An international team of researchers is studying how higher education in the Gulf is advancing sustainability and climate change mitigation. Currently, says Dr. Khalaf Marhoun Al’Abri from Oman, efforts are scattered and some specialists are scattered, but a lack of policies and leadership hampers sustainability efforts.
Al’Abri, associate professor of education systems and policies at the Faculty of Education at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, believes that holding COP28 in the Gulf could strengthen the involvement of higher education in the sustainability.
Education authorities, education specialists from the Gulf Cooperation Council and UNESCO offices in the region, higher education institutions and academics are participating in COP28 around education for sustainable development. The global climate summit is being held in the United Arab Emirates from November 30 to December 12.
Ironically, given the difficulty in gaining support for social science research in the region, says Al’Abri News from the academic world that he and his colleagues have been inundated with requests for information on education, sustainability and COP-related topics. An adequate answer was impossible, as the required knowledge would require years of research.
An extremely useful aspect of the COP is the bringing together of people and panels committed to sustainability, providing expert knowledge on the subject, including the role of higher education in supporting climate change mitigation and development sustainable.
“Experiences and knowledge from elsewhere, interacting with local actors and ideas, can be instructive,” says Al’Abri. Much of the activity is outside but linked to COP28, such as the Gulf Comparative Education Society’s 2023 symposium in the United Arab Emirates from November 1-3 on sustainable education, including Al ‘Abri was a key speaker.
The research project
Earlier this year, from July 11-13, researchers from across the region gathered at the Gulf Research Center at the University of Cambridge, UK, to discuss the research they are undertaking as part of a project on “The major role of Gulf universities”. Education to achieve sustainability and combat climate change.”
The project co-directors are Al’Abri and Dr. Elizabeth Buckner, assistant professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada. THE research meeting discussed a dozen commissioned articles and reflected on the subject.
The research covers the six Gulf countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – and looks at macro and micro perspectives that examine what universities are doing in education sustainable development, how they could help governments achieve the objectives set. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how they can lead climate action.
Globally, the workshop summary highlights, “higher education systems are called upon to support global efforts to achieve sustainability and combat climate change. These global trends also affect Gulf universities, which are now accepting this new mandate.
However, says the project description of the researchGulf universities face the particular challenge of being located in countries that are the largest per capita carbon emitters in the world, as well as the general challenge of a concept of sustainability that remains “abstract, complex and multidimensional” .
He continues: “Sustainability has become a buzzword used by policy makers, academics, scientists, journalists and the public alike, due to its impact and importance. Researchers fear that this will increasingly result in “greenwashing”, that is, commitments to sustainable development that are not supported by concrete actions. These concepts have received considerable attention from higher education researchers globally, but less so in the Gulf region. »
Some first research impressions
While Al’Abri was on sabbatical at the University of Toronto, before returning to Oman at the end of August, he worked with Elizabeth Buckner, who is also interested in sustainability education. With COP28 in the UAE approaching, it was a good time to conduct research on higher education and sustainability in the Gulf.
A call for papers resulted in around fifty ideas and proposals, from which around a dozen were selected. Articles explore how universities and higher education systems engage in sustainability as part of their teaching, research, and community service missions.
“We ended up choosing participants from all the Gulf countries. We wanted to examine higher education systems as a whole, at the institutional level and sometimes at the program level, and also on different topics such as education for sustainable development, climate change, environmental protection, global citizenship,” explains Al’Abri.
Project leaders are currently reviewing the papers, and once completed, the research will be published by Springer in book form, hopefully next year.
Researchers find that there is still much to be done in the region in terms of higher education to advance sustainability, Al’Abri said. News from the academic world.
“What we see today is scattered efforts, I would say, and also sometimes the work of specialists. But reading the newspapers and being from the region, I don’t see much. I wouldn’t generalize, but at least in public universities.”
In the Gulf private sector, there are (mostly) international universities leading efforts towards sustainable development. “But in public universities or private institutions owned by investors in the region, this is less the case,” explains Al’Abri.
“We need to see more.” We are one of the regions of the world that really depends on oil. Universities have an important role to play in promoting sustainable development and have the intellectual capital to make a difference through research and teaching.
“But ultimately it also takes policies, systems and efforts from the highest leadership, the higher education system as a whole and universities, to support sustainability efforts. It is not enough to be interested in climate change or an area in which you want to do research. Alongside strategies and frameworks, financial and technical support is needed.
There are major efforts, such as the Center for Environmental Studies and Research at Sultan Qaboos University, which conducts research in areas such as air pollution. “But I feel like we need alignment – we need to be intentional about climate change – on all of these hot topics on the global sustainability agenda,” says Al’Abri.
He leads by example. Research he published this year, for example, highlighted the integration of global citizenship principles and concepts into Oman’s schools and education policies – global citizenship is a key research interest from Al’Abri.
In the future, he intends to translate learnings from the research project into actions on the ground: he is seeking funding for a project that will research and promote sustainability and climate mitigation activities in Gulf universities .
Al’Abri says social scientists “have the ideas, we have the thoughts”, but governments and universities remain more interested in supporting science and engineering. Just being able to do research is an uphill battle. Indeed, the neglect of the social sciences continues – on a global scale – even though it is widely recognized that sustainability will not be achieved without the contribution of all fields of knowledge.
It’s frustrating for researchers to spend months producing research proposals that are rejected six months later, Al’Abri said. “We have to be competitive, but here in this region maybe 90% of the research projects supported are science-based. » He is looking for ways for his research project to produce not only research but also results such as training or student activities around sustainable development, in order to make his support more attractive.
Higher education in Oman
Oman’s higher education system includes two public universities and dozens of private institutions and enrolls around 35,000 students. The country’s population is nearly five million, about 40 percent of whom are expatriates, mainly from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, according to the agency. Oman Daily Observer.
The key audience Sultan Qaboos University was promised to the country by the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and the first students were enrolled in 1986. The university is generously funded by the government and has nine colleges and a full range of undergraduate and postgraduate studies . The second public institution is the University of Technology and Applied Sciences.
Sultan Qaboos University is fortunate to have strong human resources in terms of researchers, says Al’Abri, as well as good facilities, laboratories and equipment. “We have been able to work in different areas of sustainability and have the Environmental Studies Center as well as other research centers, for example in the field of water, which are linked to sustainability.
“Higher education in Oman is now trying to expand regionally and globally through rankings and other means. But so far, universities serve local and national systems through research. However, these efforts are scattered and isolated.
“What Oman needs now is an institutional movement and framework for the inclusion of sustainability, climate change and related topics, through an action plan or executive plan that sets and monitors the objectives,” says Al’Abri.
Within universities, there should be systems – such as sustainability “buddy” networks, centers and committees – that support broad and deep engagement on sustainability issues. “If we don’t do much at universities, I don’t expect society to be receptive to sustainability efforts.”
Sometimes, work around sustainability must fit into what already exists. For example, Al’Abri studies SDG 4 and SDG 4.7, which cover global citizenship education. “Because of my personal interests, I also try to make an impact on the programs here. »
“Global Citizenship” is an elective course, not only for the education department, but for all interested students, and they come from all universities – from medicine to engineering. “What is needed,” concludes Al’Abri, “is a more intentional integration of sustainability into the curriculum and the institution.”
Intentional action by education systems and universities could give higher education a much greater role in promoting sustainable development in the region.