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Social and Solidarity Economy

Sustainability and Higher Education

Read articles by Sorina Antonescu on sustainability and higher education.

Article 1 - Sustainable Development and Universities: Combining the New and the Old

In this article, Antonescu starts by discussing the notion of sustainability and sustainable development (SD) from a historical perspective and then break it down into more specific information; in the second half of the article she narrows the area of SD further to HEIs and provides a number of reasons as to why they are such an optimal starting point for imbuing a sustainable ethos in their curricula, operations, outreach and research.

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History and overview of sustainability/sustainable development

One of the most well-known attempts at defining the concept of sustainable development is found in the Bruntland Report (WCED, 1987). The report, which captures the deliberations of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), a United Nations formal group, aims to find ways to systematically pursue the conservation of the environment at an international scale in light of economic, social and political considerations. (Filho, 200o, p.9)

According to the report,

Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (WCED, 1987, p.16)

The concept of sustainable development is thus a concerted effort to bring together growing concerns on the increasing environmental degradation and interrelated socio-political and economic factors, in order to lay the foundation for a process that links these apparently stand-alone factors to human equity (Hopwood et al., 2005, p.2).

Yet, despite the fact that sustainability or the concept of sustainable development (henceforth SD) permeates the scientific field as a whole (with particular relevance in the earth sciences) the tracing of the concept’s origins remains a challenging task, more so as its wide appeal and applicability to a wide range of societal issues has left it subject to political discourse and rhetoric (Filho, 2000, p.9).

According to Filho (2000, p.9) the use of the concept of sustainability can be traced back to the 1970s to refer to the management of the forestry sector. Sustainability has been synonymous for expressions such as ‘long term’, ‘durable’, ‘sound’ or ‘systematic’ (ibid). However, as Blewitt and Cullingford (2004, p.17) point out,

The problem with the notion of sustainability is that is has become a cliché.

This is one of the main reasons why there is prevalent disagreement in providing a clear outline of the term. While it can be applied to an array of contexts – whether those are social, economic, cultural or political- allowing room for intellectual manoeuvre (ibid), it has also become a tool increasingly popular in political rhetoric, whereby opposing or competing parties misuse the term such that it de-legitimises the resonance of the idea. They continue to add that,

When phrases such as ‘robust, sustainable, lifelong agenda-setting’ trip off the political tongue, all kind of legitimate intellectual ideas are contaminated.

Carter (2001, p.2) refers to this tendency as the party politicisation of environmental issues, whereby sustainable development ascends the political agenda to become electorally salient and the subject of party antagonism. A direct consequence of this verbal dexterity has been that sustainability has become what Blewitt and Cullingford (2004, p.18) refer to as a 'Humpty-Dumpty word'.

While it is unlikely to be a universal consensus on the meaning of SD due to one’s training, work experience or political and economic background, establishing some ground rules is a first step in search for a consensus, despite differences stemming from individual opinions and perspectives (Filho 2000, p.10).

One way to overcome the problem is by outlining the different approaches to the processes which may ultimately lead to sustainable development and narrowing its application to a particular domain (ibid). The present article and its subsequent issues will have universities as a focal point in the context of sustainable development.

  1. Sustainability and SD: a magnifying glass perspective
  2. The role of universities

So what does sustainability really mean and what does SD actually entail?

Filho (2000) attempts to capture the essence of SD from 4 different angles. These include:

a)     The systematic, long term use of natural resources where the management of natural resources should be carried out in light of principles of human equity;

This view is echoed in the Bruntland Report and refers to the actions undertaken by individual countries.

b)     The modality of development that enables states to progress, economically and socially by adopting an ecocentric mind-set which entails placing emphasis on environmentally sound policies;

This second interpretation of SD refers to domestic policies.

c)      The type of development which is ‘socially just, ethically acceptable, morally fair and economically sound’ (ibid, p.10);

This view refers to the social dynamics of the SD process.

d)     The type of development where there is an equal amount of prominence given to environmental and economic indicators;

This last view is concerned with the implementation of alternative policy paradigms of SD and ecological modernisation (Carter 2001, p.6). This is a policy strategy which aims to reconfigure capitalist political economy along more environmentally benign lines. It stems from the premise that economic growth and environmental protection are interdependent (ibid).

It is undeniable that the current anthropocentric practices which manifest themselves at a societal level in the form of consumerist dogmas, individualism and undeterred exponential economic growth on a planet of finite resources and a fragile life-support system, are simply no longer practicable.

According to Ferrer-Balas et al. (2010), as we are increasingly confronted with an unsustainable present and a precarious future, one of the central issues on the global agenda is to search for potential leverage points in order to catalyse the transition towards more sustainable societies. From a post materialist angle, a sustainable society would be centred around well-being rather than well-having and taking a holistic view of the inherent interdependency between environmental, social, political and economic factors. Such practices would be part of a wide-spread reformist acceptance of capitalist liberal democracy, a new economic model and a broader social justice agenda (Carter, 2001, p.7).  

In this context, there is an overall consensus that universities have the ability to act as a catalyst for triggering much needed system-wide behavioural changes and instilling a sustainability ethos across its curricula and research through operations such as reforming campus facilities management, outreach in their local communities and beyond ( Didac Ferrer-Balas et al., 2010; Cortese, 2003; Alshuwaikhat and Abubakar, 2008; Lozano, 2011; Lozano et al., 2011; Lidgren et al., 2006; Davis, 2003; Clare and Mathaisel, 2005; Savageau, 2013; Holmberg et al., 2008; Filho, 2000; Blewitt and Cullingford, 2004).

