“We can influence” interview of Prof Carole Parkes on the launch of the SDSN UK

At the end of January 2022, IIPP launched the Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s UK (SDSN UK), a network comprised of research-intensive Higher Education Institutions mobilised around practical solutions to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

We have had the pleasure to interview Prof. Carole Parkes, Emerita Professor at Winchester University, one of the SDSN UK member institutions. Prof. Parkes has both a business and an academic background with vast experience in Management, Special Issues, such as Inequality and Poverty, and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). She believes that the time to act is now, and we must collaborate within universities and beyond.

Prof Carole Parkes profile photo. She is white with blond hair. she wears a blue blouse with a black stone necklace. She smiles.
Prof Carole Parkes, Emerita Professor at Winchester University

Marina Leite Brandão (MLB): Thank you very much, Prof. Parkes, for talking to us today. We understand that global networks facilitated the negotiation and creation of the SDGs, and the global community is now working on achieving these goals. In this context, how can the SDSN UK catalyse this process? And what can the SDSN UK learn from other networks?

Prof. Dr. Carole Parkes: I think in this space, there has been a growing number of networks and organisations working with universities and business schools, which is where I’m based. Furthermore, until today, there has not been as much collaboration between the different networks and organisations as there could be, especially going outside of the university ecosystem and connecting with other players.

I was one of the instigators of the Principles for Responsible Management Education in the UK (PRME UK) and  chair of the UK & Ireland Chapter for five years. One of the things that we learned early on is that there is no point in competing. We are competing for the world, not in the world. So, we have to make sure that what we do counterbalance and that we are carrying the same messages, maybe from a different perspective, but the same messages. I think collaborating, not just within universities and those networks but beyond, is crucial. A good example I can give you is the SDGs roadshows, a programme we ran within the UN Global Compact, aimed at businesses based around universities. During these events, we brought together businesses, governments, local governments, and other agents to look at the SDGs from the perspective of multiple players.

Besides that, one of the statements I remember quite profoundly from the time when the SDGs were being agreed upon is what Ban Ki-Moon, the UN general secretary at the time, said: solutions to the SDGs will involve everything from regulation to disruptive innovation, and everybody in this space, from chief executives to educators, activists, and citizens. I think it’s this call to being plural, inclusive, and having different agents in society playing their roles where SDSN UK can contribute and make a difference.

MLB: Thinking about the mission-oriented approach and reflecting on the UK context, how can this framework contribute to designing public actions that aim to tackle the SDGs? And what would the role of SDSN UK in proposing these potential public interventions be?

Prof. Parkes: I think it is critical to be activists in this space. We are not passive observers of what is going on. We are not passive vessels to pass on to our students what we think or feel or learn. We are there to change things. As a collective, I think universities and SDSN UK can promote activism as one of their missions. We have to be honest; the UK Government has been poor at engaging with the SDGs; there has been one formal report (Voluntary National Review) so far, and, in many ways, it has not been an area of focus. In terms of public interventions, it doesn’t mean that we take their role. Still, we need to be interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary. SDSN  has a good record of contributing to many different agendas. Therefore, universities should be more vocal about many key areas in the public arena, not just in writing journal articles that other academics will read, but in the public space, blogs, and social media.

At Aston University, where I used to work, for many articles, we would write a version with user-friendly terms to put into the public domain, using different mediums and making it available for public figures. Thus, we facilitated engagement between the local or national politicians and the university. I’ve been involved in events at the House of Commons a few times. I specifically remember one led by the National Union of Students, and we had a reception for their green awards. But they held it in a place where other people had powerful voices, who could hear and listen. It’s about using opportunities that we have to bring in those players and those vocal individuals because we are beyond the point of ‘let’s just talk about this’. It is what we do now, today, as individuals, collectives, universities, and students that matters.

In my work at Winchester, I was involved in a  student-led audit of the curriculum. We had student auditors who produced reports for every subject and faculty about what was in the curriculum. We developed the methodology, and we know from surveys of students that they were happy for many years ahead. It was fantastic. Let’s go beyond talking amongst ourselves in universities, let’s be provocative, and let’s be challenging to the people who can make decisions, which we don’t necessarily have a part in, but that we can influence.

