Implementing Education for Sustainable Development at the University of Malaya

The Declaration, Volume 5, Number 1: December 2001  [Curriculum]

Excerpted and edited from a Masters thesis entitled “Curriculum Development for Sustainability: The Prospects of Implementing Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) for Undergraduate Education in a Public University in Malaysia.”

By Zeeda Fatimah Mohamad

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is a recent innovation in educational reform that has evolved from the better-known environmental education (EE) movement. This research aims to use the conceptual approach of ESD for the planning and design of curricula to ensure that educational opportunities in sustainable development are holistically and effectively provided to university undergraduates. It addresses how the internal and external environments could influence the prospects of a university to address curriculum development and an implementation process in ESD. In addition, due to concerns of many researchers that any strategies pertaining to sustainable development should consider the surrounding environment and geographical location, this study addresses what such a ‘localisation’ process would mean in practice through a case study of University of Malaya in Malaysia.

This article will focus primarily on the researcher’s approach and methodology, with brief references to the University of Malaya case study and some recommendations for incorporating ESD.

Working from stated definitions of ‘Sustainable Development’ and ‘Education for Sustainable Development,’ the author developed a theoretical process for achieving curricular
reform in higher education, which was then applied to a university in Malaysia.

In defining sustainable development, the author decided to use both the general framework of UNESCO (2001) and the localised framework1 of Malaysia’s Federal Department of Town and Country Planning (Jabatan Perancang Bandar dan Desa – JPBD -1997). The combined framework assumes that a sustainable future depends upon people living according to the values and principles of sustainability, as illustrated in Figure 1. Here the author attempted to reflect a dynamic balance among the five dimensions and principles that underlie a sustainable future for Malaysia.

The researcher used the definition for “Education for Sustainable Development” provided by the Sustainable Development Education Panel of the United Kingdom (September 1998), which states: “Education for sustainable development enables people to develop the knowledge, values and skills to participate in decisions about the way we do things individually and collectively, both locally and globally, that will improve the quality of life now without damaging the planet for the future.”

This study was based upon the following fundamental premises regarding education for sustainable development:

FIRST, ‘ESD should be integrated into university curricula.’ Debates surrounding ESD’s acceptance, feasibility and interpretation, although relevant, are not within the scope of this study.

SECOND, ‘Education is an essential tool for achieving sustainability,’ recognizing that public awareness, education, and training are important elements for moving society toward sustainable development.

THIRD, ‘Universities have a crucial role in helping their societies undertake the challenge of promoting sustainable development,’ as they are the cultivators and generators of knowledge with a special mission of educating the leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow.

FOURTH, as agreed upon by many researchers, ‘progressing from the global concepts of ESD to locally relevant curricula, although difficult, is an essential process.’ In a multiracial country like Malaysia, specific strategies to approach this issue are pertinent, considering the complex nature of its community, economy, institutions and culture, and even more so in the realm of ‘university education.’

FIFTH, ‘Each university has its own unique internal and external environment, organisational culture, ethos and image,’ which affects how it responds to the challenge of sustainable development and its ability to implement ESD.

In building on these premises, this researcher was overwhelmed by the complexities surrounding ESD and the challenge of incorporating it effectively into a university’s undergraduate curriculum. It is indeed a crucial task to undertake, but where should one begin? Should an institution start a new department for Cleaner Production or Pollution Prevention? Should it establish a centre to create new fields dedicated to sustainable development? Should it encourage more lecturers to address Agenda 21? It is common practice to start by asking these types of questions without taking into consideration the fact that sustainability is a multifaceted concept which influences every field in one way or another. By using a strategy of simply adding new concepts or subjects to the curriculum and establishing new centres on an ‘ad hoc’ basis, we may leave many problems and various fields in the university untouched.

Thus, in order to form a holistic and localised strategy for a university, we must start by understanding the overall vision and mission of the institution (including each of its faculties and institutions that are involved in undergraduate education) and the extent to which it is already addressing ESD. With this perspective, universities can map out and prioritise critical areas of need in order to effectively plan and implement ESD throughout the undergraduate curriculum. To address this strategic challenge, the researcher developed a theoretical ‘Curriculum Development for ESD Framework’ (Figure 2) for guidance in analysing opportunities for incorporating ESD into the curriculum development process.

This framework uses the Deming Wheel Concept2 of ‘Plan, Do, Check, Act.’ By implementing this concept in the planning and design of the proposed curriculum, a dynamic process of ‘continuous improvement’ can be ensured. An extended theoretical analysis and clarification of each area of this framework is discussed below.