The reasons why there is such an overwhelming consensus in the literature regarding the pivotal role of universities in contributing towards the development of more sustainable societies is twofold.

At a first glimpse, higher education institutions (HEIs) enjoy unique academic freedom which along with the critical mass and wealth of skills that exist within their confines, enable them to act as society’s worst critic and allow pioneering ideas to flourish whilst raising the awareness, knowledge, beliefs, values and skills to ‘engage in bold experimentation in sustainable living (Cortese, 2003, p.17).

Cullingford (2004, p.13) makes a poignant observation when he states that ‘the modern university is part of the ethos of the time’. From their earliest beginnings universities have always mirrored their wider societies and their purpose has evolved in parallel with that of their surrounding environment.

The central motif of Newman’s (1873) The Idea of a University, with its moral ideal of the unbiased quest for truth that combines human understanding with knowledge, has been gradually eroded by a society centred on careerism and catering for a system unable to face some of the more complex issues facing the world today that are partly the result of an increasingly globalised and interconnected world.

Universities have thus a profound, moral responsibility to challenge the status quo and take the lead in overcoming the challenges associated with SD proactively.  As Cortese (2003, p.17) explains,

HEIs train most of the professionals who develop, lead, manage, teach, work in and influence society’s institutions, including the most basic foundation of K-12 education. Besides training future teachers, higher education strongly influences the learning framework of K-12 education, which is largely geared towards subsequent higher education.  

Aside from a moral drive to incorporate sustainability into the HEI curricula and research, there is also the ‘practical necessity’ to tackle campus pollution (Abubakar, 2008, p.1777)

Campus sustainability has become an issue of global concern for university policy makers and planners as a result of the realisation of the impacts, activities and operations that universities have on the environment (ibid).

The sheer size of universities along with their use of resources designed to cater for its student population in terms of energy use, the research materials that provide the learning resources for various projects, to campus activities, as well as elements of waste disposal and effective resource management, render universities as organisations with enormous potential to provide social, economic and environmental leverage to their local communities, the cities they identify with, while setting a leading example of innovative thinking in SD for the wider society in general.

This explains why in 2000, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an enforcement alert whereby similar standards imposed on industry with regards to factors of human health and environment were also allocated to colleges and universities. (ibid).

In the next section, we will examine the various setbacks that render the embedding of sustainability into HEIs a challenging task, by taking a broad overview of the role universities play at a societal level, some of the implications of complying with the increased centralisation of government directives and how the constraints arising both from internal and external factors pose potential setbacks to imbuing an ethos of sustainability within HEIs. We will reveal how there are challenges arising from issues of finance, high-level policy making and the practical implementation of principles of SD at the level of university curricula, research, operations and outreach.


Alshuwaikhat, M. H., Abubakar, I. (2008). An integrated approach to achieving campus sustainability: assessment of the current campus environmental management practices. Journal of Cleaner Production, 16, 1777-1785.

Blewitt, J., Cullingford, C. (2004). The Sustainability Curriculum: The Challenge for Higher Education. Trowbridge: Cromwell Press.

Carter, N. (2001). The Politics of the Environment: Ideas, Activism, Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clare, L., Mathaisel, D. F. X. (2005). A case study in applying lean sustainability concepts to universities. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 6 (2), 134-146.

Cortese, A. D. (2003). The critical role of higher education in creating a sustainable future. Planning for Higher Education, 31, (3), 15-22.

Cullingford, C. (2004). Sustainability and Higher Education. In J. Blewitt and C. Cullingford, (Eds). The Sustainability Curriculum: The challenge for higher education. Trowbridge: Cromwell Press, pp.13-24.

Davis, S. A., Edmister, J. H., Sullivan, K., West, C. K. (2003). Educating sustainable societies for the twenty first century.International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 4 (2), 169-179.

Ferrer-Balas, D., Lozano, R., Huisingh, D., Buckland, H., Ysern, P., Zilahy, G. (2010). Going beyond the rhetoric: system-wide changes in universities for sustainable societies. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18, 607-610. 

Filho, L. (2000). Dealing with misconceptions on the concepts of sustainability, International Journal for Sustainability in Higher Education, 1 (1), 9-19.

Holmberg, J., Svanstrom, M., Peet, D, J., Mulder, K., Ferrer-Balas, D., Segalas, J. (2008). Embedding sustainability in higher education through interaction with lecturers: Case studies from three European technical universities. European Journal and Engineering Education, 33 (3), 271-282.

Hopwood, B. M., Geoff, M., Geoff, O. (2005) Sustainable Development: mapping different approaches. Sustainable Development, 13, 38-52.

Lidgren A., Rodhe, H., Huisingh, D. (2006). A systemic approach to incorporate sustainability into university courses and curricula. Journal of Cleaner Production, 14, 797-809.

Lozano, R. (2011). The state of sustainability reporting in universities. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12 (1), 67-78.

Lozano, R., Lukman, R., Lozano, F. J., Huisingh, D., Lambrechts, W. (2011). Declarations for sustainability in higher education: becoming better leaders, through addressing the university system. Journal of Cleaner Production, 48, 10-19.

Newman, J. H. (1873). The Idea of a University Defined. London: Longman’s Green.

