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How to make the Institute's study programs more sustainable


Damon Barrett, Lecturer in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, is the Institute of Medicine’s new representative for sustainability in education. Here, he explains what sustainable development in education means and gives practical advice on what teachers, students, and the Institute can do.

Promoting sustainability is not optional. In its very first chapter, the Swedish Higher Education Act states that higher education institutions (HEIs) must “promote sustainable development to assure for present and future generations a sound and healthy environment, economic and social welfare, and justice.” These are big words, but what are their practical implications? And what does promoting sustainable development in education mean?

“My assignment is to make a real effort to promote and investigate how the Institute can better integrate the UN’s global Sustainable Development Goals into our teaching. It’s not just a matter of the third SDG, good health and well-being, but of broader issues — like the environment, and social and economic sustainability — that are set out in Agenda 2030,” Barrett says.

He thinks it is relatively easy to link courses to the SDGs, but more than that is needed.

“Saying a course is connected with sustainability isn’t enough. The challenge is how we teach and what we teach about, based on that connection.”

University-wide issue

Barrett often wrestles with these issues. He teaches human rights and global health on the Master’s Program in Public Health Science and the Master’s Program in Global Health. He has a PhD in international law, and his research subjects include drug use and drug policy linked to public health and human rights.

Could you give some concrete examples of how to work toward the SDGs in education?

“Promoting sustainable development throughout the education sector isn’t quite the same thing as doing so in teaching. If you think about the whole sector, it ranges from ensuring fairness in our research to combating the brain drain in our internationalization and reducing our climate footprint as a university. Is that next conference flight really necessary, for instance?”

No universal panacea

In teaching, he thinks it depends partly on the subject. In the master’s programs in public health science and global health, students learn life-cycle analyses, for example, to understand how the medical supply chain impacts the environment.

“Overall, we have a strong focus on equality of opportunity, and on fairness. A more clinically oriented program can look at the environmental impact of nursing and health care and how to reduce it, while maintaining excellence. For every program, the challenge is to develop an educational mindset. It’s important for the students to learn to think critically about the relationship between sustainable development and what they’re learning, whatever that is, and also how it relates to their future health care profession. It’s also vital for sustainability to be part of all our teaching, so that it isn’t based on the work of a few individual enthusiasts.”

Wants simpler tools for teachers

Barrett thinks it is important for teachers to develop their skills in the area of sustainability, and learn how the SDGs can be worked into teaching.

“It’s not as easy as it may sound, because everyone’s so short of time. One thing I’m going to do is to update and simplify the tools available, to make the task a bit easier for the teachers. I welcome tips from teachers who have examples of good practice or ideas they want to take further.”

The head of the Institute has appointed Barrett as its representative in Sahlgrenska Academy’s network for integrating sustainable development in education. The network is led by Gunilla Priebe, Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Medicine. Each department has a representative, who also belongs to the respective department’s education committee.

“It’s an important network, especially considering that all higher education has a legal requirement to base its work on Agenda 2030,” Barrett says.


Damon Barrett’s advice on sustainability in education

For students:

  • Include sustainability in your own learning. Find lectures and seminars to attend, ask your lecturers questions and start classroom discussions. Consider sustainability issues when you choose your dissertation topic.
  • Stay active. Students are already at the forefront of activism in this area, pushing the University to improve. Carry on along these lines.

For teachers:

  • Develop your skills in this field by, for example, taking courses on how to integrate sustainability into teaching. Report back to colleagues who are unable to attend.
  • Try to make time for internal teaching seminars focusing on sustainability.
  • Attend lectures and seminars when Oxford’s Centre for Sustainable Healthcare visits Sahlgrenska Academy November 4–5.
  • On March 28, 2020, the University of Gothenburg is to host the national conference Rethinking Higher Education on sustainable development in this sector. Keep a lookout for updates, and make sure you attend.

Something everyone can do:

  1. Take part in activities during Act! Sustainable week, November 4–9, or join in by organizing an activity of your own.

The UN’s global SDGs

  1. No Poverty
  2. Zero Hunger
  3. Good Health and Well-Being
  4. Quality Education
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  10. Reduced Inequalities
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production
  13. Climate Action
  14. Life Below Water
  15. Life on Land
  16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
  17. Partnerships for the Goals

Read more about the SDGs.