A field study was conducted at the University of Malaya to assess how ESD could be incorporated into the curriculum, with consideration given to the barriers and drivers of this particular institution. The investigator met with students and educators, looking at their ‘mind sets’ in relation to sustainable development. Questionnaires and interviews were used as research tools. Investigations on the current course outline and teaching materials were also conducted.

1. PLAN (Planning and Design of Curriculum)
In the first stage of the curriculum development process, a comprehensive assessment must be conducted based on the external environment (e.g., national/international needs, interest and opportunities for co-operation & networking) and the internal environment (e.g., corporate objectives, level of interest and teaching capacity).

A. External Needs and Interest: The extent to which ESD is in line with or against current local, national and international needs, visions and interests must be considered. This will direct what priority areas need to be addressed, which external opportunities should be utilized and what external barriers should be strategically overcome.

B. External Cooperation and Networking Opportunities: Cooperation and networking with the external stakeholders of a university can be very helpful in carrying out a university’s ESD efforts. By establishing links and partnerships with appropriate community groups, public agencies, industries and NGOs, universities can expand their fields of action by sharing knowledge, skills and experiences, supporting student internships, etc.

A survey of lecturers at the University of Malaya revealed that engaging in relationships with external stakeholders is mostly done on an ‘ad-hoc’ basis, without a systematic process of cooperation within the faculty. For the needs of ESD, this situation should be improved, since interviews revealed that several NGOs and local community services (e.g. local agenda 21 initiative) are interested in encouraging more student participation in their activities. They are also interested in making direct contributions to enhance the university’s ESD related curriculum by providing relevant materials and even sharing experiences through lectures and discussions with students.

C. Institutional Commitment: The most important starting point is to ensure institutional commitment for the proposed ESD effort by looking at the current policies, visions and ethos of the university. However, formal policy development alone is not the only pathway to ensuring commitment. The commitment could also be informal, without any written statement, probably expressed through undocumented vision and trends of leadership. Thus, the policies can either directly or indirectly address ESD.

At the University of Malaya, a university level policy emphasising issues related to sustainable development does not exist. However, it was observed that many indirect aspects of ESD are being addressed in the current policy objectives, both at the university and faculty levels. Emphases within the faculties relate primarily to the nature and interest of their academic areas. Many stated commitments within university and faculty policy could be strategically interpreted to promote ESD further, such as the phrase, “addressing the needs of the country and global challenges.”

D. Objectives and Outcomes: Once a commitment is ensured, a few basic objectives should guide the work in selecting suitable strategic approaches. In order to identify a knowledge base that will support sustainability, a university, particularly the faculties, should choose culturally appropriate and locally relevant sustainability goals and issues that reflect the country’s current and future life conditions and needs.

E. Course Contents: In order to create an ESD curriculum, educational communities will need to identify the course content that addresses the knowledge, issues, perspectives, skills, and values central to sustainable development from each of the sustainability components, wherever feasible.

For the University of Malaya case study, the researcher analysed the 2000/2001 semester lists of courses, where each course was evaluated for its relevance to sustainable development and ESD. The short descriptions on these courses (provided in the faculty’s guidebook) were used to assist the selection. These courses (under each faculty) were then compiled and labelled on how they address the main elements of sustainable development. In addition, courses that taught key qualifications relevant for effective learning of sustainable development were also labelled in order to identify the relevant courses, expertise and faculties that could help strengthen the ESD related courses. At the University of Malaya, sustainability issues are being addressed differently by different faculties and departments. Some departments are exhaustively addressing sustainability issues in their fields and some are not.

F. Strategic Approaches: The interdisciplinary scope of ESD cannot be squeezed into one conventional university department. The researcher has identified three possible approaches to curriculum development designed to tackle the interdisciplinary nature of issues, problems and practices3 in ESD. The sequence of approaches follows a logical progression – from the relatively simple ‘addition’ of sustainability topics, through ‘incorporation’ and ‘limited engagement’ to ‘full engagement’.

i. Addition: The additive approach is based on the assumption that sustainable development issues have little relevance to the existing concerns of the host discipline. ESD is therefore ‘dealt with’ in a way that keeps it separate from what is perceived to be the real learning agenda. This enables the disciplines to be untouched by the challenges which sustainable development poses to their existing shape (e.g. a ‘special’ guest lecture; a ‘special’ external course or seminar).

ii. Incorporation: The incorporation approach is based on the assumption that sustainable development has some relevance to the dis cipline. The common practice is to add the prefix ‘Environmental’ or ‘Sustainable’ to a whole range of disciplinary courses. ‘Incorporation’ contributes to the environmental knowledge base but may resist a deeper commitment to sustainability within the whole discipline (e.g. Environmental chemistry in the Chemistry field).

iii. Engagement: The engagement approach represents a departure from the academic norm of detached neutrality and recommends that institutions provide students with the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and commitments to become environmentally responsible citizens. This is divided into ‘limited’ and ‘full’ engagement. The limited engagement approach is based on the assumption that all disciplines have something to offer the environment and society by providing solutions to the challenges of sustainable development (e.g., considering various opportunities for encountering environmental issues in all courses, wherever feasible).

The full engagement approach is based on the assumption that all disciplines have much to offer the environment and society. The starting point is the positive goal of a sustainable future, a goal to which disciplinary contributions are actively sought. The shift from a limited engagement approach is a shift from a problem-centered to a vision-directed approach, from a short-term to a long-term time frame (e.g., using visionary sustainability concepts such as the Natural Step4 to guide curriculum develoment in all fields).

For the University of Malaya, the researcher reviewed current fields addressing specific sustainability issues (e.g. Environmental Science and Management); various courses indirectly addressing sustainability issues (e.g. Community Dentistry); the establishment of a centre dedicated to environmental issues; general education available for all undergraduates; and elective courses. Based on this information and on lecturers’ views of appropriate strategies, possible plans included incorporating sustainable development issues into current courses, or adding new elective courses for undergraduates. This was essentially an incorporation approach.

2. DO (Curriculum Implementation)
The second part of the curriculum development process focuses on how it can be implemented within an existing undergraduate curriculum. Implementation requires basic conditions such as infrastructure, teaching resources and tools, and education and training of staff before effective teaching of sustainable development can begin.

G. Staff Expertise and Capacity Development: The specific skills and knowledge required for staff to effectively play their role in delivering the curriculum should be identified. Thus it is important to assess the current status of skills and knowledge within the teaching staff, where these skills can be immediately utilized and where capacity building needs to be addressed.

A survey conducted of lecturers at the University of Malaya revealed that many felt the most important barrier to teaching sustainable development was lack of expertise, followed by a lack of resources and teaching materials, followed by academic and administrative structure. This kind of knowledge is helpful in determining how to build capacity for ESD.

H. Learning Trends and Pedagogy: A commitment to sustainable development must include well-embedded values, interest and understanding. Hence, it is important to identify the status of undergraduate learning trends and what factors encourage ‘deep learning’ as opposed to ‘strategic learning’ and ‘surface learning.’ Furthermore, pedagogies that ensure the five components of effective ESD (see Figure 1) should be identified. Several pedagogical techniques have proven to be effective in encouraging ‘deep learning’ and the effective teaching of sustainable development. These approaches usually call for a shift away from conventional teaching toward a learning paradigm in which students take more responsibility for their own learning; where they are able to make sense of, rather than reproduce, information and thus are able to identify for themselves what they need to know and do to achieve sustainable development in their work and lifestyles.

I. Delivery Methods and Tools: ESD can be delivered in different ways with various materials and tools (e.g. case studies, reports, articles, books, journals, monographs, students assignments, videos, posters, PowerPoint presentation, CD-ROMs, internet materials, music, etc.). Availability of such tools should be assessed and improved.

For the University of Malaya, many appropriate teaching materials, particularly in the faculties, are available but not systematized. The organization and promotion o f these materials is one of the most important ways to carry ESD forward. An important issue in Malaysia is that sustainability is still primarily expressed in English (whether in books, journals, research, newspapers or magazines), even when writings are locally produced. More readings in Bahasa Malaysia would encourage greater interest in the subject. At the same time, there should be more efforts to improve student proficiency in English, as this would expose them to issues on a global scale.

3. CHECK (Evaluating the Curriculum)
In the third stage of curriculum development for ESD, the planning and implementation process should be assessed.

J. Assessment and Evaluation: Assessment and evaluation help educators understand degrees of achievement and performance, and it often forms the core body of data upon which teachers report on students’ achievement to the wider community (UNESCO, 2000). Since ESD is an evolving concept, it is important for educators not to lock the definition, content, scope, and methodology into a static time frame. Due to the evolving nature of sustainability issues, those educating for sustainability should be prepared to adapt continually within geographic and temporal contexts (McKeown, 2001). Thus, a curriculum for ESD also requires an assessment of the relevance of subject content given the ongoing evolution of sustainable development in theory and practice.