Savageau, A. E. (2013). ‘’Let’s get personal: making sustainability tangible to students’’. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 14 (1), 15-24.

World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future, 1-300.

Article 2 - Sustainable Development and Universities: Institutionalising Sustainable Development into university curricula: Setbacks

In this article, Antonescu outlines and develops on the number of setbacks that universities face in institutionalising sustainability into the aforementioned areas both from the perspective of finance, resources, and the prevalent conservative nature of HEIs in maintaining a traditional modularity and specialisation of subjects that somehow clashes with the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability.

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HEIs and the greater society: where do they stand?

It is a truth universally acknowledged amongst our government representatives, economists and the mainstream media that we’re living in a time of austerity characterised by economic, social and political shortcomings. Yet, universities are seen as defiant relative to the current state of the world.

At first sight, HEIs seem to thrive; new institutions are being founded and student numbers applying for university courses are constantly on the rise; they are major local and national employers, and governments in developed and developing countries alike deem them crucial in the strive for wealth creation and GDP growth. Only a relatively few existing sources on the other hand, strive to question the fundamental role universities play in the societies that they represent. Any voices outlining the contrary, namely, that universities are in a state of crisis is seen as a notion lining on the verge of the absurd (Cullingford, 2004).

The rise of science parks on university premises and their expanding industrial links, particularly as part of their curricula and research operations, stand as testimony to the fundamental role universities play in the modern economy. At the same time, HEIs are increasingly subject to external control and government interference. In this context, it becomes imperative to ask whether the prevalent competition between universities at the level of funding and research operations, or the fact that increasingly, they are subject to external influence, has had any impact on the foundational role of a university from which stems their their ability to challenge dominant societal trends. While the points discussed so far seem to contradict any suggestion that there is a need to re-assess the role of HEIs in the modern world, it is worth prodding into their past, and touch on some of the values that a university stood for in times preceding our own. 

Historically, the role of HEIs has been to challenge the dominant issues of their times such as religious, socio-cultural, or science-related. At the same time, earlier generations were centred on answering profound questions. These centred on the pursuit of knowledge for a better understanding of the surrounding world and the power of natural elements, at a time when technological breakthroughs had yet to take advent. The purpose of scholarship was to not so much the acquisition of knowledge per se, but rather reaching the core of a problem and the subsequent attempt at finding ways to solve it (Blewitt and Cullingford, 2004; Cortese, 2003; Lozano, 2011; Davis, 2003; Lozano et al., 2011).  

Today, the hegemony of subjects is greater than ever, with new subjects, fields and areas of specialisation enriching the prospectuses of universities across the country. Yet one cannot help feeling that the presiding concern for universities lies in the accumulation of knowledge per se rather in the same way that society has an insatiable thirst for accumulated wealth as framed by an economic system where infinite growth lies at the core of human well-being and poverty eradication.

One potential factor for the changed nature of the modern day university might be found in the gradual replacement of scholarship with the drive for intensive research. The idea of PhDs are a relevant example. According to Cullingford (ibid), the notion of a doctorate was resisted by British universities until the half of the 20th century, on the grounds that it overshadowed activities central to the university, such as scholarship and teaching. This view has little relevance today when research ‘has become the defining characteristic of academics’ (ibid).

While research is pivotal to further human understanding and builds on the already existent scholarship, Cullingford (2004, p.14) highlights the possible implications of contract-dependent research which becomes a means to an end that is predominantly financial. On a less subtle note, ‘there is money in research and this is where the emphasis now lies’ (ibid). Contacts generate income and the research findings have a commercial base evident in the increased number of science parks, industrial links and in the potential for big business that results from the lucrative research findings of graduates-turned-entrepreneurs. 

Another factor that might have influenced the manner in which modern-day universities conduct their operations is the expansion of the student numbers in recent years (Cullingford, 2004). As Cotton (2003) points out, the college experience has expanded from a ‘sage on a stage’ approach to ‘a full enterprise akin to a country club resort complete with all the amenities’ (as cited in Comm and Mathaisel,2005, p.134). Comm and Mathaisel (2005) also argue that aside from instruction and the imparting of knowledge, students are on the look-out for other marks of quality such as up-to-date on-campus accommodation, state of the art facilities and the most recent innovations in technology.

The implications of this campus re-structuring and maintenance lies in the rising costs of operating, offering and in the upkeep of these facilities that enable students to have access to a stimulating environment. This reality, combined with increased cuts in government subsidies and financial packages invariably change the way universities operate, along with their means of fund procurement.

Yet, the underlying changes in the ethos of modern-day universities cannot be reduced solely to aspects of finance without taking into account the ‘focus of control’ (Cullingford, 2004, p.14). The fact that universities receive funding from the state continues to apply despite wide-spread cuts in infrastructure and basic social services across the rest of society. What has changed however, is the expansion of state interference in university affairs. One example involves the implementation of the 1988 Educational Act that swept away bodies such as the Universities Grants Committee that were purposely founded to isolate HEIs from political control (ibid). The Quality Assurance Agency is one instance of what Cullingford (ibid) refers to as a ‘command structure’ of direct control, a symbol of direct government involvement in shaping university curricula. He sets as an example the curriculum for initial teacher training, which despite being the pièce de résistance in the portfolio of many universities, is no longer under university control. This fact runs contrary to the principles outlined in the Robbins Report (1963) which stressed the importance of maintaining the immunity of universities against external forces that could otherwise lead to the diminishment of what some may call the unique privilege of HEIs to challenge the dominant trends of our times.

