Knowledge for Development

Descending the Ivory Tower and re-making higher education in the era of (un)sustainability

Author: Dr. Paul Kibwika, Makerere University, Uganda , Dr. Arjen E.J. Wals, Wageningen University & Research Centre, The Netherlands

Date: 22/02/2008


We live in an essentially ‘systemic world’ characterised by multiple causation, interactions and complex feedback loops, yet the dominant educational structures are based on fragmentation rather than connection, relationship and synergy (Sterling, 2001). Universities, confronted with 21st century challenges must therefore not only rediscover, build on and share indigenous ways of knowing and acting, but generate and or adapt new concepts and practices that will contribute to creating a world that is more sustainable. Academics who still believe that universities are Ivory Towers must be willing to make a paradigm shift so that universities become an integral part of the communities that support them. Hence, a challenge to those involved in shaping higher education in agriculture and life sciences in the ACP region is to revisit institutional practices, examine the disciplines and provide more synergy and become more accountable for economic and human development.


Learning and Competence

Education is a means for people to become self-actualized members of society, seeking meaning, contributing to developing their own potential and creating solutions together. A sustainable world without participation and democracy is improbable, and perhaps even impossible (Wals & Jickling, 2002). It cannot be created without the full and democratic involvement of all members of society. Universities therefore must engage their students not so much in learning for knowing, but rather in learning for doing and, indeed, learning for being (Table 1). Learning for being suggests learning that is not of a transmissive nature (i.e. teaching as reproduction) but rather of a transformative nature (i.e. learning as change). The latter requires permeability between disciplines, university and the wider community, and between cultures, along with the competence to integrate, connect, confront and reconcile multiple ways of looking at the world.

The struggle to find integrated solutions through participatory, multi-disciplinary, innovation systems seems important, but many ACP universities have not yet been very effective in developing the corresponding competences of their staff or students. In addition to their academic functions, faculty and students must develop a different form of learning, if the university is to take on more societal and developmental functions, or more specifically, is to influence change in a complex environment. Most critical is the issue of the university’s competence to provide training, research and outreach services that appropriately address real-life problems.

The university must skilfully identify competence gaps of professionals, farmers, policymakers and other agricultural stakeholders, through collaborative learning for change. It is such engagement with stakeholders that results in innovations that are likely to liberate farmers and nations from the poverty trap and contribute to socio-economic development that does not compromise the future. It calls for the development of innovation cross-cutting competences in which lecturers become facilitators of learning for development for influencing change in society. Linking and strengthening of competences will therefore occur at various levels: university, development service providers and the grass-roots community. Figure 1 provides the key elements, functions and relationships that, when holistically considered, make up innovation competence.

Unlike academics, who communicate primarily with peers, practitioners find themselves at the interface of researchers, donors, governments, multi-lateral agencies, activists, NGOs, and poor communities, and thus need to be able to operate in multiple communicative modalities (Woolcock, 2006). Communication skills integrate professionals in society and allow them effectively to influence change as members of that social system through participating in rather than studying that system. Lecturers and students must become engaged in co-learning to co-create knowledge through greater interaction between the university and the community. This means that universities can no longer train students who can only communicate with peers.

Emerging strands of research

Scientists now and in the future must be able to break out of routines that reinforce the status quo and explore creative and unorthodox ways of solving complex problems. Through such engagement, creativity will be unleashed, as scientists begin to rise to and relish the challenge of solving neglected and complex problems drawn to their attention through community engagement. This will imply much risk taking as criteria for academic advancement may change from being based solely on peer refereed journals. ‘Research as mining’ may no longer be the prevailing mode of research but will be complemented with ‘research as learning’ and, even more radical perhaps, ‘research as activism’ (Table 2).


When people find solutions that work for them they take charge of their own development and become entrepreneurial thinkers and doers: i.e. people who can cope with and take advantage of uncertainty and complexity. Universities will more and more be required to develop entrepreneurs rather than bureaucrats. But entrepreneurship is not acquired by proclaiming it, or by teaching theory but by practical engagement. To develop entrepreneurs, university lecturers must also become entrepreneurs, in the sense that they must also find workable solutions to problems in diverse contexts. Action research and process consultancy provide mechanisms for enabling lecturers to become educational or research entrepreneurs. In this type of engagement, the focus shifts from getting tasks done to solving a problem or generating new products, which involves a lot of creativity and adaptation.

Didactical implications

Integrating aspects of economic growth, social stability and sustainability cannot be realised without thinking very critically about re-structuring didactical arrangements. These new arrangements pre-suppose a problem orientation and experiential and lifelong learning that are likely to trigger the following shifts in educational orientation (Wals, 2000):


    from consumptive learning to discovery learning in open-source environments



    from teacher-centred to learner-centred arrangements



    from individual learning to collaborative learning



    from theory dominated learning to praxis-oriented learning



    from sheer knowledge accumulation to problematic issue orientation



    from content-oriented learning to self-regulative learning



    from institutional staff-based learning to learning with and from outsiders



    from low level cognitive learning to higher level cognitive learning



In the future, ACP universities that adopt this new way of thinking and doing business will be given greater recognition as leaders in society where cutting edge new knowledge is generated. They will constantly question and reform deeply entrenched unsustainable routines, structures and practices and engage in collaborative endeavour in continuously seeking to preserve the planet. Finally, the university and the university community will have to mimic the kind of sustainable practices it seeks to promote in its research and education in the way it runs its own business. The university of the future lives and learns by example. Failing to do so will widen the gap between rhetoric and reality and further undermine the university’s credibility.


Bawden, R. and Macadam, R. (1991) Action Researching Systems: Extension Reconstructed. Paper prepared for the workshop 'Agricultural Knowledge Systems and the Role of Extension' held at the University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany. 21-25 May, 1991.

Dillon, J. and Wals, A.E.J. (2006) On the dangers of blurring methods, methodologies and ideologies in environmental education research. Environmental Education Research 12 (3/4), pp. 549 - 558.

Kibwika, P. (2006) Learning to make change: Developing innovation competence for recreating the African university of the 21st century. Published PhD-Thesis. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.

Sterling, S. (2001) Sustainable Education: Re-visioning and Change. Schumacher Briefing No. 6. Green Books Ltd.

Wals, A.E.J. and Jickling, B. (2002) “Sustainability” in Higher Education from doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. Higher Education Policy 15, pp. 121-131.

Wals, A.E.J. and Bawden, R. (2000) Integrating sustainability into agricultural education: dealing with complexity, uncertainty and diverging worldviews. Gent: ICA.

Woolcock, M. (2006) “Higher Education, Policy Schools, and Development Studies: What Should Masters Degree Students be Taught?”. Journal of International Development 19 (1), pp. 55 - 73.

Key resources by the authors on this subject:

Kibwika, P. (2006) Learning to make change: Developing innovation competence for recreating the African university of the 21st century.

Wals, A.E.J. (2007) Social Learning towards a sustainable world.
Shalcross, T., Robinson, J., Pace, P. and A.E.J. Wals (2006) Creating Sustainable Environments in our Schools.

Corcoran, P.B. and Wals, A.E.J (Eds.) (2004) Higher Education and the Challenge of Sustainability: Problematics, Promise, and Practice. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Press.


No Comments available.

Please log in to make your comment. In order to log in you may have to first register.