As poet William Yeats once said “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” If this is true our education institutions are laying the foundations for profound change when it comes to the embracing of sustainability by future generations.

The multi-disciplinary approach The University of Sydney is in the middle of a major reconfiguration of its sustainability education, embedding the concept of sustainability across all faculties in both research and practice. Professor John Crawford, newly appointed director of the university’s Institute of Sustainable Solutions, is overseeing the change. With a background in physics,  Crawford’s interest is in the origins of organisation in cells and communities and the way complex living systems operate. He told The Fifth Estate he expects the demand for courses in sustainability to rise sharply in the next few years as Australia catches up with the multi-disciplinary approach to sustainability that has been in place in Europe for the past decade or more. “In Australia things are five to 10 years behind in terms of this integrated multi-disciplinary approach but it won’t take that long to catch up,” says Crawford. The university’s Master of Sustainability program has been developed collaboratively between the its Institute of Sustainable Solutions and industry professionals from areas such as energy, finance, the media, planning, health, law, and government. Major themes addressed in the course include biodiversity, energy conservation, emission management, sustainable building design, urban planning, public health, economic development and environmental, national and international treaty law. “Sustainability is about systems and understanding how these connect. It is not something we can understand intuitively by breaking complex ideas into small parts. We need to solve problems at a systems level,” Crawford says. There is a strong emphasis on quantification with students requiring strength in maths and computing. The aim is to mould a new tribe of thinkers who are not scared of tackling complex systems. “We need technocrats who understand the technicalities and apply them in practice to generate real solutions. We also want our students across all disciplines to stop fearing talking to people with technical skills and for technocrats to learn to communicate better.” 

Not only is the number of courses rising rapidly, but the concept of sustainability is increasingly embedded across all faculties from law to economics, from sociology to architecture. And the future job prospects for graduates with sustainability credentials are rosy, say educators. The number of tertiary education institutions offering courses on sustainability, as well as the number of individual courses on offer has increased dramatically in the past five years. Those specifically relating to the built environment are no exception. In addition, research institutes attached to universities are offering postgraduate students opportunities to work in partnership with industry. But it is the integration of sustainability across disciplines that is really going to change the way it is embraced in the real world, say educators. Universities across the country are adopting this approach. 

The program is attracting a high proportion of overseas students – 40 per cent or higher, Crawford says, the majority from Europe and the United States and some from Asia. They are drawn from a broad range of specialties – architecture, planning, engineering, law, social science, economics. Job prospects at the end of these courses is very good, says Crawford, with a high demand for graduates. For every graduate from the undergraduate degree in Environmental Systems, which is run through the agriculture faculty, there are three jobs available. In Victoria both Deakin University and RMIT University are embedding sustainability across faculties. RMIT’s built environment, construction and infrastructure courses are spread across 10 schools, three research institutes and five research centres. The university hosts the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute and a Global Cities Research Institute, focused on urban futures in the Asia Pacific. RMIT has also developed facilities to house interdisciplinary research in the built environment and design, including the Advanced Manufacturing Precinct and the Design Hub, which when complete will provide space for industry to collaborate with the university on innovation and research across design-related disciplines with a distinctly sustainable focus. The university has a strong history of partnering with industry with companies such as ARUP, Baulderstone Hornibrook, John Holland Group, Mirvac and Siemens as well as with government departments. At Western Australia’s Murdoch University, sustainability is also integrated across disciplines and faculties. Allan Johnstone, chair of the committee that oversees and coordinates the university’s sustainability courses, says the multi-disciplinary approach is the most powerful way to bring about change. “The most important thing universities can do is embed sustainability into professional teaching and practice across disciplines. Stand alone course are teaching to the converted and at postgraduate level it is very important to be able to specialise but at the undergraduate level we give a wide range of students access to our urban sustainability and other sustainability courses,” Johnstone says. “We don’t want to create silos. Around one third of our undergraduates who choose sustainability units, such as sustainable development, are studying degrees outside of that discipline.” Demand for the courses has grown significantly at undergraduate level, which Johnstone believes can largely be attributed to the increasing standard of teaching of sustainability in schools. Murdoch takes in no more than 30 students per year at undergraduate level to its BA and BSc in sustainability courses. “It would be irresponsible to churn out hundreds of graduates in specialist areas. We prefer to focus on embedding sustainability into all our teaching,” says Johnstone. 