In light of what has been discussed so far, it is imperative to consider the consequences of such factors and the ways in which these might impact on the ability of HEIs to implement and embed sustainability into their curricula, research, operations and outreach.

At a first glimpse, universities seem to thrive, unhindered by the external world if the number of student output, patents and publications is anything to go by. At the same time, the need to work in sync with the demands of wider society and provide their students-turned-customers with an optimum environment for absorbing knowledge, leads HEIs to become increasingly subject to external controls whether these take the form of investments, inspections, independent agencies, government grants and or other financial packages. All these various factors contribute to the conception of the modern university as increasingly concerned with student employability, careerism, and securing income at the cost of complying with government directives.

  1. SD: Identifying the reasons behind its apparent impracticability in the context of HEIs
  2. Misconceptions around the notion of sustainability and SD

Incorporating sustainability into a university system presents a number of challenges in terms of its implementation in the context of education, research, operations and outreach. The nature of the challenges is two-fold.

The first one is structural and rests primarily on the conservative approach of universities to learning and teaching (Cortese, 2003; Mathaisel and Comm, 2005; Lozano et al., 2011; Didac Ferrer-Balas et al., 2010; Filho, 2000). Higher Education (HE) is organised into highly specialized areas of knowledge and traditional disciplines (Cortese, 2003; Lozano et al., 2011), making it what Comm and Mathaisel (2005, p.134) refer to as ‘one of the most immutable of institutions’. This is also summarised by Blewitt and Cullingford (2004, p.1) who observe that

For good or ill, universities are notoriously conservative creatures despite their apparent liking for internal restructuring. The dominance of disciplinarity remains important in the intellectual organisation of teaching, learning (the cultural reproduction of knowledge) and, perhaps, also research funding. As new areas of learning and research emerge, (…) disciplinarity remains the locus of attention and the intellectual axis for comprehending contemporary developments.

At this point it is worth looking into what Blewitt and Cullingford call ‘internal restructuring’ which mainly captures the increased specialism of subjects and their division into fields of science that have emerged over the years. To a large extent, the ever increasing hegemony of subjects has been possible due to the increased ability of technology and scientific understanding, to prod into areas of infinite depth within the field of physics, chemistry, and medicine but also within linguistics, sociology and other social and science-related fields.

Where universities have remained conservative rests in their tendencies to self-replicate which involves a reliance on reductionist thinking, the kind that can be found in Newtonian and Cartesian models (Lovelock, 2007). Lozano et al. (2011, p.10), define reductionism as ‘the analytical dissection of a thing into its ultimate component parts, followed by regeneration through the re-assembly of its parts’. This runs contrary to the notion of holistic thinking which is explored in Skyttner’s (2001) General Systems Theory and which also happens to be one of the key elements that form the base of a sustainable university framework.  As Cortese (2003, p.16) points out

Interactions between population, human activities, and the environment and strategies, technologies, and policies for a secure, just and environmentally sustainable future are among the most complex and interdependent issues with which society must deal. These issues cross over disciplinary boundaries.

While this may well be the case, the current learning framework of universities lacks the degree of cross-disciplinary collaborative aspect to its learning and teaching that is required to instil a sustainable mind-set for visionary and innovative leaders, business people, economists and other prominent roles in society whose ability to think, act, form links and foster solutions beyond their designated fields is so urgently needed to trigger system-wide behavioural changes.

By contrast, the individual learning and competition that arises from increased subject specialism and monodisciplinarity in HE generate professionals focused on career-building, self-protectionist ideals, rendering them ill-prepared for cooperative efforts (ibid). As long as learning remains fragmented and the faculty unresponsive to other learning approaches except the ones which rest on long-established incentives such as tenure, research and professional practices (Cortese,2003) interdisciplinary collaboration remains challenging to implement within university curricula, research, operations and outreach.

The second factor that renders the process of embedding sustainability at the university level problematic is that of misconception among faculty and academics, facilities staff and the student body on what the process (or processes) of sustainable development entails in the context of HEIs (Filho, 2000).

The next step is then to identify and look into some of the contradictions affecting the implementation of sustainability and sustainable development in HEIs.

a) Sustainability is too broad and abstract a field

This view stems from overusing the term, especially in political rhetoric. It covers everything and nothing at the same time, unless it is narrowed in scope in order for it to become accessible in size, realistic in outcome and practicable when implemented. One example is contextualising sustainability to HE activities that in turn are divided into teaching, research, and outreach to local communities or campus policies. Such policies would involve re-thinking the supply chain and investing in better means to store and reduce consumption of paper, water, electricity use and other primary resources used in the well-running of the institution.

b) There is a lack of formally qualified personnel in the field and sustainability is not a subject per se

The first misconception stems from the conservative notion that a university job is proof of one’s formal qualifications and as such, practical and operational experience come in second; as to the latter, there is a tendency to undermine its importance by not being formally recognised as a field in itself but rather as an optional component that can be embedded in other disciplines. Such is the case at the level of British undergraduate programmes. One concrete example is undergraduate degrees in Chemistry where modules such as ‘The impact of Chemistry’ – which explores the impact of chemistry on individual lives and aspects of society - are not compulsory but rather subject to individual student interest in the area. The other side of the debate is, of course, that by acknowledging sustainability as a field in itself, it becomes simply yet another form of specialism, another domain that stands alone in its own right and independent from the rest of the more traditional disciplines. This last point was briefly discussed by Dr A. Owen, a member of the University of Leeds’ Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) whilst answering one of the questions I raised during a seminar on January 26, 2015 that celebrated the SRI’s 10th anniversary.

