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Education for Sustainable Development - a Crash Course

November 16, 2021

COP26 feels different, don't you think? The Paris Conference in 2015 was hailed as a great success, but 6 years later, we are still looking at the same story; too little too late. This time, it feels a little more serious to us, and there's more substantive discussion in all sectors about how we can support a more sustainable future.

Education, it will not surprise you to hear, plays an enormous role in this. The skills and knowledge we need to meet future challenges are largely in the hands of schools, colleges and universities, so there is pressure on our sector to get it right.

This also signals a change for those of us in marketing. Generation Alpha cares deeply about climate change, and will want to see real commitment to sustainability from education institutions, as well as course offerings which help them prepare for a world they have been told since day one will be challenging and uncertain. Enter Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

What exactly is Education for Sustainable Development?

Let's ask the folks who came up with it. UNESCO tells us that ESD:

"empowers learners of all ages with the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to address the interconnected global challenges we are facing, including climate change, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, poverty and inequality"

They also say that learning should be "transformative" and "allow us to make informed decisions and take individual and collective action to change our societies and care for the planet".

So basically, ESD means we are done with going to university, school or college just to get knowledge that will help us get a job. This is because (a) knowledge alone is not enough, and we can get a lot of that without going to an institution anyway, (b) because it is now very hard to predict what jobs will be most in demand in 10 years time and (c) we need real skills that will help us navigate a world with rapid socio-climactic breakdown and dizzying technological advances.

The purpose of education is evolving, the demands and expectations of learners are changing, and all of it is unpredictable, fluid and volatile.

What does this mean for education marketing?

This is huge. If we read between the lines here, it means that the old way of awarding degrees (and charging high fees to attend campus-based classes) is clearly insufficient. How can we meet such a huge global challenge if education continues to be offered only to those who can afford it?

This means the online, flexible learning offer has to be a key component of the offer. We will see this demand for flexibility from students who learn across time zones, while juggling family and jobs, and who need access to learning on their terms. Degrees themselves may be broken into smaller, micro credentialed learning pathways. Who wants to commit to four years of fixed learning pathways when the world keeps changing?

All of this is challenging for marketers who have developed well-honed approaches to marketing fixed learning offers with a reasonable idea of employability and career pathways afterwards, and who now begin to enter a world where the offer begins to change.

However, even for traditional school, university and college course offers, things will have to change. A greater emphasis on the skills and competences than just contents and components is a clear shift in the way courses will have to be marketed. Learners want to know who they can become, and not just what they can become as a result.

And all of this in as authentic an approach as possible. Values based marketing and social marketing will be key approaches to attract Generation Alpha. Involving prospective learners in the conversation too, rather than marketing to them is also critical; in an age where education needs to change and help individuals find their passion, and develop the resilience and adaptability to deal with the uncertain future, we cannot talk to students as passengers in their own education journey any longer.

What does this mean for institutions?

Sustainability is not an extra or an add-on. It is not a workshop or an elective, nor a project or a guest speaker. Sustainability must be embedded in the fabric of every part of the education experience at your institution.

In design, we must look at the circular economy and designing products to stay in circulation, or which can be repurposed. In psychology, we must look at the challenges of leading change and inspiring others beyond their comfort zone. In maths, rather than working our how long it takes Johnny to get to Boston by train if its travelling at 68km/h, why not work out how long it will take for the Greenland ice cap to melt at current rates? 

These shifts show that you are serious about climate change education and sustainability, but also keep the issues uppermost in the minds of the first generations to truly feel its effects.

In strategy, energy, procurement, travel policy and a host of others, your institution must walk the talk. A false note means Generation Alpha will walk away, and they will find an institution that is not talking sustainability as a PR exercise. This, of course, all feeds into our roles in marketing, as we communicate the impacts and aspirations of our sustainability plans and actions with transparency and humility.

Purpose led marketing and integrity

A marketing agency focused squarely on profit and not empowerment will not survive in this new world. A sales-at-all-costs approach that rings hollow and inauthentic will not inspire the next generation of learners to answer your call. These new learners have other options now, and they have other challenges that we have a responsibility to equip them to face. Anything less than true commitment to this is unsustainable.

To talk to a marketing consultancy that is led by purpose, integrity, trust and a commitment to doing things differently, just reach out for a conversation. Education for Sustainable Development is a mouthful to say, but say it we must, loudly and with clarity.

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