Sustainability and Transformative Learning Spaces. The experience of the Sustainability Universities in South Africa (SUSA) project.

Melanie Walker
South African Research Chair in Higher Education and Human Development. Univesity of the Free State, South Africa.
Jueves, 27 Junio 2024 - 12:00

The Sustainability Universities in South Africa (SUSA) project ran from July 2022 to December 2023, with a second phase planned for 2025. The research team were interested in how can/does higher education mobilize and develop transformative, just learning spaces towards sustainable and regenerative values, practices and futures across classrooms, campus, and communities. We interviewed people at two university sites to map and compare diverse university stakeholder understandings and looked for transformative actions. We brought together multiple narratives: from above (university leadership), from the middle (academic staff), and from below (students and workers) to understand the sustainable university in our context, what enables and what gets in the way of transformative education and sustainable futures. We adopted an intersectional conceptual framing of planetary consciousness, reparative humanism and transformational learning to analyze how human development and capabilities expansion were enabled and achieved. This paper focuses on: 1) our conceptual frame and relates this also to socio-technical transitions for the added value to our project; and 2) one strand of the project, a participatory hybrid photovoice project with staff and students at one university on the theme of ‘sustainable university communities’. The project generated a tentative response to the question: what is emerging now in universities that is suggestive of the kind of future embodied in the vision of a sustainable world? Crucially it enabled diverse bottom-up voices to emerge and to contest the sustainability space. It constituted an ‘experimental space’ in the university. The project comprised three moments which are discussed in the presentation: 1) collective discussions and substantive understandings of sustainability to produce a common definition for further discussions, also drafting the implications of our definition for university policy and practices; 2) training, production and discussion of photo narratives focused on a self-chosen personal theme that mattered to each participant, each person scripting up to 200 words and selecting around 6 to 12 images which could include photographs they took themselves; 3 ) sharing, revising and curating the photo-stories and holding a public seminar.


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Professor Melanie Walker has been an active member of the HDCA since its inception in 2004. She is a South African born and describes herself as a capabilitarian scholar whose research is informed by her own biography, the profound impact of struggling against apartheid in education and civic life, and hence enduring commitments to removing inequalities and injustices. Her research over the last two decades has been deeply informed by human development and the capability approach. She focuses on (higher) education, mostly in the global South, and transversal research and practice challenges of decoloniality, methodology, inequalities and justice. She holds a BA Hons and MA in History (both cum laude) from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal and a PhD from the University of Cape Town. Since 2012 she has worked at the University of the Free State in South Africa, where she is currently distinguished professor and holds a prestigious South African Research Chair in Higher Education and Human Development. Previously she was professor of higher education at the University of Nottingham and has held senior positions at the University of Sheffield, the University of the West of England, the University of Glasgow and the University of the Western Cape. She directs an internationally highly regarded research programme on higher education and development at the UFS, including high quality capacity building of cohorts of PhD students and post-doctoral fellows, the majority from sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2016 this dynamic group has produced 23 doctoral theses on higher education and human development and numerous monographs constituting a significant collective body of global South scholarship. She is an A1 rated education sciences scholar with the National Research Foundation (NRF) in South Africa, honorary professor at the Universities of Nottingham and Pretoria, and a fellow of the Academy of Sciences in South Africa (ASSAF). She was vice-president of the HDCA from 2014-2017, an editor of the JHDC (2007-2010), associate editor (2014-), and is current President of the HDCA (2022-2024). She has been the recipient of numerous research grants in the UK, Europe and South Africa, has delivered keynotes in South Africa, the UK, Europe, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan, and is widely published both books and journal articles.