I’m now Emeritus Professor at Winchester University, and I worked with the former Vice-Chancellor for five years. She set the whole mission of the university around the SDGs. It is a 15-year mission, not only five years, like most universities, and that time frame is crucial for an effective transformation. Furthermore, we worked with the National Union Students (now SOS) on their accredited change programme Responsible Futures. We looked not only at the formal curriculum but at the informal curriculum, which includes the community-based activities that are crucial in terms of involving other people besides academics, for example, professional services, libraries, and HR. The subliminal curriculum is related to the messages we send to our communities in various forms. It’s not about being a university (teaching and researching), but about our actions and engagement with other bodies. We are a vehicle for sending powerful messages.

One of the examples that’s often been used is withdrawing from having money in fossil fuels. One of the things that we’ve done is to include the SDGs for students and staff, challenging them on how they will incorporate this into their teaching and their professional services on a day-to-day basis. In HR, for example, part of the recruitment package is that people who apply to work in the organisation should be sympathetic and empathetic to the university’s goals, including articulating what that means in terms of sustainable development. When key players within the university are on board, for example, when you have the Vice-Chancellor’s support, it’s more straightforward to get all the teams involved. So, it is about choosing leaders that can influence how things happen.

MLB: Talking about education, the SDSN UK gives special attention to leading educational change. We experienced different forms of digital education during the pandemic, which now represent a trend and a challenge. To what extent can the SDSN UK members benefit from and contribute to this context?

Prof. Parkes: For many academics and universities, switching to online learning happened quickly. But the challenge is always, how do you ensure that you get the same level of engagement. And it’s very challenging if you don’t have all the social clues you would typically have when teaching in person. Besides, it is important to ask yourself, “how does this make sense to an online audience” and “how does this make sense in different contexts.” It is a real challenge to ensure the opportunity for students and participants to get to know each other in the online space because that can happen naturally on-site, but not necessarily in this digital way. It is important to provide space because sometimes we’re keen on crowding out the content, and it’s essential to think about “how am I using it to its best advantage? Am I doing that, or am I just filling time?”

One of the other things that I worked on was helping to run some of the carbon literacy training with Petra Molthan-Hill, at Nottingham Business School. We had carbon literacy training sessions that were due to be on campus and scheduled for March 2020. So, it was suddenly moved online, which was very challenging, mainly because our diverse audience (staff, students, community) had different levels of knowledge. Having resources, collaboration, and training enabled us to use first-class resources tailored to meet each group’s needs. So those who required more help could receive it, but those who needed stretching more because they already had basic knowledge, could also progress.

In addition, interdisciplinarity and trans-disciplinarity in the educational approach are essential; you cannot teach or learn about these topics without knowing many different areas. Because the problems themselves are complex, they require systems thinking. If you are teaching something about climate, you know the impacts on inequality and poverty, for example. This requires many different sources of knowledge, and it can only be achieved through team teaching rather than a siloed approach.

One of the resources I’ve used for many years as an icebreaker and in assessment is the Sustainability Literacy Tests the Sulitest. This is  a global platform in which you can create a quiz, it is multiple-choice, and you get the response automatically with the resources to justify the answer. I’ve done these quizzes with groups of students. The questions are set by people from different disciplines worldwide. As academics, we tend to focus on things we feel comfortable with and things we know about. However, we can’t possibly know everything. With Sulitest, students can have access to the answers and the resources they need to start research; it gives them an insight. We’ve had people saying: ” I’d like to take that further as a project because I was looking at the resources to answer those questions, and it’s something that speaks to me.” That has been very useful.

Therefore, in terms of the digital transformation, I think this is inevitable, and it’s actually really positive because it’s made everyone think about it. Engagement is absolutely paramount. With the platform’s indicators, you can see whether students interact with the resources. We can download all this information. Therefore it’s not that we don’t know whether they’re engaging; it’s whether we’re taking the trouble to look at that and change it.

MLB: The SDGs are extensive and cover many sectors of our society. When thinking about reducing inequality, ableism and the lack of accessibility are key challenges. Therefore, how have the members of the SDSN UK addressed this issue so far? And how can this network contribute to bringing diversity to the table?

Prof. Parkes:  I think this is very important because, with ableism, there is sometimes a focus on visible disabilities instead of invisible disabilities. Another key thing is having a real integration instead of tokenistic actions (including someone in a wheelchair on a panel, for example), which are often symbolic and don’t represent meaningful change. If we’re talking about how we represent this, we should look at articles written in a personal reflective manner by people affected by these issues. What are the issues that they would want to have on the agenda? Maybe that should feature as part of a service, giving voice to the unheard voices of those with disabilities that are not often visible.

When I was working with PRME, we had a colleague who was blind, and she was part of the organising committee. It was incredible how simple things like the presentations at the conferences would not be accessible. Although the presenters would be briefed, they wouldn’t pay attention to the fact that someone isn’t able to see their presentation and isn’t able to understand when they’re making references. That sounds obvious, but I witnessed that happening in an environment where we thought things were being addressed. And it takes a lot of confidence and courage to say: “hang on a minute.” We shouldn’t require people who have disabilities to have to stop the proceedings and say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” We should ask them ahead of time; we should consider making it more accessible to people with different abilities or who are differently abled.

You focused on disability as a matter of inclusion, but in universities, there is a focus on elitism, which I find really challenging. Sometimes, the best examples and advocates for the SDGs don’t come from privileged positions, elite universities, or elite situations. So, we ignore many different things when we’re talking about inclusion. And I think ableism is one of those issues that gets hidden because we may have requirements to make sure we have a diverse panel, for example, but we tend not to go beyond that, and that is where the best ideas and the best experience can come from.

MLB: Would you like to share your final thoughts at the end of this interview?

Prof. Parkes: The work that I focus on has two main streams. I have a business background in human resource management, and I came into academia because of my interest in fairness and justice. Thus, a lot of it was through social justice, and one major stream has been working on poverty. I worked as one of the key members of the anti-poverty working group in PRIME. We have been trying to understand whether poverty is included as an issue in education and specifically in business education since education is a lot about wealth creation and too little about the other end of that spectrum, which is about poverty.

I was in Rio de Janeiro – Brazil, for the 2012 Global Earth Summit. We produced a survey asking 500 business schools and universities worldwide whether they included poverty in their curricula, and why they did or didn’t do it. That was presented at the Earth Summit, galvanizing a large group of people. On the back of that, we produced a number of handbooks and articles.

A first handbook was produced on understanding poverty as a topic to be taught in this context. A second handbook was about the fact that teaching poverty requires different approaches, pedagogues, methods, and experiential and practical learning. Furthermore, we had a book, which included real-world examples from around the globe about teaching poverty. We followed that up in 2017 with another global survey to see whether any difference could be identified. And the survey was translated into seven different languages to be used by academics who may not use English as a teaching language. Then followed a survey of students, trying to get to the bottom of these issues. One of the key things that emerged early is whether this is a legitimate topic to teach. It is incredible that some business schools didn’t see poverty and social issues, at that time, as legitimate topics? So, what we’ve tried to do was address those issues.

Another area that I’ve been very actively involved in is responsible management education. I produced special issues with colleagues worldwide on teaching responsible management, which covers a range of issues related to the SDGs, like governance and ethics. I was also privileged to be a Co-editor of the Sage research handbook on responsible management education, produced in 2020.

Finally, there is a fantastic quote from David Orr, who is one of my all-time favourite writers about sustainable development, and he says: “without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more effective vandals of the earth. If one listens carefully, it may even be possible to hear the Creation groan every year in late May when another batch of smart, degree-holding, but ecologically illiterate, Homo sapiens who are eager to succeed are launched into the biosphere.” (David Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, 1994, p. 5).

Education can be a powerful tool, but it can also be destructive. I think that is something we need to remember.

MLB: I learned so much from this conversation Prof. Carole; thank you very much for your time.

As Prof. Parkes explained, finding solutions for the SGDs requires a systemic approach and a deep collaboration among different stakeholders. SDSN UK can be a catalyst in this context; through activism, education, diversity, and a strategy to maximise opportunities, the UK network can provide a platform for promoting solutions that contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.