c) Sustainability is too recent a field or it is a fashion

This is particularly relevant for southern and eastern European countries as well as in developing countries where sustainable development is perceived as a nascent field of action (Filho, 2000, p.16). As such, it is being treated with the caution and slowness of pace deemed necessary until its success becomes a real and practicable outcome and possibly, until it has been tried and tested by other HEIs where the process is already ongoing. The need for western universities to take the lead in implementing, practicing and standing as a model for other educational institutions across the globe in modelling a sustainable framework for university curricula, operations, research and outreach has never been more urgent, in a world that needs holistic thinkers and visionaries eager to extend their problem solving skills across discipline boundaries.

It is important to point out that while such misconceptions might pose a real obstacle in some university contexts to adopt a sustainable mind-set, they mainly originate from people's degree of knowledge background, experience, perception, values and context (Filho, 2000, p.16). Such a consensus is therefore subject to change as individuals become increasingly informed and through the use of rewards and incentives at work and elsewhere, gradually adopt a sustainable mind-set that is mirrored in their daily activities and which would, ultimately, form part of a new-belief system, a system that emphasizes the collaborative aspect of an equitable and fairer society.

For example, in terms of an individual’s knowledge background and experience, their openness to innovative ideas in SD is subject to previous training as well as their past experience in dealing with environmental and social affairs. As for a person’s values, perceptions and context, these are also subject to their ability to think holistically in terms of the interrelatedness of environmental factors with economic, political, and socio-cultural. At a first glimpse, the degree of complexity underlying wide-system interactions leaves many institutions not so much unwilling, but rather unable to identify the epiphenomena or the causal links between them, that would enable HEIs to tackle the challenge of sustainability proactively.

In the next article, the aim is to look exclusively at some of the advantages that HEIs have in institutionalising sustainability into their multi-layered activities. This will be achieved by highlighting the current systems of HEIs in more depth and attempting to identify the means by which they can adapt, expand, re-structure or become innovators in creating a working framework at the heart of which lies the concept of sustainable development. The aim is to look individually at their curricula, operations, research and outreach and understand how these can become breeding grounds for revolutionary action through the use of relevant examples and case studies.  


Blewitt, J., Cullingford, C. (2004). The Sustainability Curriculum: The Challenge for Higher Education. Trowbridge: Cromwell Press.

Clare, L., Mathaisel, D. F. X. (2005). A case study in applying lean sustainability concepts to universities. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 6 (2), 134-146.

Cortese, A. D. (2003). The critical role of higher education in creating a sustainable future. Planning for Higher Education, 31, (3), 15-22.

Cullingford, C. (2004). Sustainability and Higher Education. In J. Blewitt and C. Cullingford, (Eds). The Sustainability Curriculum: The challenge for higher education. Trowbridge: Cromwell Press, pp.13-24.

Davis, S. A., Edmister, J. H., Sullivan, K., West, C. K. (2003). Educating sustainable societies for the twenty first century.International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 4 (2), 169-179

Ferrer-Balas, D., Lozano, R., Huisingh, D., Buckland, H., Ysern, P., Zilahy, G. (2010). Going beyond the rhetoric: system-wide changes in universities for sustainable societies. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18, 607-610.  

Filho, L. (2000). Dealing with misconceptions on the concepts of sustainability, International Journal for Sustainability in Higher Education, 1 (1), 9-19.

Lovelock, J. (2007). The Revenge of Gaia. London: Penguin Group

Lozano, R. (2011). The state of sustainability reporting in universities. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12 (1), 67-78.

Lozano, R., Lukman, R., Lozano, F. J., Huisingh, D., Lambrechts, W. (2011). Declarations for sustainability in higher education: becoming better leaders, through addressing the university system. Journal of Cleaner Production, 48, 10-19.

Robbins Report. (1963). Report of the Committee Appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins 1961-1963. London.

Skyttner, L. (2001). General Systems Theory: Ideas and Application. London: World Scientific Publishing.

Article 3 - Institutionalising Sustainable Development into HEIs: Advantages and Solutions

In this third article, Antonescu outlines the advantages that HEIs have relative to other institutions in society to take the lead and take the first step towards creating a sustainable mindset that is then mirrored in universities' policies and practices and explains why they are able to do that.

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Universities and the Challenge of Larger Systems Interactions

According to Velazquez et al. (2006, p. 812) a sustainable university can be defined as:

A higher educational institution, as whole or as a part that addresses, involves and promotes, on a regional or global level, the minimisation of negative environmental, economic, societal and health effects generated in the use of their resources in order to fulfil its function of teaching, research, outreach and partnership, and stewardship in ways to help society make the transition to sustainable lifestyles.

Similarly, Cole (2003, p.30) envisages a sustainable campus community as:

 (…) one that acts upon its local and global responsibilities to protect and enhance the health and well-being of humans and ecosystems. It actively engages the knowledge of the university community to address the ecological and social challenges that we face now and in the future.

