness digitalisation in order to identify and implement sustainable higher education reforms – also in the context of pursuing 21st century goals, especially those in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Higher education institutions must strive to learn from the experiences brought by the Covid-19 crisis and to promote bottom-up and top-down initiatives that will lead to inclusive quality education in the age of digitalisation. At the same time, in order to address the green transition, universities must increase their commitment to sustainability in various areas.
The preliminary findings of the forthcoming 2020 EUA Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Group report on the “Environmental Sustainability of Learning and Teaching” highlight the major role of academic staff in ensuring the success of such reforms. Staff capacity and continuous professional development represent a key area of change. Universities need to define and promote a comprehensive strategy to embed sustainability in their faculty development through bottom-up and top-down initiatives.
Where good practices already exist, institutional action is required to establish permanent venues and capacity for the engaged staff (material and financial) to support communities of practice and uptake of sustainability initiatives (cross-departmental, cross-disciplinary). It is also important to facilitate staff-student dialogue and cooperation to ensure that the student voice is heard and included in institutional initiatives and decision-making. This will ensure that university policies and initiatives are aligned to student needs and expectations on digitally enhanced learning and sustainability. It will also confirm their authenticity and relevance. Furthermore, facilitating cooperation between the engaged staff and students will support dissemination and further embed good practices on sustainability across the institutional community in the age of digitalisation.
The bottom-up up actions must be supported and enhanced through top-down policies and comprehensive strategies that promote a sustainable institutional culture. For example, staff training and certification schemes can be (re-)designed in order to ensure their constructive alignment to the SDGs and promote a systemic endorsement of sustainability within all aspects of learning and teaching. Institutional-level strategies must be accompanied by external actions that encourage inter-university staff cooperation in the field of learning and teaching and the exchange of sustainability practices. The European University Initiative, in this respect, may provide a venue and capacity for staff and institutions active in the field of sustainability. Staff cooperation within such inter-university initiatives may stimulate staff mobility for the purpose of increasing expertise and joint inter-disciplinary degrees related to sustainability.
Overall, higher education institutions face similar challenges regarding the radical shift towards digital learning and teaching in the Covid-19 context. The institutional and inter-university exchange of practices and joint initiatives may provide an opportunity for long-term reforms aimed at addressing the ongoing digital and green transitions. Universities must foster a culture of change that builds on the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 crisis. The change management strategies must be accompanied by SDG-oriented actions and promote the uptake of good practice in tackling the challenges of the 21st century.
Natalia Timus is a member of EUA’s Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Group on the "Environmental sustainability of learning and teaching". The group's work will feed into the 2021 European Learning & Teaching Forum, to be held on 18-19 February 2021.
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