By Stephen Sterling, Emeritus Professor of Sustainability Education, University of Plymouth and IAU Senior Fellow
This blog was first published as an article in Horizons, vol 27, no 2. pp21-22, International Association of Universities (IAU).

What exactly is ‘transformation’? This fundamental question seemed to be insufficiently addressed in the extensive discussions which led up to the UN Transforming Education Summit (TES) held in September 2022. Yet if we cannot achieve clarity on this central concept, the likelihood of the radical change in educational thinking, policy and practice that the Summit advocated seems slim.

Launched by UN Secretary-General, a pre-Summit concept note stated that it was ‘aimed at mobilizing action, ambition, solidarity and solutions with a view to transforming education between now, 2030 and beyond’[1].

Global concern has grown exponentially against the background of Covid 19, the climate and ecological crisis, and threats to wellbeing and a safe future – and this reality is galvanising an unprecedented level of re-thinking about the role of education. The TES was perhaps the biggest global discussion to date on the nature and role of education and its value to future society.  The ensuing discussion could  potentially affect a profound and much needed beneficial shift in the trajectory of educational thinking and practice. The Summit followed the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education (WHEC) in May ’22 which aimed at reshaping ideas and practices in higher education to ensure sustainable development for the planet and humanity’. So certainly, re-thinking is in the air – and not before time.

Yet, I have serious concerns about whether the discourse is sufficiently imaginative and commensurate with the severity of the global situation and the unstable futures that young people are inheriting.  I offer here some brief reflections on four interlinked ‘desiderata’ or needs which – depending on how well they are addressed in the coming months and years – will affect the success or otherwise of the international ‘transformation’ movement.

1) Being strategic

The International Commission on the Futures of Education report Reimagining our futures together (2021) states, ‘education is not yet fulfilling its promise to help us shape peaceful, just, and sustainable futures’. This begs key questions, not least: why this is the case? And more critically: how far has education to date contributed to – rather than ameliorated – the global crises now playing out?

Changing a system – an institution, or entire national educational system – requires three elements: Critique, Vision, and Design, as follows:

i. Critique – what is the state of play?

What is wrong or problematic with current thinking, policy and practice in education such that transformation is now seen as necessary? What causes inertia? This tended to be underplayed in the TES documentation, but it is vital if we are to understand the necessary direction and possibility of transformation. I have argued for some years that the fundamental issue is at heart paradigmatic in nature and concerns the dominant values and assumptions that inform secondary and tertiary policy and practice. The reductionist and mechanistic intellectual tradition, overlain by the instrumental view of education advanced by the neoliberal agenda, commodification, and the Global Education Industry has led to a narrowing of purpose and practice in the service of the globalised economy for some decades. By contrast, the rising agenda now is about regeneration, restoration and resilience – in ecosystems, in economies which work within planetary boundaries, and in education, towards becoming experiential, inclusive, explorative and creative in building a safer future for all.

ii. Vision – where do we need to be (and by when)?

This second element concerns the philosophical and visionary bases that should inform transformation. Without a strong understanding of the basis of a practicable and remedial alternative, there is a real danger of going no further than a greening of ‘business as usual’ in higher education.

Current conditions of complexity, existential threat and systemic crises necessitate the urgent embrace of an ecological or holistic paradigm, founded on relationality. This provides theoretical and valuative underpinning to a whole institution cultural shift in mindsets embracing such elements as cross campus synergies, inter- and transdisciplinarity, knowledge diversity, ethical discourse, the cultivation of agency, participatory pedagogies, critical community engagement and localisation, commitment to collectivity, wellbeing and the public good.

iii. Design ­how do we effect systemic change?

What strategies, shifts in policy, and changes in pedagogy can facilitate transformation, and what indicators evidence transformation? Here, decision makers need to embrace theories of systemic institutional change and organisational learning which bring a whole systems perspective to bear on purpose, planning and action.

2) Recognising the double learning challenge

The concept of transformation implies critical examination of dominant assumptions, values, purposes and practices.  It cannot mean a sincere but ineffectual tweaking of ‘business as usual’. There is an inseparable relationship between learning and transformation, which is illuminated by Gregory Bateson’s seminal distinction between learning levels – first order (conformative), second order (reformative), and third order learning (transformative). The latter implies deep learning at individual and organisational level constituting a shift of episteme or paradigm. UNESCO has often stated that education should be transformative and thereby help facilitate social transformation. Yet such agency is critically dependent on prior deep learning and change in educational systems – a daunting but necessary and double-layered learning challenge.

3) Increasing response-ability

The sufficiency of the response of education institutions to the sustainability agenda depends on their ability to learn and change – that is, their ‘response-ability’. Broadly, universities have taken one of four approaches to the sustainability agenda:

i) little, or no response
ii) accommodation (conformative)
iii) adaptation (reformative/transitional), and
iv) reframing/re-design (transformative).

This is a spectrum of increasing challenge, and it is fair to suggest that most institutions still remain in the first two categories. Yet organisational learning is becoming more evident as universities seek to increase their response-ability – driven by the human and planetary predicament, and by the rising voice of students keenly aware of threats to their life chances. The truly transformative approach, however, remains rare.

4) Re-purposing for systemic change

‘Transformation’ means systemic change. There is now mounting interest in ‘re-purposing’ universities as a powerful key to unlocking such change. Surely the overriding purpose of universities should now be to help assure a safe, liveable world and planet into the foreseeable future [2].