Undoubtedly, statements similar to the ones outlined above stand proof to the well-intended, ambitious and even visionary nature of their authors. Yet, despite their far-sighted goals, these relatively broad and abstract views fail to provide the genuine contribution required to compile a comprehensive and detailed guide, narrower in scope, such that it becomes possible to take the proactive steps necessary to turn this seemingly impracticable feat of sustainable-universities-leading-by-example into a tangible reality.  

Since the 1972 Stockholm Conference (UNEP,1972) when education was internationally recognised as having a crucial role in environmental conservation, there has been a steady trickle of additional charters, academic declarations and agreements (Lozano et al., 2013, p.11). These were designed to support environmental education (EE), sustainable development (SD) and education for sustainable development (ESD) through the provision of frameworks that would enable HEIs to incorporate sustainability into their system (ibid).

In chronological order, among the most prolific agreements of this kind include the 1990 Tailloires Declaration, the 1991 Halifax Declaration, the 1993 Kyoto Declaration, Swansea Declaration and the COPERNICUS University Charter; among the more recent ones are the 2001 Luneburg Declaration on Higher Education for SD, the 2005 Graz declaration on committing Universities to SD and the 2009 Abuja Declaration on The Role of Higher Education in SD along with the Turin Declaration on Education and Research for Sustainable and Responsible Development (ibid, p.12).

The prevalent themes that act as common ground for all these official papers can be found in the work of Calder and Clugston (2003) and Wright (2004). Lozano et al. (2013, p.12) outlines a number of them which predominantly focus on environmental degradation and societal threats stemming from consumption deemed unsustainable; the moral necessity of HEIs leadership to work towards bringing about a more equitable society that does not put pressure on future generations’ living experience, a problem known as intergenerational injustice; the proliferation of SD across all disciplines, making it an inherent component of universities’ curricula; sponsoring wide-scale, SD driven research; and re-structuring university operations in line with sustainable practices. Other measures emphasize inter-university collaboration; increasing stakeholder involvement that appeals to public governments, NGOs and businesses; and a level of collaboration that extends across all the points highlighted so far.

Signing up to these agreements include over 1000 university leaders who ratified their pledge to promote SD in their respective institutions, whether it is through their curricula, research operations, campus activities and/or outreach to local communities and beyond. While this might seem an encouraging prospect, the fact that there are over 14.000 universities in the world (ibid, p.11), where a significant proportion have yet to make a definable impact in this area, raises questions as to the factors that hinder the implementation of SD, a process that lacks the dynamism contained within the collection of international agreements that have accumulated over the years, to little effect relative to the revolutionary nature of their content.

As discussed in the previous article, some of the principal setbacks likely to account for the slow progress of HEIs in adopting and implementing sustainability across the board include a lack of SD awareness (David et al., 2003; Lozano, 2006); insecurity and threat to academic credibility from teachers (Peet et al., 2004), increased subject specialism and over-crowded curricula (Abdul-Wahab et al., 2003; Chau, 2007); a lack of relevant support and suitable leadership (Velazquez et al., 2005); SD perceived as being too abstract, broad or lacking relevance in certain disciplines; a lack of direction to enable engaging with SD and its implementation across the multi-layered university system (Lozano, 2010); the dominance of academic conservationism and a preference for the mono-disciplinary and modular  nature of teaching and learning (as cited in Lozano et al., 2013, p.11). All these factors, hinder the embedding of sustainability into HE since they are unable to address the multidimensional and interconnected environmental, socio-political and economic issues facing modern-day societies, which instead require an ‘integrated and systematic approach to decisions making, investments and management’ (Alshuwaikhat and Abubakar, 2008, p.1778).

HEIs as an organisation (relative to individual efforts) face additional challenges in adopting innovative solutions that reflect a university’s commitment to implement a sustainable ethos in its diverse activities, particularly when confronted with as abstract a concept as SD (Lozano, 2013).

Sharp (2002) who carried studies on environmental initiatives at thirty universities in Europe and the US, found that the core defining characteristic of HEIs is that of complexity. This coupled with the lack of a centralised system to implement wide-system changes across the three main subcultures that make up a university, namely, faculty, administration and the student body renders co-operation difficult. He continues to explain that the push and pull forces that drive the decision-making process along with the priorities of each subculture are as diverse as the responsibilities and aims of each group. In this current scenario, there is little room for enhanced collaboration between institutional, departmental, administrative and student organisations.

A likely outcome of this clear-cut and disjoined system on which HEIs appear to operate is summarised by Cortese (2003, p.18), whose reasoning, despite referring to the prevalent disciplinarity in HE curricula, also applies to the current HE management practices. According to Cortese,

Compartmentalised knowledge without connection to larger systems interactions results in viewing many interdependent challenges as separate, hierarchical and competitive. The net results are often unintended, narrow, ineffective solutions, or worse, more harmful to people and the environment in another place or another time.

Cortese then backs up his assertion with the example of a Toyota Prius, a gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle that uses considerably less gasoline and only emits 1/8 of the smog- producing emissions of other vehicles. While at first sight driving an environmentally-friendly car might appear as an adequate solution, when larger systems thinking is applied, the outcome is less satisfactory. For instance, it does not reduce traffic congestion, noise or safety issues, it does not reduce paving over green spaces or contribute to social justice problems experienced by low-income individuals who lack access to jobs in locations not catered for by public transportation. If anything, a boom in the acquisition of Toyota Priuses would only increase the long term problem of traffic congestion and the consequences associated with it. Contrary to this solution, large systems thinking would try to find solutions to reduce the need for driving in the first place, by localising businesses, activities and jobs that would minimise adverse health, social and ecological effects (ibid).

