“Sustainability is not only about the environment”

Hosted by MEP Dace Melbārde, ViceChair of the CULT Committee of the European Parliament, this meeting of the Lifelong Learning Interest Group of the European Parliament saw considerable participation of stakeholders at large: civil society actors from local to EU levels, practitioners, representatives of European and international institutions. 

Europe lends its ear to civil society

The new European Skills Agenda sets ambitious goals for upskilling and reskilling, and it is clear that the sustainability dimension is engrained in its actions, and ways forward, said Ms Melbārde in her opening speech. At the same time, however, “innovation in education has been lagging behind” and while strategies and framework ask the right questions, their implementation often fails to provide the answer.

Michael Teutsch, representative of DG EAC, pointed out the new Commission has given great emphasis on green transitions since its establishment: even the Green Deal communication makes clear reference to education and related skills development. The European Commission, especially DG EAC, wants to follow up on this by focusing on the broader role of education in the SDGs and what education can do to promote environmental sustainability. 

For instance, said Ms Denise Chrcop (European Parliament Research Service) a study for the CULT Committee showed that a relevant number of projects and the budget of programmes are already addressing environmental issues but the budget allocated is still under the share of 25%. The author points out that Commission and project leaders can do more to improve awareness of environmental impact and role of participants as agents of change. 

Sustainable education: what for?

Tatjana Babrauskienė, Member of the EESC and trade unionist, pointed out that the Skills Agenda does not provide a target on participation in training aiming to develop green skills. The climate policy naturally impacts all sectors of learning and we cannot make progress only focusing on formal education, we must give equal importance to all sectors. To this extent, we are missing an EU-level comprehensive strategy on green skills for all ages and all learners that should be eventually translated into national strategies developed with social partners and other stakeholders. Economic, social and environmental aspects cannot be separated, which requires a great complexity of necessary skills.

Of similar advice was Rilli Lappalainen, Bridge 47, who commented that the EU is inevitably seen as a trend-setter when it comes to innovation in education and pedagogies; building on previous comments, he emphasized the need to implement Target 4.7 of the SDGs, to truly fulfil the potential of what has now come in a simple wording: Education for Sustainable Development. The Envision 4.7 roadmap is an excellent starting point if we want “to jump a little higher”. 

This tension between the need to have an overarching strategy at EU level and the complementary urge to start acting in local communities is at the core of what GAIA Education is doing. An education provider, as its representative May East pointed out, it proposes a “new epistemology that embraces this transformative learning and a shift from intended learning to emerging learning and understanding lifelong learning as nested with others in communities and ecosystems that empowers people”. 

When we talk about Education for Sustainable Development, it’s not always clear what the aim is: are we trying to change people’s behaviour or are we trying to achieve through formal education to bring new skills for people to become scientists and innovators? Jérémy Apart, E-Graine, brought the question back to its starting point. How can we educate properly if we don’t have the overall picture of changing societies? We often focus on university science departments but when it comes to sustainable development if a school is not trying to change its practice (e.g. how often it serves meat, provision of recycling bins) then there is going to be an opposition between the lessons and what happens every day.

Patterns of change are in experiential learning

Interventions from the audience sparkled up the discussion. It was deemed necessary for education policy to move away from a school-based or university-based understanding: if we want to create systemic change (however large this system is), there need to be actions informed with non-formal education approaches or generally speaking with experiential learning. This is particularly true for an education that seeks to make sustainability a reality. To this extent, a lifelong learning approach is indispensable. 

In her closing remark, EAEA Secretary-General Gina Ebner pointed out that we have tools like technology, we have frameworks that we can already rely on and in Europe, we have the added value of the EU and we have education as a topic and opportunity to exchange. We see here the possibility for the future, through civil dialogue we can bring transformative change, starting from an efficient and targeted implementation. 

By the same token, MEP Dace Melbārde claimed that “there is no lack of policy documents but we are lacking strategies for implementation”. In her closing remarks, she underlined that lifelong learning promotes a positive attitude towards the future.