Making Sustainable Higher Education: A Critique of Scholarly Responsibilities, Professionalisation and Praxis

  • Susanne Müller

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Since the late 20th century, Western society has been permeated by a pervasive, yetfundamentally contested sense of ecological crisis. While diagnoses abound, shifts in criticalforms of Western science and the so-called ‘postmodern condition’, raise a recurring issue fordebate: the positioning and qualities of scholarship in relation to societal transformation.Reflexively, if not normatively, academia is challenged to reflect on the implications of the‘storying’ and ‘re-storying’ of scholarship vis-à-vis the socio-ecological, such that bothscholarly processes and ‘ends-in-view’ foster an intellectual field of inquiry and engagementthat is more relevant to - if not responsible for - a ‘deeply’ democratic, ecologically sensitizedsocial order. Providing a major line of response regarding this broader background, ‘sustainablehigher education’ currently emerges as a highly complex phenomenon that takes shape across arange of sites and contexts in relation to a variety of local and specific academic practices. Itmay thus be variously understood as a strategy for addressing the environmental andsustainability crises identified at the Rio Earth Summit, as a matter of academic concern andfield of intellectual inquiry, and as a regulative ideal for policy, professionalism and practice inthe ‘greening’ of higher education.The present study documents the associated politics of (knowledge) change, by taking a broaderinterest in how sustainable higher education, as a social and discursive practice, is currentlyconstituted and reconstituted across differently positioned academics from a range of academicsites and contexts, namely universities in England, Austria and Germany. Focusing on theacademic knowledge practices in relation to the emergence of sustainable higher education, thestudy proceeds to analyse these through an integrated lens of academic subjectivity; i.e. withthis not being conceptualised as a clearly ‘bounded’ or ‘fixed’ entity, but rather an entangled,relational and practical matter of culturally (re-)productive self-production. Working withempirical material generated from episodic interviews and via a set of heuristic tools developedfrom poststructuralist and critical hermeneutic theories, the study thus illustrates thecontemporary constitution of subjectivities in/of sustainable higher education, illuminating howa historico-cultural reading of subject configurations and activities is suggestive of a widerstructural shift.Working across diverse configurations of the policies and politics of the field, this shift is oftenexpected, if not inferred, to be catalytic in transforming increasingly abstracted forms ofknowledge/cultural production towards ‘re-responsibilitisation’. The study further exemplifieshow this can be associated with the broader conditions of an ‘eco-politics of unsustainability’,which seems so hard to overcome precisely because it is made manifest at more practical levelsthrough the quite mundane ways in which academics go about their daily business. Yet, acounter reading is possible too: this points to the perhaps ‘wild(er)’ aspects of these always-alsoaffective practices through which new relationalities can emerge. Taken together, the study’sincreasingly integrated readings thus work towards the exploration of how academicsubjectivities might be re-made if positioned at the intersections of social inquiry and practicalphilosophy in the lives of ‘everyday sustainable higher education makers’.
Date of Award31 Dec 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorAlan Reid (Supervisor) & Jill Porter (Supervisor)


  • sustainable higher education
  • social praxis
  • academic knowledge production
  • subjectivity
  • reflexivity

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