Global CCE Blog

Wild Policy: Sustainability Policy Making in Higher Education

Alex Wilson & Marcia McKenzie

Wild policy in higher education policy making

In 2018, the United Nations’ (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report warning that if significant action to address the impacts of climate change is not taken before 2030, we will not be able to avoid a climate-related worst case scenario.

Figure 1. Tess Lea (2020) Wild Policy

Since then, an increasing number of higher education institutions have indicated their intent to develop more meaningful and robust sustainability policies. Research on sustainability policy development in higher education settings, however, suggests that productive change is difficult to achieve and that the processes through which these policies are developed and/or implemented are typically fragmentary and slow. 

In her recent book, Wild Policy, Indigeneity and the Unruly Logic of Intervention (2020), Tess Lea draws on Indigenous community members’ knowledge and experience of policy making processes (Figure 1). Overturning notions of policy making as a linear, rational and evidence-based policy process, Lea instead suggests that policy making is an inherently ‘wild’ process, unwieldy, unpredictable, and one that elicits or requires human resistance.

Our current research activities explore implications of Lea’s theoretical work on wild policy in relation to the development and uptake of sustainability policies in higher education. We suggest that, rather than focusing on the UN’s global ‘Sustainable Development Goals,’ a focus on locally embedded approaches can drive more ethical and progressive policy responses. 

In our recent research paper, Sustainability as wild policy: Mobile SDG interventions and land-informed policy in education, we examine the approaches taken to develop policy responses to climate and sustainability in two higher education settings, one located in Saskatchewan and the other in the Arctic territory of Nunavut. Our thinking is informed by our experiences as a Cree and as a settler Canadian, and builds on our contributions in the development of a sustainability plan for a post-secondary institution. We share considerations of sustainability policy making in these two settings, before drawing some conclusions around less ‘wild,’ more effective and more just policy making. 

Sustainability plan development

The Saskatchewan university developed initial plans for a new university-wide sustainability plan in mid-2019. A President’s Advisory Circle on Sustainability was created and included the Vice Provost of Indigenous Engagement, as well as an Indigenous teaching and learning expert. Consultative groups were also established across the university. 

While initial plans focused on climate action, subsequent plans focused instead on broader UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While the SDGs offer potentially useful guiding principles for sustainability policy development that are used productively in many disciplines, at the Saskatchewan university, the SDGs, because they are unmoored from local context and understandings, demonstrated aspects of ‘wild policy’. Alongside this, specific policy points, such as ambitious climate action plans, were exchanged for broad high level goals, such as to “nurture and convene public discourse on sustainability and the SDGs” (Figure 2). 

This policy making process aligned with the ‘wild policy’ model in several ways (Lea, 2020). Shifts in policy priorities occurred in upper-level personnel meetings; the university was contending with a Conservative government that too frequently cuts higher education funding; and the university had begun participating in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, which ‘”assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” The policy emphasis on SDGs also appeared to de-pair sustainability action from the university’s established priorities of Indigenous and reconciliation action. 

Figure 2: Draft Sustainability Plan Commitment 1—Leverage our Place; and Summary

We saw that the university’s policy making process had become a process of conflicting priorities and aspirations. The university was concerned with global rankings, affected by funding cuts, ongoing settler orientations to policy change, and had good intentions to mitigate climate change through policy.

Figure 3: Posters on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, hanging on wall at research site

Land-informed policy in the Arctic territory of Nunavut

We observed a very different policy making approach at a second higher education institution located in Nunavut, one of three Canadian northern territories. Around 84% of Nunavut’s population of 33,000 are Inuit (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, n.d.). As a territory returned to Inuit self-governance, Nunavut legislation enshrines traditional knowledge (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or IQ) as the basis for policy decision-making. 

Data for this section was drawn from a national comparative study of sustainability engagement in K-12 and higher education across Canadian provinces and territories (; interviews with students, faculty, administrators and community members from the territory’s higher education and K-12 education systems, and a review of Nunavut curriculum and Department of Education’s strategic priorities. 

A strong Indigenous land-based orientation was observed in both interviews and the reviewed policy materials. There was no mention of the SDGs, and little use of the term ‘sustainability’. Instead, policy making focused on IQ, which includes eight interwoven principles, including one that highlights ‘respect and care for the land, animals and the environment’ or Avatittinnik Kamatsiarniq (see Figure 3).

The Nunavut’s higher education institution’s emphasis on self-governance and alignment with IQ makes productive sustainability/climate policy making possible. Rather than emphasize the SDGs, a policy priority that became unruly and ‘wild’ in Saskatchewan, Nunavut’s policy making placed IQ at the forefront, enabling a holistic and interwoven process. Because IQ policy guidance emerges from the land, it is a decolonizing force, and has greater potential to further environmental sustainability and to protect and support the resurgence of Indigenous cultural practice and language. 

In a striking contrast to ‘wild’ processes of policy making, this example of Nunavut policy making that centres and protects Inuit knowledge demonstrates that purposeful and effective policy making must not only be structural and specific but also must explicitly dismantle settler-colonial orientations. 

Conclusions: Systemic and decolonizing approaches

We offer our thoughts here in consideration of what it could mean to introduce more systematic and more specific place- and land-informed policy approaches, rather than to accept and promote global ‘wild’ versions. Pre-made ‘wild’ policy framings undermine possibilities for decolonized, effective sustainability policy making in higher education settings, including policy related to climate action and Indigenous sovereignty.

Understanding policy making processes as ‘wild’ provides a useful framework for capturing ineffectual processes and remnants of settler policy making, as evidenced in the process of engaging SDGs in higher education policy making. We call for more attention to systematic policy making processes and a decolonizing and land-informed approach to higher education policy both in policy decision-making and in future policy research.

About the Authors

Dr. Alex Wilson is Professor and the Academic Director of the Aboriginal Education Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. She is Swampy Cree from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. Her scholarship has greatly contributed to building and sharing knowledge about two-spirit identity, history, and teachings, indigenous research methodologies, anti-oppressive education, and the prevention of violence in the lives of indigenous peoples. As a community activist and Idle No More organizer, her work also focuses on interventions that prevent the destruction of land and water. She is the recent recipient of the University of Saskatchewan Distinguished Researcher Award, the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Medal and an honorary doctorate from the University of Winnipeg. She is passionate about land-based education and was instrumental in developing the University of Saskatchewan’s Master of Indigenous Land-based Education Program.

Dr. Marcia McKenzie is Professor in Global Studies and International Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research includes both theoretical and applied components at the intersections of comparative and international education, global education policy research, and climate and sustainability education, including in relation to policy mobility, place and land, affect, and other areas of social and geographic study. She is Director of the $4.5M Monitoring and Evaluating Climate Communication and Education (MECCE) Project and the Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN) and is an inducted member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists. She is co-author of Place in Research: Theory, Methodology, and Methods (Routledge, 2015) and Critical Education and Sociomaterial Practice: Narration, Place, and the Social (Peter Lang, 2016), co-editor of Land Education: Rethinking Pedagogies of Place from Indigenous, Postcolonial, and Decolonizing Perspectives (Routledge, 2016) and Fields of Green: Restorying Culture, Environment, and Education (Hampton, 2009); and co-edits the Palgrave book series Studies in Education and the Environment.


1. Lea, T. (2020). Wild policy: Indigeneity and the unruly logics of intervention. Stanford University Press

2. McKenzie, M., & Wilson, A. (2022). Sustainability as Wild Policy: Mobile SDG interventions and land-informed policy in education. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.