Be a change agent

Be a change agent

Nelson Mandela quote

What is Education for Sustainability?

Education for Sustainability (EfS) empowers learners to take informed decisions and responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society, for present and future generations, while respecting cultural diversity. It is about lifelong learning, and is an integral part of quality education.  EfS is holistic and transformational education, which addresses learning content and outcomes, pedagogy and the learning environment.  It achieves its purpose by transforming society.

What is the difference between Education for Sustainability (EfS)  |  Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)  |  Learning and Teaching for Sustainability (LTfS) |  Sustainability Education

Often there are a number of terms that are used when discussing sustainability and education - and this can be confusing!  Essentially though, they all refer to the same thing.  ESD is the more commonly used term at an international level, with organisations such as the United Nations specifically using this term in discussion and documentation.  At a national level, the Australian Government chose to use the term EfS in its landmark National Action Plan. To maintain consistency with the language used in research in this field both here and internationally, we are using the term EfS.

Check out Education for Sustainability for more information.

Components of EfS

According to the Australian Research Institute for Education for Sustainability (ARIES), the components of EfS include:

Envisioning a better future

MQ Aust World Icon Envisioning a better future establishes a link between long-term goals and immediate actions, and motivates people to action by harnessing their deep aspirations.

  • Identifies relevance and meaning for different people
  • Explores how to achieve change
  • Offers direction and energy to take action
  • Results in ownership of visions, processes and outcomes

Critical thinking and reflection 

MQ Icon BrainCritical thinking and reflection challenges us to examine and question the underlying assumptions that shape our world, knowledge and opinions by looking beneath the symptoms of unsustainable practice.

  • Develops the ability to participate in change
  • Provides a new perspective
  • Promotes alternative ways of thinking


MQ Flower Icon Participation goes beyond consultation, involving people in joint analysis, planning and control of local decisions.

  • Puts decision-making and responsibility for outcomes in the hands of the participants
  • Creates a greater sense of ownership and commitment to action
  • Builds capacity for self-reliance and self-organisation
  • Empowers individuals to take action

Systemic thinking

MQ Icon Cognitive ThinkingSystemic thinking recognises that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and is a better way to understand and manage complex situations.

  • Identifies connections and relationships
  • Shifts thinking from 'things' to 'processes'
  • Integrates decision-making and adaptive management techniques

Partnerships for change

MQ People icon Partnerships for change strengthens ownership and commitment to sustainability actions through formal and informal opportunities for learning.

  • Builds a shared vision amongst a diverse range of stakeholders
  • Motivates and adds value to initiatives

Why is EfS relevant? 

Education is an essential tool for achieving sustainability. From the international to national and local context, there is broad recognition that current  trends are not sustainable and that public awareness, education, and training are key to moving society toward sustainability.

Macquarie Context

When Macquarie introduced a focus on PeoplePlanet and PACE as consistent themes underpinning the undergraduate curriculum in 2010, and complemented this focus with graduate capabilities encompassing sustainability as a key principle, this set the scene for the University to seriously address how sustainability fit into the curriculum.  In Our University: A Framing of Futures, Strategic Priority 1 states that we aim for "a culture of transformative learning", and this is ultimately the purpose of education for sustainability - to transform society. Furthermore, the release of the Learning and Teaching Framework in December 2015 supports embedding sustainability into programs through objective 2.4.

The methodology we use is based on making implicit connections explicit in the first instance, using the framework we developed here at Macquarie.

Business Perspective

Business engagement with sustainability, and indeed with climate action, is growing exponentially. Big Business is totally on board. In fact, business leaders from across the globe are demanding that sustainability is part of a standard skill-set for employees, and particularly from graduates.  As such, there is a need to ensure that the future leaders, policy makers and professionals are equipped with the knowledge and skills to respond to the challenges of our changing society, and enact on the goals and objectives being set.  This need, which is essentially the critical role education can play, has been recognised through various channels at the international level.  The challenge now comes back to the higher education sector to take appropriate steps to ensure that we equip our students with the knowledge and skills to make a difference.

Millennial Perspective

In a 2015 survey conducted by Deloitte, which collected the views of more than 7,800 Millennials representing 29 countries across the globe, an overwhelming belief emerged regarding business requiring a reset in terms of paying greater attention to people and purpose. In comparing purpose—what businesses should do—versus impact— what they are doing—Millennials consider business to be under-performing at improving livelihoods, and on social/environmental benefit.

