Time to think about Higher Education for Sustainability

Ms. Njobe Bongiwe is a member of the RUFORUM Board

RUFORUM  is challenged to respond to the rapid growth in diversity and numbers of its membership base and partnership arrangements in the face of increasing demands and declining availability of public finance and long-term development finance assistance. The RUFORUM 2030 Strategy seeks to ensure “vibrant transformative universities to catalyse sustainable inclusive agricultural development to feed and create prosperity for Africa”.  This mission is set within the context of the 2015 SDGs, Agenda 2063, the CAADP Framework and the 2014 Malabo targets that have overlapping end dates for achievement.

I would like to use this opportunity to reflect on the extent to which long-term sustainability principles are embedded in the long-term outlook and the RUFORUM 2030 Strategy with respect to education content, delivery formats, research outputs and the capability building of RUFORUM Universities. With this thought piece, I hope to start a conversation that explores the extent to which there is granularity in the alignment of the RUFORUM vision, mission and programmes with SDG 4 that ensures that quantifiable sustainability principles and practices are embedded. I believe it is important to sensitize the network at every level of the need to deepen their understanding of the sustainability imperatives and opportunities and assimilate the principles and practices into their strategies and planned actions.

Education for Sustainability

SDG 4 aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.  Within the seven articulated outcome targets for SDG 4 is a requirement to ensure that by 2030 “all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development”.  Questions that arise for consideration include to what extent has the RUFORUM considered the implications of this target and incorporated it within strategy and work; to what extent does the RUFUROM have a clear set of goals for economic, social and ecological sustainability beyond the current focus on the financial sustainability of the organisation and secretariat; how does RUFORUM measure and track progress against the broader societal goals for the reductions in GHC carbon emissions, reduction in socio-economic inequality and safeguarding the ecological resources for future generations. I believe at a universal level RUFORUM has the intention to address poverty and hunger and increasingly climate change is addresses in the scientific research and endeavour, however, there is no clear comprehensive and coordinated strategy to achieve measurable sustainability through Agricultural Higher Education. The UN Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) ended in 2014 with some bold strides made by countries such as Japan – who included ESD in its curriculum, Sweden who legislated that Sustainable Development be taught at every University, and Senegal who have developed and included indicators for ESD in literacy and non-formal education programmes (http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0021/002144/214483E.pdf).

A review of the UN Decade concluded that “Higher Education Institutions are beginning to make more systemic changes towards sustainability by re-orienting their education, research, operations and community outreach activities all simultaneously or, which is more often the case, a subset thereof.” (Wals, 2013).  Therefore, it is encouraging to note that 80 Universities in 40 African countries worked with UNEP to mainstream sustainable development into their curriculum.  It is nevertheless, unclear as to how many of those are RUFORUM Universities, to what extent has the mainstreaming has since been institutionalised beyond the participating universities and what has changed a consequence of the new ways of working?

Notwithstanding what may have been implemented to date, a starting point for RUFORM as a collective would be to develop a shared understanding of the sustainability concepts focussing on the interlinkages between the social, economic and ecological imperatives and their impact on the content and form of agricultural higher education.  Next is the need to identify the key sustainability challenges facing the Agricultural Higher Education Sector in Africa. It would be beneficial to draw on the experiences of top globally ranked universities to establish the relevance of those challenges for the at the level of the African continent and specific universities.

Enhancing Agriculture Higher Education Sector Responsiveness

The general critique of the agricultural sector with respect to climate change is possibly the most complex of challenges requiring a content-driven response by the higher education and learning sectors. The UN Technical Support Team suggests two persistent challenges the sector faces are the challenge to meet the growing needs of the poor and hungry in the face of “an unsustainable and increasing burden of human activities on the earth’s carrying capacity” (https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/1802tstissuesagriculture.pdf). Responses to this global challenge have been encapsulated in the adoption of mitigation and or adaptation strategies at multiple levels in the sector in the form of research and technology solutions and or a change in processes and practices.

The RUFORUM responsibility is to adopt a proactive approach and champion the requisite changes in content, pedagogy, learning and research at its member universities. The opportunity exists for the creation of RUFORUM ethos that commits to research, teaching and learning content that proactively responds to the sustainability challenges in Africa. In this way new farming, processing and distribution models and technologies could be developed that reinforce adaptation and or mitigations approaches and support sustainable agriculture on the African continent.  It is possible for the RUFORUM Universities to create platforms for shared learning and to hold each other accountable for conscientious contribution to saving the planet on all three economic, social and ecological fronts.

Creating Sustainable Universities

A second critical sustainability challenge pertains to the role of RUFORUM Universities as custodians of knowledge and respected thought leaders in society.  Some of the barriers that Universities face to transform into sustainable institutions of learning cited by Ferrer-Balas, et.al., (2008), include the limitations placed by the academic freedoms of the individual faculty members, the incentive pay promotion etc., structures, general resistance to change and the prevailing level of expectation from society for the university to change. Within Universities there are different constituencies that influence the extent and orientation of responsiveness to sustainability.  Often it is the students who are more desirous of incorporating sustainability practices as they have a vested interested in the future of the planet. However, it is the Administration that has the overall responsibility in my considered view to set the tone for change and this could be done through measures such as introducing visible recycling practices, ensuring sustainable development content is both embedded in all programmes or is offered as an elective, stewardship in articulating both the challenges and opportunities that sustainability offers the institution. Within the faculty where visionary leadership exists that champions the cause and directs collaborative transdisciplinary work engagement there is the potential for change. Sadly as stated earlier often the requisite incentives are not in place and resistance to change, collaborative and inclusive approaches to research and learning are met with resistance. A favoured response to these institutional challenges over and above the organisational change imperatives are the need to enhance transdisciplinarity and adopt more inclusive processes in the education and learning environment (Ferrer-Balas, et.al., 2008).


The opportunity exists now more than ever for RUFORUM to lead in setting a new standard for sustainable higher education in agriculture. Whereas there have been isolated initiatives to address sustainability at the individual project and university levels, there is now a need for a comprehensive, coordinated, goal oriented strategy for sustainability that underpins the 2030 strategy. Click here to download this AGM 2017 Digest.


  1. Ferrer-Balas, J. Adachi, S. Banas, C.I. Davidson, A. Hoshikoshi, A. Mishra, Y. Motodoa, M. Onga, M. Ostwald, (2008),”An International Comparative Analysis Of Sustainability Transformation Across Seven Universities”, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 9 Iss: 3 pp. 295 – 316. Permanent Link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/14676370810885907 Available online from: https://www.cmu.edu/gdi/docs/an_international.pdf

Wals, Arjen. (2013). ‘Sustainability In Higher Education In The Context Of The UN DESD: A Review Of Learning And Institutionalization Processes’. Journal of Cleaner Production. 62. 10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.06.007.  Available online from: https: www.researchgate.netpublication/255921328_Sustainability_in_higher_education_in_the_context_of_the_UN_DESD_a_review_of_learning_and_institutionalization_processes

This is our  tenth issue in a series of articles we are releasing as part of our RUFORUM AGM Digests. You can get more details about the meeting at http://www.ruforum.org/AGM2017/ and more information about RUFORUM at www.ruforum.org. You many also join us online using Social Media for real time updates. Our Official hashtag is #Visioning2030


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: