How to integrate SDGs into current university’s economics curricula?

Current economics curricula rely heavily on neoclassical thought. In UK, a study revealed that only two out of twelve universities require students to take courses discussing economics from a qualitative perspective such as history of economic thought, economic history and philosophy of economics, and this approach mirrors the neo-functionalist (dominant) one in any of the disciplines related to the broad education and research design.

The SDGs constitute a big occasion for the University to restructure its strategy and bring up-to-date the education system to respond to the current societal challenges. However, this transition toward a mission-based university is still tricky, since departments and administrative units operate in silos and the leader’s agenda does not allow a flexible and adaptable model to feed in.

My Short-term Scientific Mission drew from this opportunity to inquire about how to effectively integrate the SDGs logic into current economic curricula, taking the ISEG in Lisbon as a preliminary environment to cast the lead on how the faculty members perceived the sustainability shift challenge.

Before the STSM, the researcher based at ISEG and I carried a literature review on some comparative aspect, that allows for a critical stance re. The lack of pluralism (theoretical, method, ID – categories we need to dissect ) in economic curricula. Via Skype, we co-designed a survey to understand what are the obstacles vs enablers towards such pluralism.

During the STSM, we collected the opinion of essential, yet few people involved in the curricula management at ISEG. They have been selected being current or previous head of department, coordinators of the undergraduate degree, and responsible for some of the core units. Nine persons have been interviewed: 7 professors of the high academic profile and two students. An informal chat with the president regarding her take on the sustainability issue has also taken place.

After the STSM, we divided the kind of responses into two main categories: one related to sustainability «entry-points», meaning the occasion for professors to be aware of the SDGs framework, and one related to sustainability «outlets», i.e. where the SDGs came into their practices of teaching and research.
In the first level – elicited –entry points, interviewed mentioned:

  • Student thesis supervision asking for SDGs links
  • International accreditation schemes
  • Alignment with projects partners’ aims along the SDGs
  • Design of interdisciplinary courses (i.e. in the MIT-Portugal framework).

Implicit entry points were related to:

  • Openness to new generations’ ambitions and fresh ideas
  • Academic peers pressure
  • Participation in Erasmus / exchange programs abroad
  • Active attitude toward change
  • Self-marketing (SDGs is a cool-hot topic nowadays)
  • Inner values towards social equity

The SDGs framework was explicitly addressed via:

  • Sustainability-dedicated lecture
  • Examples/exercises from real cases taken from the news about economy and inequalities, or economy and social impact tools
  • Optative courses
  • Interdisciplinary master programmes

Most of the interviewed talked about less evident SDG integration in their research activities when dealing with:

  • Economic sustainability topics (SDG3 -ageing, SDG4 –education for all, SDG8 – decent work, etc. )
  • Collaboration with extra EU institutions to help their educational system
  • Qualitative metrics in personal researches to «dialogue» with current quantitative economics indicators

Almost all the participants have mentioned three main barriers:

  • People: university staff, above all the older ones, is usually reluctant to change, ignorant, lazy, suspicious. This is part of the typical inertia of academic institutions where the staff replacement is slow and painful (above all in leadership roles)
  • Time: the Bologna process blocked and cemented the bachelors in their current credits slots for macro and micro foundation courses;
  • Space: it is impossible to modify the current amount and contents of economics curricula.

In the underground of this reluctance seems to lay a lack of a clear top-down policy for sustainability integration, as well as a global strategic view about the social responsibility of an academic institution in these times.
Leadership and vision were seen to help justify the need to make changes in the curriculum and a key driver for an individual shift, although a top-down approach at the department level caused some resistance in other occasions.

The pre-analysis of bachelors courses showed none of the lecturers taught has any mention of sustainability, environmental or social within module specifications. Interview data and analysis to look at ethos and examples of what was taught showed that quite a number of interviewed did look at sustainability in practice but often not in a profound way, for lack of proper knowledge about the economic translation of sustainability concepts and the easy way to identify topics into at least one SDG (typically the 8th – the economic growth…).

A range of problems and challenges to integration were determined. Specialisation and monism of economics, as well as narrow focus (in terms of how it is defined), was seen to hinder the integration of sustainability into economics curriculum (these views also resonate with recent student protests globally). It was also identified that mainstream neo-classical teaching is a barrier to the integration of sustainability and that to overcome this, there is a need for more breadth, interdisciplinarity and pluralism.

A pragmatic “toolkit” approach to economics curricula re-design could be the first step to emphasise practical reasoning and eclecticism. Such a toolkit would draw on several different sets of kinds of literature and disciplines, including both quantitative and qualitative tools. Naturally, economics is both broader and deeper than merely a framework for solving problems, but its responsibility to provide an applicable heuristic must not be ignored when facing an important mindset shift for the current crisis.

 By Giulia Sonetti (Politecnico di Torino)

Marta Varanda & Patricia Melo (ISEG Lisbon School of Economics and Management, University of Lisbon)

INTREPID STSM held at ISEG, 23 February – 5 March 2019