Also emerging from the results of the survey was recognition of an under-developed graduate skill set. When asked to estimate the contributions that skills gained in higher education made to achievement of the organisation’s goals, Millennials’ average figure is 37 percent. This obviously means that employers are investing large amounts of time and resources so that new graduates can make a meaningful contribution to organisational objectives. These findings raise the question about the capacity of business and academia to come together to close the gaps to ensure graduates possess the skills for business requirements.

The results below indicated responses to the question “On balance how useful have the skills you gained in higher education been; compared to those learned in jobs you have had since graduation? Please think of all skills (both ‘harder’ technical skills and ‘softer’ management/people skills) and distribute 100 points for each objective depending on how useful you think skills gained in higher education have been compared to skills gained from employment.”

National Context

The Australian Government has signed on to both the Sustainable Development Goals and the agreement for climate action. What does this mean? Sooner or later, the Government will need to articulate how it intends to meet agreed objectives, and all sectors of society will need to be involved and take responsibility for what they can bring to the table. In the case of education, this transfers into how we can ensure the curriculum we offer and the research we undertake, aligns with sustainability and climate action.

Some time ago, the Australian Government developed Living Sustainably: The National Action Plan for Education for Sustainability in response to the UNDESD, with a focus on reorienting education systems to achieve a culture of sustainability in learning and teaching and campus management.  One specific objective is to integrate sustainability into all university courses/subject areas. Unfortunately, the government has been less forthcoming in providing the necessary support to realise this objective, nonetheless, the sector is making moves to reorient the culture within institutions towards sustainability.

International context

Organisations such as UNESCO, UNDP and UNCSD have been responding to the need to address the growing crises by setting far reaching goals and objectives to guide the actions of national governments, all of which have been acknowledged and incorporated into planning requirements by most governments across the globe (e.g. Agenda 21Kyoto Protocol, Millennium Development Goals ).

In September 2015, every government across the globe signed on to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, which support reaching sustainability, and provide the context in which we need to move forward for the next 15 years.

More recently still, December 2015 saw the nations of the world enter a legally binding agreement for climate action. The universal agreement’s main aim is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Beyond government, the scale of support from the business community has been overwhelming with over 5,000 companies from more than 90 countries that together represent the majority of global market capitalisation and over $38 trillion in revenue, and nearly 500 investors with total assets under management of over $25 trillion, have already pledged support.

Both the SDGs and the climate action agreement set the scene for monumental change. And education will need to be bold in taking responsibility for action to achieve stated targets through the skills and knowledge it imparts upon students as they ready themselves for their professional lives.

One of the key platforms for focusing on education for sustainability came through the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, spanning from 2005-2015.  The final report presenting key findings from the Decade revealed some promising trends at a global scale.

With the Decade now at an end, the 37th session of the General Conference of UNESCO endorsed the Global Action Programme on ESD as the follow-up to the Decade.  The five priority action areas are:

  • Advancing policy - Mainstream ESD
  • Transforming learning and training environments - Whole-Institution Approach
  • Building capacities of educators and trainers
  • Empowering and mobilising youth
  • Accelerating sustainable solutions at local level

Each Member State is encouraged to set up an appropriate EfS coordination mechanism and designate a National Focal Point for EfS, with progress in implementing the GAP being monitored and reported regularly at the global level.

There have been numerous other commitments such as the Talloires Declaration; the Sapporo Sustainability DeclarationAmerican Colleges and Universities Presidents Climate Commitment;Universities and Colleges Climate Commitment for Scotland; and Rio+20 The Future We Want (see paragraphs 233-235) - all of which demonstrate the persistence of the sector and the importance placed in integrating sustainability principles into learning and teaching.  The problem many institutions are facing is how to integrate sustainability principles into curricula, and more importantly, how to do this in a holistic way that does not rely on content insertion in a few units or the development of new units, courses and research institutions that specifically address sustainability issues.

  • Connect


    There’s no time like now to have a conversation with us...

  • Explore


    Take the time to delve a bit deeper into what the EfSi is all about...

  • Implement


    It’s easier than you think to have sustainability as the golden thread in your curriculum...

  • Transform


    Not convinced? Hear from students, colleagues and business about their own transformation...

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