In support of Cortese, Lotz-Sisika (2004) explains that in order to achieve a systemic and long-term makeover in university practices ‘there is a need for changes in the architecture of higher education institutions to make real change last’ (as cited in Lidgren et al., 2006, p.798). Orr (1994, p.5) also makes a poignant comment that brings the first part of this discussion to a logical conclusion.

The kind of education we need begins with the recognition that the crisis of global ecology is first and foremost a crisis of values, ideas, perspectives and knowledge, which makes it a crisis of education not one in education.

  1. Can HEIs meet the challenge?
  2. Roger’s (1995) adopter category taken from

The answer to this question is a definite and conclusive yes. Higher Education Institutions are able face the challenge of revolutionising their teaching, learning, and organisational practices, in order to adopt a sustainable mind-set at the level of faculty, administrative and student activities within the university premises and beyond. The main challenges have to do less with universities’ financial or human resources that would take on this process, as it is about individual drive and group willingness, long-term motivation to enable gradual progression and implementation of SD, along with the time frame to do so. The  university’s already existing infrastructure can be tweaked to suit the purpose while the people necessary to initiate the SD feat, namely, academics, support staff and the students they educate and cater for, are already in place to start revolutionising both the university content and conduct.

As Rogers (1995) points out, the process of implementing an innovative concept such as SD at an institutional level is not without its difficulties, particularly when a specific strategy has not been yet been set in place. However, once an innovation is adopted and starts to be diffused throughout the university system by being put into practice consistently, long-term, and by different members of the organisation until wide-spread stabilisation is achieved, its status then changes from that of an ‘innovation’ to becoming an integral part of the institution’s culture and make-up. In Roger’s (1995) adopter category (shown in figure 1) he identifies 4 types of groups, namely, innovators, early adopters, early majority and laggards who ultimately undergo what Sherry (2003) calls the three stages of an innovation: diffusion, implementation and institutionalisation. This indicates that the process of embedding SD into the multi-dimensional university system must be proactive, gradual, systematic and with clear-cut, long-term objectives.

Having discussed all the above, the time has come to move on from a theoretical sphere to a more pragmatic approach that attempts to cover some of the fundamental elements that can foster and enable university engagement with sustainability at an institutional, departmental and individual level.

What will it take?

An unprecedented level of intra-university collaboration is required to kick-start or, in cases where SD is already under way, to strengthen the efforts towards implementing sustainability in university curricula, operations, research and outreach. While there is no clear cut way to go about this process, there seems to be a consensus in the relevant literature that emphasizes the need for a committed and centralised university management, an effective system of organisation that enhances communication between academic, administrative and teaching staff and students, in conjunction with spreading responsibility throughout the institution.

Such measures would allow for a two way communication system that enables the wide-spread implementation of a top –down approach, while at the same time flexible enough to enable teaching fellows and personnel who are directly attuned to the daily classroom and campus activities to provide feedback on initiatives that proved lucrative or otherwise.  These insights would then trickle back up to the management for further measures. The idea behind a more centralised HEI is to allow information to circulate from a strong and committed leadership to the wider university staff who would be empowered to mould directives coming from the top and embed them into their teaching material in harmony with the discipline that they are in charge of. Empowering staff to take leadership in their own area of expertise with guidance from a team of committed individuals is beneficial for two main reasons:

1. It would give the embedding of SD into disciplines the legitimacy (Holmberg et al., 2008, p.273) that it currently lacks, by being turned into a measure prioritised at the highest level of management, such as the Board of Trustees.

2. Ensuring leadership from the top would also mean a shift from what Clare and Mathaisel (2005, p.136) refer to as a ‘command post’ mind-set to one of ‘common vision’ that encourages shared responsibility among the many, but maintains in place a committed leadership that outlines clearly defined SD institutional goals. This can only come by diffusing responsibility across departments and empowering employees, in an atmosphere of openness and transparency, to attune their disciplines, campus responsibilities or research operations, in line with principles of sustainability.

The alternative, which entails giving out instructions and adequate training but not putting a feedback system in place, could lead to a potential loss of valuable insights from classroom experiences, and a continuation of a command structure that is disempowering for staff ‘on the ground’. The advantage of enabling staff to highlight advantages or benefits with certain SD measures or point out flaws in undergoing schemes, ask for further assistance or training, helps provide valuable feedback to a management able to reconsider or build on aspects of the SD that would already be underway across undergraduate programmes. 

As Holmberg et al. (2008, p.279) points out

Learning processes of individuals start through interactive approaches based on dialogue. (…) mandates and declarations are insufficient and need to be accompanied by face-to-face processes based on creating curiosity and giving importance to the contribution to ESD that can be done from any discipline

For example, a committed university management would form a specially appointed committee on SD, such as a group of academics and outside experts with experience in sustainability that would be able to devise and compile educational material for the teaching staff and their respective departments in order to provide in-service training. This would be one of the measures the university leadership could implement in order to train their academic staff which in turn empowers them to introduce concepts of SD into their research and teaching (Filho, 2000; Davis et al., 2003). Teaching fellows would be encouraged to learn more about the field of SD by attending courses and networking events – intra-departmental and inter-institutional- organised by the SD appointed committee (Holmberg et al., 2008). They would be given financial incentives or formal recognition in their own departments as leading examples of employee excellence and encouraging others in the process to become actively involved.

