There were several aims to this scoping study. Firstly, we aimed to find out how different groups of stakeholders perceive or define ‘sustainability skills’. This is particularly important for clarifying what different stakeholders and literature are referring to when mentioning ‘sustainability skills’. Secondly, to identify what essential workplace skills and sustainability skills employers are seeking in graduates that they employ. The third aim was to identify what skills gaps have been identified, and how graduate skills requirements may have changed or be changing. These two aims will help CAUK enhance the training available to employees and graduates, to make it more useful for both the recipients and the businesses they work for. Finally, we aimed to ascertain what the best method for imparting sustainability skills and knowledge would be, and who is considered to have responsibility for providing training in sustainability. This would facilitate the development of training courses, degree course content, or extra-curricular activities that best meet the need of students, graduates and businesses.
In terms of sustainability skills, skills gaps, and changing skills requirements, our findings indicate several areas of disagreement or disconnect between the perspectives of different groups of stakeholders. If this disconnect goes unquestioned or unexamined, it could lead to a lack of understanding, miscommunication, and the creation of training or education programmes that do not actually address the issues at hand. There were also areas of agreement, such as the importance of new ways of thinking and working required to address complex, wicked problems like sustainability.
In terms of training or education for sustainability skills, almost all stakeholders agreed that sustainability skills and knowledge should be embedded into university degree courses, and in particular that soft skills are required across all disciplines. Further, many identify a need to blur disciplinary boundaries in order to develop cross-sectoral skills among graduates. This confirms what was found in the literature review, that integrating sustainability within degree subjects, and an increased focus on inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary learning, would be a successful way to give graduates the critical perspectives and knowledge necessary to support green growth. A pioneering example of this approach is the London Interdisciplinary School, which takes a cross-disciplinary approach, and teaches students how to study and address real world problems by using theory and methods from across the arts, humanities and sciences. The success of this course is not yet tested, with the first cohort starting in 2021, but this could provide a template or model for the design of truly cross-cutting courses that provide more sustainability-ready graduates.
There was also strong agreement that there needs to be greater collaboration and communication between universities and businesses. This would allow universities and businesses to share the responsibility of providing training in new skills, and would also ensure that the skills requirements expected by businesses were fully understood. This also verifies the findings of the literature review, as several academic papers stated the importance of university-industry partnerships to improve the education and training available to students.
Extra-curricular activities were mentioned frequently by business leaders as useful ways to improve sustainability skills and employability, and to demonstrate a range of skills. However, graduates seemed much less aware of the value of undertaking extra-curricular activities, such as volunteering, for their future careers. It may be that many students and graduates are unaware of the value of undertaking these extra-curricular activities, leading them to focus too heavily on their academic study.
Results from both this study and in relevant literature have revealed a discrepancy in the way that ‘sustainability skills’ are perceived and defined. Not only do the terms used (skill, competency, literacy) vary between sources, but the types of attribute considered to be desirable for the pursuit of sustainability also vary. Some mention practical skills such as environmental auditing, while others mention knowledge such as understanding sustainability theory, personal attributes such as adaptability and resilience, new ways of working and thinking such as systems thinking, personal mindsets such as acting as a global citizen, and general workplace skills such as presentation and communication skills. While all of the above may be important for the new ways of working that sustainability requires, trying to define them all under the same banner and identify a way to impart them into all graduates may be a gross oversimplification of the task. More clear definitions of the types of skill, competency, literacy, or attribute required, and the different ways that they may be instilled, will be necessary for the achievement of such ambitious change. However, the search for even more exacting definitions should not form a barrier for expeditious implementation of ESD.
Similar research is being undertaken, or planned, by the Skills Commission. ‘The Workforce of the Future’ is a new research inquiry, proposed by the Skills Commission in April 2020, into the transition into the workforce and the way that our education system can address skills gaps (Skills Commission 2020). Although The Workforce of the Future focuses specifically on those leaving Further Education, rather than Higher Education, the results and recommendations from this scoping study could be a valuable resource for the Skills Commission in the early stages of their research.
This scoping study revealed several areas of potential future research. This study only interviewed six stakeholders from each group, which was enough to identify some similarities and differences between groups. However, it was not enough to determine whether the trends, such as the sustainability skills valued or skills gaps perceived, were influenced by the discipline or university that the graduates or university leaders were from, or by the sector of the business leaders. To establish the influence of discipline, university, or sector, on the skills expected or missing, future research should undertake similar interviews with a much greater sample of participants, organised by their discipline or sector.
A key area of agreement was that there needed to be collaboration between universities and businesses. Research needs to be undertaken into current collaborations between universities and businesses, how these could be expanded across more departments, and which businesses or universities would be interested in being involved in such a partnership. This would help determine what form this type of partnership could take, how the collaboration or communication could be facilitated, and what the specific outcomes and benefits could be.
In terms of extra-curricular activities, it would be valuable to undertake research into the measurable, tangible impact of undertaking extra-curricular activities on perceived and actual skills, and on employability. If doing volunteering and other similar activities has a benefit for future employment and perceived skills, students may be either more likely to undertake extracurricular activities, or more likely to record the demonstrable benefit that their additional activities provided them. This could have a real impact on employability, so research into this topic could help students to be made more aware of the material benefit of undertaking extra-curricular activities on their potential future careers.
