This piece, developed collaboratively as part of the By the Fire cooperative inquiry process by Dilys Williams, Emma Rigby and Jade Whitson-Smith, is a reflection on the relationship between university views on success and student expectations of their, analysed within a framework of sustainablity. We invite your reflections on this topic.
There is a word used in South Africa to describe human relationships: Ubuntu : I am because you are. My successes and my failures are bound up in yours. In Higher Education however, success for students, educators and employers is not always bound in such empathic ties. As sustainability led researchers and tutors, we set out on a nimble-footed, time bound, co-operative enquiry ; to trace such empathic ties by looking at success from the perspective of Higher Educational Institutions overall, each other  and that of a small sample of students.
The starting point was a question by one member of the research team to another, in response to their concern about a lack of a shared sense of success between the university and their own sustainability ambitions, ‘so what does your university see as success?’ The response, perhaps obvious, being: ‘the academic teams in my university work towards doing well in the NSS’.
A review of these questions led us to evolve a single, simple question that we might ask of a small sample group of students: ‘what do you expect from your course?’ in order that we might listen well to see how their successes and failures might be bound up in ours. With this singular question, we gathered data across three UK higher education institutions: London College of Fashion, University of Huddersfield and Buckinghamshire New University. 32 responses were collected in total, providing a triangulation of voices across three different undergraduate courses.
The student expectations were initially grouped thematically by frequency of response. This revealed the most prevalent expectations to be ‘learning new skills’ (84%) and ‘developing knowledge of the industry’ (56%). These responses indicate the students expect their university education to provide the skills and knowledge to prepare them for employment in the fashion and textiles industries. Responses were found to be similar across institutions and courses.
Following the initial analysis, the student responses were considered in relation to a framework of four skill sets; leadership, interpersonal, design and analytical. The framework was constructed from skills that can be developed in the study of sustainability, and was devised from existing literature and tacit knowledge. As shown in the diagram, the student responses were then mapped onto the framework. This allowed connections to be made between what the students expect from their studies, and where sustainability could be utilised to meet these expectations.
If success is to be measured by meeting student expectations, then it is important that educators are engaging with these expectations. Developing sustainability within a curriculum can be validated by identifying where it both meets, and exceeds, student expectations. The diagram presents an opportunity to consider how sustainability could be framed, in a way that would be relevant to students, within the subject area of fashion and textiles. Sustainability, and associated skills, could also support student employability, create more dynamic graduate profiles and exceed employer expectations.
If we are to live well with each other and with the life-giving force, which is nature, then we need to collectively transform current practices. We can do so only if we listen well to the expectations of all involved, each with their perspectives, experiences, hopes, dreams and fears. Being listened to and listening well, are vital components of shared understanding and collective action. A lack of which, we see around us, near to home and across the world.
Our findings have been marked out to show an example of connections between student and sustainability educator expectations, so that we, and others, might create a dialogue around integrating sustainability into curriculum in ways that might be clearly recognised to be of mutual benefit.
There is much to say right now about how we can offer a true opportunity for informed decision-making, for values-led action to take place and for the rights of all to be heard. We must navigate a path of fair decision-making on personal, community and national levels based on the voices of all. Sustainability practices such as empathy and visual narratives, such as you see here, offer one way in which we might practice a version of Ubuntu, where previously unrecognised elements of sustainability can be seen to produce the skills and fulfilment of employability and sustainable prosperity in and through fashion.
3 A Lecturer from University of Huddersfield and two members of Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion