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Applying sustainability to skills

05 Feb 2024 | Dr Steven J Burke Contributor to ‘Lighting the Labyrinth: enhancing student success through the 3Es’, Steven J Burke from the University of Warwick, shares some thoughts on why the work in his case study, ‘Turning Sustainability into Skills’, is challenging but also achievable within the wider skills framework his team has developed.

First, a confession, or at least a gesture of self-awareness (one of Warwick’s Core Skills). I am a critic. I probably mean that in any definition you care to choose. I am ready with an assessment and an opinion on most things, and I am prone to expressing disagreement and disapproval, but above all I am an advocate of objective analysis and evaluation in order to form a judgement (this is our definition of Critical Thinking, by the way). I may even meet T.S. Eliot’s expectation that “a critic must have a very highly developed sense of fact”, if anyone can agree on what a fact is anymore.

I question things, and I believe it’s something we need to do much more of as a culture. So, when it comes to the global climate and ecological crises we face, I am prone to strong opinions, but I try to make sure I am informed. When it comes to the structural socio-economic inequalities that maintain both our current destructive path and pervade many of the conservatively pitched mainstream political and economic solutions, I am deeply concerned that the short-term benefits to a few of maintaining the status quo will undermine the collective commitment to change of the current generation of young people, including our students. It might be enough to make many of them (and me) despair. So, how could we support our students to understand the scale of the problem, and to feel confident that they can develop the skills to contribute to finding meaningful solutions? 

Sustainability as a core skill 

I am a Core Skills Developer working on the Warwick Award and Core Skills Framework at the University of Warwick. One of the University’s 12 Core Skills is Sustainability, chosen to keep us in step with wider trends in UK higher education, and following the declaration of a Climate Emergency at Warwick. The Warwick Award is a skills development and recognition programme for all taught students at the University, encouraging students to reflect on all their experiences and the skills they learned and applied. I’m responsible for Sustainability as a Core Skill, and that immediately presented me with a problem. How would we define it (there are lots of ideas and interpretations out there), and especially as a skill or set of skills? It isn’t one; a skill is an ability to do something. It had to be about perspective. Still, we were prepared to give it a try. 

It was also quickly apparent that sustainability could be about everything else on our Core Skills Framework, as a kind of a lens on all skills. But should it be? Is it the best concept under which to marshal meaningful change? Sustainability is proving to be a slippery, nebulous term in a lot of contexts. It can be used to hide the seriousness of the situation or promote fragmented solutions. Its many meanings can also allow for the neglect of the core problems here, namely those of the global effects of climate collapse and ecological destruction. It’s possible, for instance, for states or organisations to fulfil some or many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in a politically expedient manner, without addressing ongoing exploitation of fossil fuels that undermine goal 13’s carbon budget unrecognised systemic and intersecting social inequalities, or the inherent contradictions between a number of the goals such as that between global economic growth and several of the environmental protection targets.


It became a question of prioritisation, where all the factors need to be included in our understanding of ‘sustainability’, but the appropriate pre-eminence had to be awarded to the environmental pillar. Social sustainability comes next, and then the cultural factors – politics and economics – must be subordinated to the priorities of planet and people. Here is our definition: 

The ability to develop capabilities towards balancing the needs of human culture and wider environments for the present and future. 

It’s going to need some context, and some clear routes to application. So, should we make this Core Skill of Sustainability about all transferable skills on our Core Skills Framework? Well, yes, as long as we could define it effectively, contextualise it appropriately, and see evidence from students applying such a lens on their skills development that looked to the future in an effective and sustainable way. For that, they’ll need to think critically, solve problems, communicate effectively, work together, understand how organisations work (or don’t), be literate in their use of information and digital technologies, aware of their own impacts and the composition of their own points of view in relation to others, and do so within an ethical framework of their own making that looks beyond the shortsightedness of ‘business as usual’, maximisation of profits, or individual personal interest. These are all Warwick Core Skills.

I think this means we have the framework for students to develop their skills for sustainability. As I discuss in the case study ‘Turning Sustainability into Skills’, contained within Advance HE’s employability compendium, Lighting the Labyrinth: enhancing student success through the 3Es, we now need to offer them the opportunities to sustainably apply it in their experiences, so they are ready for a world of tumultuous change without feeling unable to affect it positively and meaningfully. 


Steven J Burke is a Skills Developer at the University of Warwick, where the Skills team have developed the Core Skills Framework and the Warwick Award. An historian by training, his interests lie in interdisciplinary critical thinking, and in the complex intersections of our present and future with our past. 

Advance HE members can download Lighting the Labyrinth: enhancing student success through the 3Es here 

Employability Symposium 2024: Distilling The 3Es: ‘What works – and what doesn’t’ 

This event on 25 April will provide a space to discuss and share latest practices in embedding employability among a network of peers. Find out more.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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