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The practice of sustainability at the University of Tasmania : a critical analysis

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Singh, KB 2017 , 'The practice of sustainability at the University of Tasmania : a critical analysis', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

Many international declarations affirm the vital role of universities in moving societies toward more sustainable futures. Part of a wider agenda of ‘education for sustainability’ (EfS), universities are tasked with embodying sustainability in their teaching, research, social leadership and operations. Within Australia, universities are now allocating significant resources to define, implement and measure their contributions to sustainability, and are developing associated policies, strategies, plans and activities. To date, little research has examined the assumptions and possibilities that surround this institutional reform, given the heterogeneous nature of the university. In this context, this study addresses the research question: In what diverse ways is sustainability brought into being at the university?

I begin with a theoretical analysis of the contested discourse and practice of sustainability in the context of universities. A qualitative social research design involving two case studies at the University of Tasmania is then described before findings are presented and discussed. The methodology is constructivist and based on a dialectical approach to understanding. The study is not intended to uncover any universal truth about what sustainability is or ought to be. Rather, the focus is on how different material and social contexts influence how sustainability is made within the university, an institution central to the history of modernity. First, the emerging university discourse about sustainability is introduced. Second, research on the efforts of Australian universities to enact and embody sustainability is reviewed. Third, a theoretical analysis positions dominant discourses and practices of sustainability in the context of a modernist project that aligns visions of human progress with economic growth and technological efficiency. I then present a thematic analysis of 20 semi-structured interviews drawn from two case studies of the practice of sustainability at the University of Tasmania: the Bike Hub and Source Community Wholefoods (Source).

Three central practices and associated themes of sustainability were identified for both case studies. For the Bike Hub, these practices centre on creating a symbol of healthy living, legitimacy within the university, and real-life learning for sustainability. For Source, these practices centre on creating a community co-operative, a countercultural organisation, and a place of experiential learning. These two cases embody divergent understandings of EfS. The Bike Hub is primarily an expression of the modernist project of sustainability linked to the identification of universal solutions to global problems that secure human prosperity. Source is primarily an expression of a radical politics linked to projects of participatory democracy, economic localisation, non-capitalist exchange and voluntary simplicity.

The juxtaposition of the two cases studied opens-up wider dynamics, choices, challenges and ambiguities in efforts to realise sustainability within the university. The study’s findings reveal the university as a microcosm of the overall contest between modernist sources of social power and plural sites of resistance in the practice of sustainability. This contest juxtaposes the dualistic constitution of sustainability as an objective, finished truth, with efforts to constitute sustainability as a contextual, contingent good that is made through lived relationships of concern. The study concludes that Australian universities can aid transformation for sustainability by enabling administrators, academics, students, professions and wider society to become critical enquirers into the manifold and contestable processes and embodied practice through which sustainability is brought into being.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Singh, KB
Keywords: education for sustainability, university, dialectical constructivism, embodied practice, constitution
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Copyright 2017 the author

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