Increasing demand from overseas students

 At post graduate level, 11 out of 50 students are international, many on AusAID scholarships from countries such as Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Cambodia, India and Pakistan. There is an increasing demand from South American countries, often from specific cities that are fast-tracking sustainability in their transport, buildings and public spaces. Examples of this are Bogota in Columbia and Curitiba in Brazil, says Johnstone. “Cities such as Bogota and Curitiba are very innovative with rapid transit systems, green space, recycling – they are bright spots in South America and they have a lot to teach us. “Some of these nations are developing rapidly and they are looking at the Western model and instead of replicating something that would damage fragile economies they are leapfrogging to a different model altogether. In some cities in South America they are realising a new model for the 21st century and we are learning from them,” says Johnstone. Murdoch is working closely with industry in its sustainability courses with leadership coming from companies such as Arup, AECOM and Multiplex. Brookfield Multiplex had placed students from Murdoch’s sustainability courses in its Vale project, a greenfields residential development in Perth northeast corridor. The company has promoted a stewardship model in the development to encourage community involvement and awareness and appreciation of the environment. “We see it as a two way exchange. Multiplex has been very supportive of getting the next generation of sustainability experts through into practice. The placements have been paid internships and when the students return from the placement they are required to do a presentation and to report on the lessons learnt. It is important for us to be attuned to what’s going on out there. “This is not a field where there is a textbook. There isn’t one – we learn from industry,” says Johnstone. 

Industry partnerships 

At the post graduate level there has been an explosion of collaboration between universities and industry. Those from within the industry are also enriching post graduate and research facilities. Western Australia’s Curtin University Sustainability Policy (CUSP) Institute offers postgraduate courses in sustainability as well as research opportunities, accommodating around 60 PhD researchers. In addition to a Graduate Certificate, Graduate Diploma, and Master of Sustainability Studies Curtin offers short courses for professional development in areas such as sustainable cities, urban design for sustainability, debcarbonising cities and regions and climate policy. Bond University and Mirvac Bond University on the Gold Coast also has strong links with industry, partnering with property company Mirvac to create the Mirvac School of Sustainable Development. Positioned within Bond University’s Institute of Sustainable Development and Architecture the School offers a comprehensive suite of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. According to Professor George Earl, director of the Institute of Sustainable Development and Architecture, the challenge for today’s architects, urban planners, developers and government authorities is to create communities that embrace affordable housing, easy access to healthcare, education and a myriad of other services, efficient transport and a sense of community, all within the parameters of environmentally efficient design. He believes the Mirvac school at Bond is the first designated planning and design institute in Australia to develop an approach to architectural, planning, real estate and development education that fully integrates these variant elements. “New building codes and government legislation have established foundational guidelines, while emerging technologies and planning philosophies will provide the building blocks of those future communities,” says Earl. Courses at Bond are very much focused on the built environment. Subjects include such areas as asset and facilities management, construction management and quantity surveying, property development, property valuation, urban design and planning, environmental science and sustainable development. Students can combine degrees from the Institute of Sustainable Development and Architecture with any other undergraduate degree, excluding medicine. Mirvac managing director Nick Collishaw, sees industry’s link with education as an investment in the property industry’s future viability, as he points out in a statement: “Our partnering with Bond University to establish the Mirvac School of Sustainable Development is an Australian first. It reflects a long-term investment in the next generation of students who will develop an invaluable understanding of the growing importance of sustainability and will bring that knowledge into the business world.” At the University of NSW, the Master of Built Environment (Sustainable Development), the first one of its kind according to Professor Deo Prasad, program director of Sustainable Development in the Faculty of Built Environment, has grown into a high demand course both nationally and internationally, with 60 per cent of enrolled students coming from overseas. “We get a lot of students from North America and Europe and now growing numbers from South America. Brazil in particular is beginning to send thousands of students here on scholarships. Also, Chile, Colombia and Peru,” Prasad says. In terms of research facilities, UNSW has just scored a major coup with the establishment of the Cooperative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living, a co-operative project between five universities and the CSIRO and led by the UNSW. Prasad is CEO of the new centre and describes it as the biggest opportunity for capacity building in education and training. “There will be 88 PhD graduations in this project. We are also looking at working with TAFE to upscale in that sector as well as offering professional development courses. One of the biggest legacies of the project will be to upgrade the quality of education in the built environment from vocational right through to professional development,” Prasad says.

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