4. ACT (Changes in the Curriculum)
In the fourth phase, the curriculum should be reviewed based on assessment and evaluation.

K. Improvement: Based upon the principle of ‘continuous improvement,’ the curriculum for ESD should be revised (with changes in pedagogy, teaching materials and tools and re-examination of the strategies used) based upon the quality of the learning experiences as determined through assessment and evaluation. This constant adaptation will require flexibility on the part of both the educators and the administration.

Finally, this study used a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis to assess the extent to which the University of Malaya’s level of competencies (based on an internal and external analysis) represents strategic strengths and weaknesses. The external analysis consisted of examining university, local, national and global sustainability goals and issues; the general mentality toward SD in Malaysia; the Malaysian higher educational system and its own challenges; relevant legislation; government, non-governmental organizations, other universities and the media. Once a SWOT analysis is done, the university can consider strategic alternatives to achieve its goals.

Based on this framework and the analyses conducted, three main conclusions were reached:

First, a university needs to undertake a ‘Phased Strategy’ in order to systematically and holistically develop a curriculum in ESD for its undergraduates. This involves three different levels of planning:

• ‘Umbrella planning,’ to be undertaken by the university at the general strategic level of the ESD curriculum development and implementation process;
• ‘Common planning,’ to be undertaken by all faculties in related areas where they can work together to achieve similar goals for their ESD curriculum development and implementation process;
• ‘Differentiated planning,’ to be undertaken by each faculty to address specific areas and issues in their ESD curriculum development and implementation process.

Second, there is a critical need for a ‘localisation’ strategy for a university ESD curriculum development process. This has been shown by the case study, in which several important issues that are unique to the University of Malaya have been identified, such as its institutional culture and levels of expertise in sustainable development.

Third, the ‘localisation’ strategy must include a consideration of national conditions. In the context of Malaysia, socio-economic and environmental conditions, policies and educational direction can support or impede the implementation of ESD at the university.

Therefore, this author concludes that implementing an overall ESD curriculum development process for undergraduates in a university is possible if one begins with understanding the whole problem and then moves to specific solutions. There are a huge variety of attitudes, practices, strengths and weaknesses within any university, field and faculty. Thus, if we do not start to tackle the challenge systematically, we can never reach a strategy for ESD that touches every undergraduate and provides strong justification by showing that future graduates will contribute significantly toward national and international efforts in sustainability. Furthermore, fundamental change in curriculum is not feasible if it does not consider local issues and concerns.

1 – In a Malaysian context, the concept of ‘ethical sustainability’ needs to be included in accordance with the ‘sustainable development’ guidelines issued by the Federal Department of Town and Country Planning. The guidelines were designed to combine both the declared Principles of Sustainable Development by WCED and relevant universal Islamic values. The JPBD guidelines also emphasized connecting the evolution of national policies with sustainable development, and vice versa.

2 – The ’Deming Wheel Concept’ was developed by W. Edward Deming. It is a systematic strategic approach leading to continuous improvement. For more information see the W. Edward Deming Institute Website:

3 – Most of the ideas were derived from Khan (1995) and experiences from other universities.

4 – The Natural Step, founded by Dr Karl Henrik Robert and jointly developed by 50 Swedish scientists, is a science based, systems framework to guide organisations and communities to understanding and moving toward sustainability. See the Natural Step Website:

1. Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) (2001). Sustainable Development Education Panel Interim Report. Published 25 September 1998. United Kingdom.

2. Jabatan Perancang Bandar dan Desa (JPBD) (1997). Garis Panduan Perancangan dan Pembangunan Sejagat. Kuala Lumpur

3. Khan, A. Shirley (1995). Overview: The Environmental Agenda Series, Taking Responsibility Promoting Sustainable Practices through Higher Education Curricula. Council for Environmental Education Programme. London: Pluto Press.

4. Mc Keown, Rosalyn (2001). Education for Sustainable Development Toolkit. Tennessee: Waste Management Research and Education Institution

5. UNESCO, Teaching and Learning for A Sustainable Future: A Multimedia Professional Development Programme (Last Updated: 2001). Available online:

Zeeda Mohamad is a tutor with the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS), Faculty of Science, at the University of Malaya (50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Email: Tel: 603 – 7967 4166; Fax: 603 – 7967 4396). She is planning to undertake her PhD in Science and Technology Policy, with a focus on the environment. For more detail on this research, please contact her at

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