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Five years on: An overview of Ulster University’s integrated approach to initiate and systematically embed ESD

Case Study

May 21, 2024

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Overview of initiative

In November 2019, Ulster University initiated work to improve the learning experiences, skills and success of our students and graduates, through an institution-wide and multi-faceted approach to explicitly embed Education for Sustainable Development across all discipline curricula, using the globally recognised UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. At the same time, we were finalising our Integrated Curriculum Design Framework (UU ICDF, 2019), which explicitly included ESD as a curriculum priority. This institutional framework provided an overarching approach to curriculum design guiding educators to adopt a partnership approach to pro-actively design, develop and deliver a holistic and innovative curriculum that is fit for purpose for their learners, industry and economy, in the context of a sustainable future for all. This curriculum framework supported and guided the delivery of a range of ESD focused professional learning opportunities for Ulster educators, and academic quality and assurance processes

Impact of initiative

  • 2019 - We enhanced our academic quality and assurance processes, within which programme teams are required to articulate how ESD was embedded in curricula at programme and module levels at the point of (re)validation.

  • 2020 - Comprehensive professional development resources were developed to support educators in holistically infusing ESD via institutionally adopted curriculum approaches and pedagogies espoused for effective ESD.  

  • 2020 - To support and develop our educators’ knowledge, understanding and practice around ESD, bespoke professional development workshops and individual support sessions provided across the University. Staff are provided with guidance around the narrative for the ESD-related section of the revalidation template and provided with a simple but very effective ESD heatmap template (drawing on the UWE approach), which provides a visual overview of the embedding of relevant SDGs within programmes and modules. 

  • 2020 - Workshops for staff have generated a range of diverse ESD case studies for dissemination across the institution to further support and drive the embedding of ESD in curricula.

  • 2020 - ESD has been explicitly embedded in the curricula of our PgCert Higher Education Practice (PgCHEP), accredited by AHE at Descriptor 2 (UKPSF, 2011; PSF, 2023), which is undertaken by new Ulster educators.  

  • March 2023 - The new UU Graduate Attributes Framework has been informed by and encompasses the Competencies for Sustainability (QAA/ESD Guidance, 2021), and include a capstone attribute, Active Citizen.  

  • September 2023 - A significant update to UU’s Module Handbook Template ensures that this student-facing document explicitly identifies the embedding of relevant Sustainable Development Goals and Graduate Attributes at module level.  

“This module has really impacted my practice. I have built up confidence to try new ways of doing things (Assessment and new project-based learning activities). I have developed understanding of a new ESD curriculum theme that I feel confident to communicate with colleagues at revalidation."- Ulster University PgCHEP participant, 20/21

Role that Responsible Futures played in this initiative

The seven RF criteria that acted as a catalyst for the activities, are listed below:

  • LS005 – The institution's learning and teaching strategy, academic strategy, or equivalent, includes supportive references to issues related to Responsible Futures, or it will do after the next review.
  • POC001 – The institution has provided professional development and dedicated support for relevant personnel on the issues related to Responsible Futures.
  • POC004 – At least one member of staff in the students' union (or equivalent) has responsibility for sustainability.
  • POC005 - The partnership has made sufficient staff or student resource available to substantively progress the issues related to Responsible Futures.
  • IN004 - During the last 12 months, four or more schools or departments have integrated innovative pedagogical approaches to their sustainability teaching, learning, and assessment.
  • IN010 - Within the last 1-3 years, there have been opportunities for students to co-create teaching, learning and/or assessment approaches or content in the formal curriculum with their educators.
  • IO001 - The partnership has reflected on and identified demonstrable positive progress in embedding sustainability across the formal curriculum.

Ulster’s engagement with Responsible Futures programme, since 2022, has been invaluable in three key ways, namely:

"The comprehensive criteria encompassed within the RF framework has allowed the partnership to reflect upon and fully appreciate the advances of their strategic institutional integration of ESD into quality systems and processes. The framework has afforded a systematic identification of further actions to extend their embedding of ESD across all areas of the Institution. The adoption of an internal partnership approach through the Ulster University Responsible Futures Working Group has facilitated conversations, decision-making and action engaging stakeholders across the institution. Similarly, engagement with other institutions involved in Responsible Futures through webinars and cohort catch ups has been supportive and allowed them to share their approaches and actions around ESD with colleagues from across the sector. "

Additional comments

At Ulster University, our new institutional strategy, People, Place and Partnership, delivering sustainable futures for all (2022) includes a clear commitment, namely: ‘placing sustainability at the centre of what we do: because we are custodians of the future’. This has provided further official endorsement and strategic impetus for progressing our work around embedding ESD. It is important to note that all of the progress and success to date would not have been achieved without the engagement of numerous educators and students who are the change makers for ESD.