This morning presented a completely unexpected opportunity and welcome opportunity to talk about two subjects close to my heart: education and sustainability. 

Within minutes of arriving at Business in the Community’s (BITC) Responsible Business Week conference, friend and Membership Director, Patrick O’Meara asked if I could join a panel to discuss: “The role of universities in nurturing future leaders, innovation and economic competitiveness.”

Sharing the platform with Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Minister for Universities, Science & Skills and Dr Allyson Reed, Director of Corporate Relations for Warwick University, we had an interesting debate about the role of universities in shaping a sustainable future.

My observations, mainly coming from my experience working over the last few years with a number of UK business schools, centred on how sustainability tends to be taught, as an elective at the end of MBA, MSc and other business degree programmes.  It is my contention this is back to front…

For the next generation of graduates (whether post-graduates coming through business schools or under-graduates of all disciplines) the implications of sustainability will be the reality which shapes their careers for the coming decades.  Whether it’s the implications of the global population increasing from 7 to 9.5 billion people between now and 2050; the implications of increasingly scarce resources – energy, rare earth minerals or water to name but three; or the consequences of climate change; sustainability issues will be very real.

Consequently, it’s long been my contention that sustainability should be taught as the context in which academic subjects are taught – not, as what often appears to happen, as an after-thought. 

Start with sustainability constraints, and then let degrees programmes build upon the implications … for an MBA, subjects like strategy, finance, HR, operations, and so on could be delivered cognisant of the likely impacts sustainability will have on business.

While most of my experience is working with MBAs and business schools, I suspect that this logic would hold more widely … indeed two academics, Santos and Filho, argue that finding solutions to sustainability issues will require an all-embracing multi-disciplinary approach involving knowledge of “art, biology, chemistry, ecology, economics, engineering, physics, psychology, sociology, and just about all of the disciplines found in the university curriculum.”

Santos, M.A., Filho, W.L. (2005) ‘An analysis of the relationship between sustainable development and the anthroposystem concept’ International Journal of Environment and Sustainable Development 4 (1), 78-87.