A question of responsibility: Virtual talk on the topic of sustainability

In the fourth edition of the International Office's online talk series, UAS expert Susanne Schidler and Hervé Boileau, professor of process engineering from the Université Savoie Mont Blanc discussed the responsibility and tasks of higher education institutions in terms of sustainability.

Webinar Nachhaltigkeit Cover

The EU Green Week was the occasion for the fourth online webinar of the International Office of the UAS Technikum Wien to discuss the major topic of sustainability and the central role of higher education in sustainable development. This time Susanne Schidler from the UAS' competence field for renewable energy systems and Hervé Boileau, professor of process engineering from the Université Savoie Mont Blanc (F) were invited as discussion partners for the online round table.
For the opening statements, the two experts were asked about their professional and private approach to the topic. Susanne Schidler's answer: Her perspectives coincide. She is interested in a comprehensive view of the use of technologies. It is important to integrate technology in such a way that it helps people, but is also good for the environment. However, one should never forget the social aspects when making decisions.
Hervé Boileau reports that he has been dealing with this topic professionally already for 25 years. At that time, however, nobody talked about "sustainable development". Today, as a researcher and lecturer in engineering, it is important for him to discuss social aspects, politics and decision-making processes with his students. "I often tell the students: a technical topic like heat transfer will never be a topic for political discussion - waste management, on the other hand, very much will." Personally, he says, it is important to do your best and try to improve your own behaviour.

The responsibility of higher education institutions

In any case, higher education institutions have an important function as "role models" in terms of sustainability, Susanne Schidler emphasises. However, strategies are needed in the institutions to show that the goals set can also be achieved if certain measures are adhered to. "It is not enough to just teach it. You also have to live it and show that it is possible to achieve the goals."

The responsibility of higher education institutions has always been to provide society with information, tools and answers from a scientific perspective, adds Hervé Boileau. In this way, they also provide decision-making aids for policy-makers. This is particularly important in questions of sustainable development, but not always easy. "The population wants to know today what it will be like in 2030, 2050 or a hundred years from now. But people expect answers that we cannot yet give. We often only have ideas and no ready-made solutions at hand," says the expert.

"But you also have to ask the right questions - and show the students that this is also their responsibility. And that there are not always clear answers," adds Susanne Schidler. "After all, especially when it comes to sustainability, one answer often leads to the next question."

Cooperation instead of competition

Higher education institutions worldwide had the opportunity for almost a decade, from 2005 to 2014, within the framework of the „United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development“ to develop common standards in sustainability, the UAS expert continues. However, this period was not well used. The US universities, on the other hand, had developed joint strategies at that time. This shows how important cooperation is in this area. Each institution can contribute its own focus and strengths. "This is about necessary cooperation, not competition," says Schidler.

Her colleague Boileau, however, points out a related dilemma: "To be able to cooperate well, you also have to meet people directly - not everything works only via Zoom." To do that, however, you also have to travel, which in turn is not good for the ecological footprint. In discussions on the topic, his students often argue that flights that go beyond a certain distance should be banned, says the researcher. In Austria, however, this debate is going the other way round, says Schidler: In this country, there is currently a discussion about whether particularly short flights should be banned.

Political solutions needed

When asked how to teach the topic of sustainability to students, both experts have different answers. "I tell my students to reflect on their behaviour. But it's not about changing everything at once, but only step by step. That's the only way to make an effective difference in the end," says Boileau. Schidler, on the other hand, is convinced that students need to be shown that small steps in private will not bring visible effects in the foreseeable future. "The big issues need political solutions." This is a difficult dilemma, the expert is aware, because at the same time it is always about questions of responsibility and ethics at the core. She says it is important to show students the range and diversity of what sustainability can mean in the context of research projects. "We also have to show here: There is no particular point to reach here, but only a direction to go in."

Learning from the youth

But can higher education institutions also learn something from the younger generation in times of "Fridays for Future"? And are there any implications for teaching from this global climate movement in recent years? The two experts give differentiated answers to these questions: For them, little has changed in teaching, reports Schidler. However, she says it is important for her to listen and to seek dialogue with the students.  "I also try to show that it is important not to take things for granted - and that it is allowed to have a different opinion than the person who is currently teaching."In principle, however, students in the field of renewable energies are strongly interested in the topic of sustainability anyway.

"After all, you don't have to discuss climate change now. You can talk about behaviour and change instead," Hervé Boileau adds in conclusion. It is important to emphasise the positive: "Instead of saying: I have to take the bus because the car is so expensive, it is better to say: This is my contribution!“