The COPERNICUS Alliance, committed to teaching sustainability in higher education

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In this exclusive interview, we are meeting with Mario Diethart – Network Manager of the COPERNICUS Alliance – sharing about the importance of creating alliances to tackle challenges in higher education for sustainable development.

What is the COPERNICUS Alliance’s mission and which are the organisations involved?

The COPERNICUS Alliance (CA) is the European Network on Higher Education for Sustainable Development. It unites over 25 member institutions, mostly universities, but also NGOs and individual members. The CA aims to jointly identify challenges in higher education for sustainable development (HESD) and to spearhead development of processes, tools, and knowledge to address these challenges from a whole-institution perspective. The network is committed to cooperative action that helps its members take up the challenges of HESD, in the spirit of the goals formulated in the UN Agenda 2030.

The organisation exists since 1993; the world has changed dramatically since then. How has the COPERNICUS Alliance adapted and what is your vision for the future?

Indeed, the origins date back to 1993 when the COPERNICUS CAMPUS and the COPERNICUS Charta were launched. Over 300 universities endorsed the Charta at the time, but it was only in 2011 that the COPERNICUS Alliance was launched as an active member network. Since then, we strive to foster transformation towards sustainable development. Our vision is that sustainable values and actions become mainstream and that higher education institutions implement them at all levels.

How do you enable your members to learn from each other or cooperate?

It is one of our core principles to foster cooperation rather than competition. We are convinced that we can only reach the Sustainable Development Goals if we work together on a global scale. We engage with our members in joint projects and publications, host webinars and financially support members’ initiatives through “Cooperation Funds”. Every year, we (co-)organise a conference (“Higher Education Summit”) for members and other stakeholders to foster exchange and learn from each other. We share resources from our events, open access on our website and showcase member activities in our newsletters.

“We are convinced that we can only reach the Sustainable Development Goals if we work together on a global scale.”

What does ‘teaching sustainability’ mean today?

First of all, we need to re-think the roles of teachers and learners. Learning can take place inside the educational system, reaching from primary to higher education, but it also involves non-formal education and lifelong learning.

Therefore, “teaching sustainability” means more than just knowledge transfer, it aims for transformative learning. It is about creating a space where people can co-create and learn from each other while applying an inter- and transdisciplinary approach. From a learner’s perspective it is about the acquisition of (hard and soft) skills and a change in their reference framework that enable a person to act in a sustainable way. Currently, we are working in a project called “TRACCskills”, which focuses on “people skills”, that seem essential to reach the SDGs.

Have you seen a shift in the younger generation aspirations and topics of interest?

We are observing a rising interest among young people in sustainability topics. They want to make a change and they are articulating their demands in movements such as “Friday’s for Future”. Such bottom-up initiatives are important and need to be accompanied by top-down support by decision-makers.

Are you confident in their capacity to face the world’s most pressing challenges?

It lies in the nature of “wicked” problems that they are complex and there is not one solution that fits all. Therefore, it is crucial to equip young people with skills that allow them to address current and future challenges. That involves also a political component. It is essential to foster cooperation at all levels!

“It is crucial to equip young people with skills that allow them to address current and future challenges.”

Who are your sources of inspiration?

I would not mention a concrete individual here. Rather I’d say I am inspired by many people and colleagues who do fantastic work every day. It is important to realise that we don’t need to constantly reinvent the wheel at different places of the world. We can take shortcuts through cooperation!

You are planning an event during the LearningPlanet Festival, can you tell us more about it?

I have mentioned the “TRACCskills” project already. On 25 January, we will organise a webinar together with our partners from the project (Legacy17 and Visionautik) and present first results. These will help educators to design transformative adult education, both formal and non-formal, to convey competences that cover in a cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral way the behavioural aspects of sustainable development.

We will introduce an online toolbox with methods that can be applied to deliver transformative education. In addition, we want to involve the audience actively to further explore what skills and competences are necessary to address future challenges.

“We will introduce an online toolbox with methods that can be applied to deliver transformative education.”

Mario Diethart Copernicus (© own image)

Mario Diethart holds a master in Environmental System Sciences with focus on geography from the University of Graz. He is working in the field of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) as part of the Regional Centre of Expertise (RCE) Graz-Styria and as Network Manager of the COPERNICUS Alliance.