Alfaisal UniversityStrategies for sustainable change in higher education

Strategies for sustainable change in higher education

Strategies for sustainable change in higher education

Guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and working in partnership with government ministries, Alfaisal University is demonstrating how one institution can have a big impact on society

Sustainability is an issue that demands the active participation of all stakeholders in society, from government and industry to individual citizens. Universities will play a key role, not only as centres of research and innovation, but also as creators of graduates who are aware of the issues surrounding sustainability and who possess the academic knowledge and skills to tackle them head on.

Alfaisal University looks to engage in all aspects by taking a holistic approach to its sustainability strategy that allows an institution of some 4,000 students to have an outsized impact.

Mattheus Goosen, associate vice-president for research and graduate studies, joined Alfaisal six months before it opened its doors to students in 2008, and he has seen sweeping changes on campus and across Saudi Arabia.

This is a good time for a sustainability advocate like Goosen to be teaching in Saudi Arabia. He leads a course in environmental science and sustainability, and the enthusiasm from his second-year students is inspiring.

“The university has gotten busier and, they say, student-centred, but I would say more student-driven,” he says. “The students themselves want to improve things. There is very much an interest among the students for doing sustainable things. They are quite sensitive now to the problems of climate change, so we try to incorporate these areas into the course that I am teaching.”

His students produce review papers on topics focused on sustainability and climate change to deepen their understanding of the issues and to develop skills that will stand them in good stead in a workplace scenario or in academia.

“I find that task a really good mechanism for training students to review papers, to cite literature and put it together,” Goosen says. “At the same time, they can work on a topic that they find relevant to society, like single-use plastics or the warming of the atmosphere.”

Alfaisal University’s sustainability efforts extend beyond the classroom. The institution is outward facing, leveraging partnerships with Saudi government ministries for impactful research, and gathering its sustainability goals under a number of themes.

The Alfaisal Sustainable Development Initiative (ASDI) which is led by Mamoun Bader, professor of chemistry, lists food and the environment as its primary theme, with energy systems, urban spaces and logistics, human capital, the economy and privatisation as secondary themes.

The ASDI aligns itself with the government’s Green Initiative, building networks with industry and various stakeholders in the economy, and fostering an interdisciplinary research culture on campus that enhances the programme’s social impact.

Searching for solutions

Some of the solutions to society’s sustainability needs will be technological, and Alfaisal’s researchers are working on several projects that support alternatives to fossil fuel consumption. “People are working on new types of batteries, long-lasting batteries for electric cars,” Goosen says.

“For the last couple of years, the College of Engineering has been working on solar cars, not only fuel-efficient cars but solar cars, or electric cars.” Other projects focus on the social and cultural dimension of sustainability efforts.

Alfaisal has partnered with the Ministry of Culture to establish a number of culinary arts research centres. The initiative, which is led by Saddam Muthana, assistant professor of chemistry, aims to reduce food waste.

“That is a big problem in modern societies,” Goosen says. “There is so much food waste going on. Food and the environment is one of the themes from the government, so we have picked up on that. Part of it is looking at reducing food waste in restaurants, and how to reuse it.”

Many issues are interrelated. How can society phase out single-use plastics and reduce food waste when so much plastic is used to keep food fresher longer? There are no easy answers.

Solutions might be technological, in the form of novel sustainable materials – such as biodegradable materials made from agricultural by-products – or in the policymaking space, where regulation and taxation can change the economic impact of using single-use plastics, with people paying what Goosen describes as “the real cost of using plastics”.

“People and companies have to be forced,” he says. “You must have a bit of a push. You must pay the real cost of using plastics which will end up in the garbage. Let me give one example that I use in class. The real cost of using a fossil fuel vehicle, such as a car, is the company that makes the car causes pollution. When you and I use the car, it causes more pollution, and then people get sick and go to the hospital, and that’s costing the government money. So, the real cost has to be a penalty associated with producing something that causes pollution. You have to pay an extra tax. If you use a car that burns fossil fuels, you should pay an extra tax, and that will automatically push people to be more environmentally friendly.”

Like many higher education institutions, Alfaisal’s sustainability mission is guided by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Goosen says the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which assess universities against these goals, are incentivising the sector to prioritise sustainability. “It helps a lot,” he says.

“It gives individuals and countries and companies direction. You have universities that have sustainability leadership institutes, so they have developed institutes dealing with all aspects of sustainability, and the mindset is there, the realisation is there, and major universities have got involved with that, and I think this is part of this process.” The tide is turning for sustainability, but it is a battle against the clock.

Goosen says the system is “strained to breaking point”. He sees the electric car as the most-popular vehicle on the roads within 10 to 15 years.

The cities of the future will be built differently, incorporating solar technologies in their design. One example is NEOM, a smart city currently being built in Tabuk Province in north-western Saudi Arabia.

With increased awareness through education, social policy and technology, sustainability goals can be met – but only if everyone in society plays their part. “It is a change in the attitude of society, and that includes the consumer as well as the producer,” Goosen says. “People have to be convinced."

Find out more about the Alfaisal Sustainable Development Initiative.

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