There was a consensus that the most effective way to impart sustainability skills and knowledge would be to embed them into degree curricula across all disciplines. This would require significant investment in module creation and alteration, and the provision of training for all university teaching staff, to ensure they were confident in their own understanding of sustainability and how to apply it to their subject. A significant programme of research is needed to establish how this training would best be provided and the level of sustainability skills content expected within degree courses. UNESCO has defined ESD, or Education for Sustainable Development, as the inclusion of key sustainable development issues into teaching and learning, for example climate change, poverty reduction, and sustainable consumption. The Higher Education Council for England has developed a Sustainable Development in Higher Education Plan. Equally, some universities are using the guidance from UNESCO to inform the inclusion of ESD into their own degree courses. However, the uptake and application of these ideas and plans is not universal or consistent across HEIs. Could, or should, ESD become a requirement for UK universities? What are the barriers currently preventing or disincentivising the application of the HECFE Sustainable Development in Higher Education plan in more universities? Could ESD training for staff be provided by an external body in order to ensure equal provision to all UK university staff? Or should HEIs be able to maintain their autonomy in terms of the training provided to staff and content of their degree courses? These are all questions that could be addressed by future research, the results of which would be useful for the design and implementation of ESD in individual or many universities.
Finally, an important element of future research in this area, mentioned in questionnaires and by some interviewees, is the extension of the idea of ESD from HEIs to all levels of the educational system. The skills and competencies identified here and in other studies as important for addressing the challenges of sustainability are also valuable in all sectors and industries. Incorporating ESD into the school curriculum would equip all members of society with the skills and ways of working that will be valuable during the shift to a green economy, rather than focussing attention only on university graduates. In addition, a greater understanding of the importance of sustainability and how to live in a sustainable manner among the general population could lead to the adoption of more sustainable ways of life and modes of consumption across the country. Sustainability is not elitist; it is not a domain preserved for those lucky enough to have higher education qualifications. At its core, the essence of sustainability is about equitable distribution of resources (including knowledge and learning). Therefore, to achieve sustainability in general, as well as sustainability in education, the scope of those receiving this ESD must be widened.
Since at least 2005, attention has been drawn to the need for universities to create graduates that are able to address the challenges of sustainability. Research by Martin and Jucker (2005) identifies the importance of systemic curriculum change for effectively educating ‘Earth-literate’ graduates, and the barriers that prevent this change occurring. Their conclusions include the advisory that effective education for sustainability requires “cooperation and partnership, not only between universities but also with industry, local authorities and society at large” (p. 27). Therefore, while this scoping study has gone further in the aim to specifically define the competencies or skills required for sustainability, the recommendations for next-steps in implementing effective training in sustainability skills (i.e. cross-sectoral cooperation) remains as it did 15 years previous. Calls for cross-sectoral collaboration and co-creation of course material were seen in interviews with both university and business leaders during this scoping study, and also in literature studied (e.g. Ali et al. 2017; Gumley 2006; Stieg 2006). The consistency of the message regarding the best ‘next steps’ for creating a curriculum for ESD indicates that, although research over the past decade may have increased our understanding of which specific competencies or skills are most desirable, or the state of those skills among different student populations, there remains a lack of significant, measurable action.
Many of the ideas discussed in this scoping study and in contemporary research were identified over a decade ago, and recommendations for action have largely remained consistent: collaboration is needed between HEIs and businesses to develop course content that addresses industry demand and creates graduates that can address the changing challenges of the future. However, business and university interviewees in this scoping study once again highlighted the need for (and hence, the lack of) collaboration. This must inform our recommendations: the time has passed for meek calls for collaboration, and movement must be made forward into co-creation of a meaningful prospectus and action plan for change. Recommendations and frameworks on how to embed ESD into HEI scenarios already exist (see The Future Fit Framework by Stirling 2012), so a lack of understanding of how to implement ESD can no longer be cited as a barrier to action. Rather, a key barrier to action in the past appears to be ownership, both of the issue and of the solution. All stakeholders consulted agreed on the need for practical action, but all were surprised that another stakeholder group had not initiated it. In order for progress to be made, ownership needs to be taken by all groups of stakeholders, so that prompt and effective change can begin to occur on a large scale.
Living labs (Campuses and communities as test beds for applied research and learning) could be a useful way to trial ideas such as content co-creation and cross-disciplinary learning, to develop best practice approaches that could then be rolled-out to institutions on a wider scale. They also provide significant benefit to those that take part, in terms of workplace experience and cross-sectoral working. The EAUC Living Labs Research project provides more information on the benefits and logistics of this type of approach to training (EAUC 2020).
Research partner Change Agents UK deliver training in a range of the topics identified as skills gaps, including workplace skills, project management, and communicating sustainability. Greater access to this training would benefit students, recent graduates, and employees alike, but greater enrolment in CAUK training is limited by funding constraints. Greater investment in the CAUK academy from both businesses and HE institutions would go some way towards filling some of the skills gaps identified here, as the resources and structure already exists to address this issue (CAUK 2020).
The results of this scoping study confirmed what was found in the literature review; ‘sustainability skills’ have many different definitions or meanings for different stakeholders. Therefore, the term ‘sustainability skills’ is almost redundant if it is not defined, and confusion or misunderstandings are the likely outcome of using it. This scoping study also revealed differences in the way that graduate skills requirements, and changing requirements, are perceived by different stakeholders. Sustainability is a complex issue, and a wicked problem, so the tools for addressing it are also ill-defined and perceived differently by different actors. CAUK and the EAUC aim to equip the next generation of graduates with key skills for maximising their employment potential and addressing complex problems like sustainability. This research and future research into the issues raised will be invaluable for informing our approach to training, advising businesses, and facilitating sustainability actions.
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Future Graduate Skills: A Scoping Study