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Teaching sustainability – perspectives from South Africa and Finland

This blog post is a part of a study, which focuses on the widely recognised need for a transformation of tourism higher education to better respond to the ongoing societal and environmental changes impacting the tourism industry.


Eva Holmberg

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Annika Konttinen

lehtori, matkailuliiketoiminta
Senior Lecturer, tourism business
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Antonia Thandi Nzama

University of Zululand

Published : 24.05.2023

We are in the process of writing a joint publication based on six group interviews with university lecturers in South Africa and Finland. In the following, we discuss some key issues related to teaching sustainability that came up in our interviews and discussions with our colleagues in South Africa and Finland.

Economic sustainability

To develop in a sustainable way all economies need companies, new jobs and tax revenue.

In the South African context, economic sustainability could be enhanced by forming closer ties between institutions of higher learning and the industry to increase employability of graduates. Collaborations and partnerships between higher education institutes and industry enhance the understanding among academic staff of the key competences needed for a graduate to be employable. As tourism and hospitality studies are about gaining tools to develop the competitiveness of tourism businesses after graduation, it is crucial that students gain solid business-related competences during their studies.

Finnish tourism lecturers see that companies and their activities can be used to highlight many responsibility issues to students. It is inspiring to work with companies that are interested in making their business more responsible. Students learn to understand that companies must be profitable to stay in business and work for environmental and social sustainability. Through collaboration with industry, Finnish tourism and hospitality students learn essential business skills such as how to do digital marketing in practice.

Environmental sustainability

The environmental realities are very different in the Global South and the Global North. As load shedding (interruption of electricity supply) and a need to increase digitalisation are on top of the agenda in South Africa, Finland aims to lead in the Green Transition and Circular Economy.

In South Africa, lecturers are aware of the significance of including themes on environmental sustainability in their curriculum. This will enhance students’ understanding of environmental issues that affect their daily lives. The country is steadily grappling with ways that will contribute to environmental sustainability.

One of the major challenges is load shedding, which has necessitated a move away from heavy reliance on coal towards the use of solar energy. To reduce its carbon footprint, the country has seen an increase in the number of virtual and hybrid meetings, events and learning sessions which all reduce travelling.

Finnish lecturers highlight climate change and loss of biodiversity as two major concerns. Some students even question the choice of their field as travelling pollutes so much. The Finnish tourism scene is reliant on travel over long distances, but the transport network is in dire need of an upgrade. The country is like an island and tourists come by air. Many attractions are accessible by car only. This highlights the need to mitigate climate change and transition to renewables.

Lecturers in both countries see that new technology, especially AI, needs to be understood and used by students to be able to manage use of resources more efficiently in the future.

Social sustainability

While inclusivity and equality are topics discussed in both the Global North and South, the discussions are much more intense in South Africa. Due to the diverse population and multiple cultures, the sensitivities that need to be addressed are many. Lecturers see that tourism is an ideal field to tackle these issues as tourism aims to achieve peace and harmony between people. Tourism lecturers are tolerant and flexible, able to adjust to new circumstances.

Strides have been taken in South Africa to create an inclusive economy that will ensure sustainable livelihoods to all its citizens. The government has come up with various strategies that are aimed at the transformation of the tourism sector, which, for many years, has not been representative of the demographics of the country.

Government interventions have focused on accelerating the transformation of the sector through awareness and capacity building programmes, legislation, support to the sections of the population that have been left behind. South African partners see that red tape and the top-down approach of government is not working. The voice of the community needs to be heard. People are resilient and ready to embrace change.

In Finland, much like everywhere in Europe, the main concerns after the pandemic are the lack of staff, poor leadership and unsatisfactory working conditions in tourism and hospitality. Employees feel that they are taken advantage of, especially people with foreign backgrounds and youth are complaining. Taking care of staff and their wellbeing should be the priority for tourism companies. Happy employees make guests happy.

To conclude, the level of economic development determines the most crucial issues for sustainable development. Certainly, all the three pillars of sustainability are discussed in both South Africa and Finland, but the focus areas may differ depending on the realities on the ground.

The article is written as part of the SUCSESS project. Read more on the project website.