Image shows the UN Sustainability Development Goals

Report on Workshop on Delivering sustainable higher education: the Welsh Context

A report from yet another award-winning ANTF-sponsored Sustainability Project Workshop, provided by Professor Richard Owen, Swansea University.

I was delighted to be awarded a Sustainability Project Award by the Association of National Teaching Fellows in April 2021. The application was for a workshop to look at delivering sustainability education at the higher education level taking into account the Welsh legislative and policy context. The call for applications had asked for explicit reference to one of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals for the topic for the workshop. However, we wanted to look at all seventeen Goals.

The reason we wanted to look at them all was The Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. It makes sustainable development the central organising principle of government in Wales and is the first attempt in the world to enshrine all the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals into law.

The workshop, which ran on Zoom, on 26th January 2022, started with a presentation by Professor Carolyn Hayles, Professor of Environmental and Sustainable Design for the Built Environment at Cardiff Metropolitan University. In order to set the context for the workshop, Carolyn gave an overview of the Quality Assurance Agency’s Guidelines for Education for Sustainable Development. She was the only member of the Advisory Group which drafted the guidelines from an HE institution in Wales. So, although the guidance is not specific to Wales, the context in which the guidance operates is different in Wales as a result of the Future Generations Act.

Carolyn looked at aspects of the Guidance which will support people in terms of embedding sustainable development and the Future Generations Act’s well-being goals in Wales specifically. This is a forum for like-minded HEI academics to come together under the Sustainable Universities banner to embed sustainable development and research in Wales.

Carolyn explained that the Future Generation Act’s response to the development goals was to create seven well-being goals:

Image shows the seven wellbeing goals that are incorporated into the Future Generation Act

These goals marry well with the competences UNESCO has produced for sustainability education. Carolyn talked of the responsibility of universities to prepare students to contribute to these goals.

Carolyn also talked about the Regional Centre of Expertise (RCE) Cymru. This morphed into the Welsh Universities’ Future Generations Group. It is a hub of expertise for sustainable development and wellbeing of future generations. The idea is to develop communities of practice from people from HEIs FE colleges and third sector to work together to produce education and research on sustainable development.

Children Learning Through Landscape case study

Having thought of the general guidance in a Welsh context, we then heard some case studies, starting with Pavla Boulton, National Teaching Fellow, from the Faculty of Life Sciences and Education, University of South Wales.

Pavla leads a module, Children Learning Through Landscape, on an Early Years degree programme and has useful insights on sustainability from a number of perspectives such as outdoor play, training the sustainability trainers and the implications for higher education practitioners for the new school curriculum for those up to year 11 in Wales.

The Future Generations Act has strongly influenced education policy for 3 – 16-year-old students through the Curriculum for Wales. The Framework for the Curriculum for Wales is designed to help practitioners to develop a more integrated approach to learning. The six Areas bring together familiar disciplines and encourage strong and meaningful links across different disciplines. It is submitted that this is an opportunity to develop sustainability practitioners with a grounding in systems thinking.

Pavla uses a book called The Lost Words1 as a stimulus for primary education undergraduates that they may want to think about doing when they go into practice with children. The book was written because a number of years ago in the Oxford Junior Dictionary it was decided to remove a number of words like otter, magpie, bluebell, magpie, adder, and ivy.

Pavla’s students were horrified by this and decided to do something about it, as how would the primary school children who they will go onto teach look after and manage the environment if they do not know what lives out there.

After Pavla produced the book, and the students then developed ideas that they could put into practice. The ideas were shared on a digital platform called Seesaw. The resources were so well received they were asked to publish them. The materials aligned to the Foundation Phase of the Curriculum for Wales.

Pavla took her students outside and they did many activities so they could be translated into practice. There was a thematic plan around headings such as Language, literacy and communication; Personal and social development; Welsh development; Physical development; ICT; Creative development; Mathematical development; and Knowledge and understanding of the world. An activity would be devised in each of these themes for lost words such as otter.

Pavla found students became more confident collaborating with their ideas, Using the Seesaw app they could bring their ideas into the classroom. Students embraced the outdoor space and ICT to support their practice. They began to connect themselves with the outdoor space, which, in turn, inspired the children. Embedding sustainable development within their own teaching practice develops children holistically, it helps their understanding of the world and their place within it. Cynefin (belonging) is an important part of the Curriculum for Wales and this develops it.

