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Education for Sustainable Development in Kenyan Universities

Instruction in youth is like engraving in stone. ~Moroccan Proverb

Sustainable Development

Education is the foundation of a competent citizenry and workforce. Education shapes how citizens think and act in their lives and, as an outcome, determines a country’s trajectory.

While SDG 4: Quality Education is a goal within the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) importantly, this goal also has the muscle and means to facilitate the attainment of all the other 16 goals. This is through embedding the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that empower learners to take informed decisions and make responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society (or education for sustainable development).

It is important to point out that, all levels of education have an integral role to play in shaping the minds and hearts of young Kenyans of all ages. This particular journey I highlight below focuses specifically on universities; from my master’s dissertation research.

Universities & Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

The number of universities in Kenya has grown exponentially. In the 1990s Kenya had only four universities, in 2007 there were seven universities.  Today, the 2019 national census disclosed that the country has 30 public universities, 30 chartered private universities and 30 universities with Letter of Interim Authority (LIA). The same census showed that 3.5% of the country’s population (approx.1.7million) has attained an undergraduate degree. From these statistics alone, universities have a key role and responsibility in equipping youth – their students – with the knowledge, skills and values to drive Kenya’s development. Effective nation building is the responsibility of both citizens and the state.

In late 2019, the Ministry of Education published ‘A Guide to Mainstreaming Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and Global Citizenship Education (GCED) into Kenyan Universities.’

In early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and reminds us that we getting the basics development in order; healthcare, social protection, food security, building reliance on local business and industry, environmental protection etc; is vital for society’s wellbeing. In late 2021, climate scientists put the world, and particularly developing countries, on high alert to the realities and consequences of climate change. The hard fact is that people rely on the environment (nature) to live – water, air, sun, rain, soil, etc – and we take these for granted to our detriment. Society, business and the economy are wholly dependent on the environment (nature) to existand the past few years have brought this to the fore.

It is a changing world– education must prepare youth for these changing times and the emerging new world. Education for Sustainable Development allows learners to leverage systems thinking and address arising challenges.

I have worked in sustainability for over 20 years with companies in the private sector. In my mission as a sustainability champion, the biggest challenge I faced centred on internally creating awareness and an understanding of what sustainability is, and why it matters to all of us. This was not unique to the organisation’s I worked with, as my peers experienced the same thing. This led me to question whether we were learning about environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society or the nested interdependencies of planet, people, peace and prosperity; before going ‘out into the world’ to join the workforce, start a business; and build our country.

With this in mind, I focused my Msc. Sustainable Development dissertation research to delve into this question. I decided to case study Strathmore University Business School (SBS), one of Kenya’s leading business schools, to analyse how they were mainstreaming Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) based on the Ministry of Education guide, published in late 2019. My research focused on the ESD component only of the ministerial guide, and specifically on SBS undergraduate programmes. The focus on the business school was based on my particular interest in business and sustainability.

In late November 2021, Strathmore University brought together leaders and stakeholders in university education to discuss how universities can take a greater role in advancing sustainable development in the country through their tertiary education.

My research findings highlighted that education for sustainable development is becoming the new normal for university education around the world. But as a new normal, embedding it into university education will not be without its challenges.

As an institutional leader in sustainability, Strathmore University has embedded sustainability thinking into its strategy integrating the SDGs into its strategic direction; in its operations with green buildings; driving research and excellence in climate innovation, via the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre; as well as advancing sustainability leadership in the private sector through executive education programmes targeting business managers and leaders.

Despite this progress, the research showed that  more needed to be done to empower learners in their undergraduate programmes and extra-curricular activities with knowledge, skills, values and attitudes for environmental protection, economic viability and a just society.

Strathmore University was the case study for my dissertation research. The institution took the opportunity to leverage the research findings and insights into a dialogue session with other university education stakeholders to foster partnership and cooperation on shifting university education towards sustainable development and citizenship education for Kenya.

Charting The Way Forward

Through this event, university education stakeholders acknowledged that for undergraduate programmes, universities:

  • need to take into consideration contemporary life in Kenya, in a way that prepares youth for their future. It was clear to all stakeholders that new systems of knowledge and ways of thinking were needed for Kenya to achieve sustainable development and its Vision 2030.
  • would face challenges in: adapting existing learning and pedagogy, with resources, capacity building, and curriculum change; to mention a few.
  • need further research and insight to ensure that Education for Sustainable Development embed in local universities is relevant for Kenya’s and Africa’s context in a global world.
  • committed to partnering together to mainstream education for sustainable development and global citizenship into their universities. As the African saying goes: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

With only eight years left to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, Kenyan universities are determined to do their part. This will entail shaping minds and hearts to deliver sustainable development for the needs of the current youth generation; and they, in turn, will ensure future generations can also meet their own needs.

Watch a video with Kenyan perspectives on ESD and universities here: Kenyan insights, role of unis

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