Case study from Black Mountains College

There then followed a case study from Ben Rawlence, Chief Executive of Black Mountains College (BMC), which re-imagines education in a time of ecological crisis. It is inspired by Black Mountain College, founded in the USA in the 1930s, which produced two decades of extraordinary artists and creative thinkers.

Ben started by saying when students enter higher education, having been through the holistic, interdisciplinary Curriculum for Wales, and they see single-subject degree courses, they might find it reductive, as they will see things through a thematic lens. It will not make sense to them to divide subjects into vocational and academic pursuits. The climate and ecological crisis means we must unleash creativity and human learning on a scale that we have never seen before. There is an urgent need for education to be transformative.

At the moment, BMC is teaching two NVQ Level 2 courses at a further education level. These will be expanded in future years with other NVQs. He wants to integrate FE and HE. He feels we do not have time anymore for those histories of inequality and different traditions of the two sectors.

It is planning on launching the BMC degree, which is in the process of being validated by Cardiff Metropolitan University. The curriculum is the result of two years of work with neuroscientists, ecologists, students, employers, teachers, and leading educators from around the world. Long-term systems thinking, anticipatory skills, strategic thinking, collaborative working, critical thinking, self-awareness and problem solving are at its heart. It has a unique pedagogy and a unique mode of delivery.

It will blend the skills and learning from multiple disciplines into a unique intensive programme. The first year of BMC’s interdisciplinary degree will look at how the past is understood, how the future is imagined, how we know what we know and how we learn. Alongside that are a series of modules we are calling creative practice. The sensory training gives a sense of the outcome they are hoping to achieve, which is more akin to performative artistic practice training the ear, training the eye, training the hand in terms of craft or the body in terms of movement. The creative practice modules are designed to help students understand themselves as a learner, to engage with nature, and to think about how we use creativity and how we manage ourselves in the world to be a creative force for change.

In the second year, there is a point of articulation where the theoretical and the practical come together in a module called change and practice. Students will take up a brief from the Public Services Boards who are implementing the Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and they will prototype a solution to a problem. They pursue specialised electives in different pathways. Those are, at present, agro-ecology, technology, and the arts and humanities.

Finally, the third year offers a real-world project directly linked to making the Future Generations Act and the SDGs a reality on the ground. Taking those principles into a work experience setting and a seminar we are entitling global change. The students will situate themselves in relation to their learning, in relation to the world and where they might fit into the jobs market and critically examining theories of change. How does change happen and what is my role in it? There is a strong emphasis on learning outside and relationship to nature. All of this study is experimental and experiential learning with problems coming from the local community, as well as applied with a meaningful outcome.

The campus is a 120-acre farm. Students will live on the farm or nearby and managing the land use in order to tackle the competing demands in terms of food, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and access to land.

The College’s civic mission has been integral to its design.

Inspiration for the BMC has come from its namesake Black Mountain College, Summerhill and the College of the Atlantic in Orth America.

The degree is dedicated to learning by doing, to playing a role in the community and the world, with students engaged in real-world projects. Students will follow their own questions and desire for change, with faculty guiding and supporting.

Swansea Law Clinic case study

Swansea Law Clinic is part of the Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law at Swansea University. It is a multi-award winning free legal advice clinic offering initial advice and assistance to over two hundred clients in the 2019/20 academic year.

It seeks to find new ways of delivering legal services and legal education in light of the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, and has been influenced by an American theory of lawyering called ’rebellious lawyering.’ The main tenets of this theory are:

  • Belief in bringing about social change
  • An egalitarian relationship between lawyer and client
  • Encourage the adoption of fair, ethical and inclusive practices
  • Willingness to find alternative methods to settle disputes
  • Awareness of how political, economic, and political forces can affect change
  • Need for self reflection on professional practice.

Although the theory was not developed specifically with sustainability in mind, its principles seem perfect for sustainability legal practice.

It is a different way of delivering legal practice with a community dimension in mind. Typically, legal practice is individualised. It provides a holistic service to clients trying to find the underlying root causes of their problem, which may go beyond legal sources. This also means working closely with other agencies.

The Clinic works on the principle of ‘learning by doing’ on real-life problems. It aims to generate data that can be used in local wellbeing plans, which need to be devised as a result of the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

The Clinic is well networked and contributes to a community of practice with civil society as a way of furthering sustainability practice. It encourages students to develop a ‘personal environmental ethic’ and develop their own wellbeing plans.


Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Lost Words (Anansi International, 2018)

Gerald P. López, Rebellious Lawyering: One Chicano’s Vision of Progressive Law Practice (Westview Press, 1992)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.