It is important to place emphasis on the in-service training aspect of the professoriate since without adequate preparation of the teaching staff there is the risk for various faculties to interpret SD too narrowly, e.g.: focusing on efficiency increase or reduction of pollution (Filho, 2000; Davis et al., 2003). Both staff and students must come to view sustainability as a complex concept that is not limited to ecological domains but one that includes economic and social aspects and the interactions between them (Davis et al, 2003) and more importantly, one that has relevance to their discipline. The comprehensive nature of SD should not be seen as a challenge but rather as an opportunity for teachers to use its wide appeal to incorporate it into the university’s undergraduate programmes.

In terms of curricula restructuring, making SD an integral part of every discipline should follow naturally from a well-trained and informed academic staff that understands the relevance of SD to their particular discipline. While a number of universities in the UK have developed targeted environmental degrees, this solution does not resolve the problem of how to make sustainability a central tenet of traditional STEM disciplines or how to relate SD to a number of social sciences such as sociology, law, linguistics and so on. Preserving the conservative disciplinary aspect of teaching is not the desired outcome for an SD plan, since the type of individualistic, traditional learning has not been designed to cope with the multi-dimensional complexity of problems facing society today.

Another issue that in a way de-legitimises the importance of SD in undergraduate programmes is whether modules appertaining to that programme that relate to SD are compulsory or optional (an example would be how chemistry has come to play a pivotal role in pharmaceuticals and agricultural production and their subsequent impact on communities, ecosystems and society at large). A glimpse at the course outlay of STEM undergraduate programmes at a number of UK universities is enough to suggest that modules which digress from knowledge purely relating to helping the student master the discipline, are deemed optional and subject to the students’ preference. This contrasts with targeted environmental degrees where modules containing aspects of sustainability are compulsory. By making all modules relating to SD non-optional regardless of the discipline being taught, SD becomes an integral part of the programme, deemed as important as the basic principles of chemistry, physics or biology  for instance, these being taught early on to enable students to advance in their understanding of the subject to higher levels.  

While it is true that student’s perceptions of sustainability is greatly dependent on the classroom experience through assigned readings, class discussions, projects and field-trips (David et al., 2003), the current literature also stresses the importance of raising student awareness on sustainability by extending their experience of SD beyond the classroom setting and into their day to day curricular and extra-curricular activities, which take place on the university campus and beyond.

A particular concept that will be discussed in more depth in the next article is Savageau’s (2013) self-audit and self-reflection model, explored though a case-study conducted at the University of California, Davis, in an attempt to tap into students’ intrinsic motivation for living sustainably.

Savageau and others (Holmberg et al., 2008; David at al., 2003; Filho, 2000; Cortese, 2003, Lidgren at al., 2006) acknowledge the fact that student awareness on issues of sustainability is minimal with a large part of the student community expressing limited concern for their consumption and waste, while matters related to sustainability are ‘distant and impersonal or overwhelming’ (Savageau, 2013, p.15).

Savageau (ibid) proposes raising student awareness levels in SD and motivate long term behavioural change through an integrated course entitled Introduction to Sustainable Design, such as the one designed at the University of California, where undergraduate students engage in the design and use of a personal Resource Consumption and Waste Audit that gives a real indication of their personal resource consumption and waste generation on campus premises. The results of this experiment are lucrative, with the majority of students expressing concern over their material use and a proactive attitude towards a more resource-conscious way of living.

This particular case study proved insightful as it highlighted students’ lack of awareness in matters of sustainability, but also brought into focus the students’ difficulty in conducting the audit, in part due to the lack of concrete means to measure their daily consumption such as water and electricity usage.

Linked to this is the fact that university residence halls do not charge students for individual consumption of water, heat and light which in part explains students’ lack of awareness on these matters. This could be changed however, by installing metres in student rooms and making students alert to their resource use through monthly bills. Additionally, facilities and utility companies, if possible, would be made to share information with campus users on the energy used in classrooms, libraries and common campus spaces by installing visible meters or devising an  online, ‘real-time, web-based feedback’ (Savageau, 2013). This could be coupled with an innovative coding system devised by the university’s IT department highlighting individual areas on campus which appear to make high use of energy (an idea would be to colour code them RED) and areas/departments that make conscious efforts to save up on energy use (colour code GREEN or AMBER if there are some attempts to conserve energy or water usage).  A reward system would also be put in place to acknowledge real efforts towards energy conservation in certain campus areas, and identify the staff/students taking the lead in that instance, such as a profile-check in the university magazine or the student-led newspapers. This would place emphasis on individual efforts and reward them accordingly.

All the processes highlighted so far would be on-going and open to re-structuring and change. Campus and curricula reshuffling would be a gradual, trial-and-error process that builds on the lucrative measures of a strong and committed university leadership, who empowers lecturers to work proactively at the departmental level with in collaboration with academic and administrative staff and the student body. This would all take place in an atmosphere that allows openness and transparency and welcomes constructive feedback. The process of embedding sustainability across the university system would at this point become a real process with a positive outcome that has the potential to inspire generations of businessmen, politicians and individuals in search of sustainable solutions to a number of environmental, socio-political and economic problems facing modern day societies.  

In the following article, the aim is to present and discuss in detail a number of case studies that focus on a number of HEIs around the world and their attempts to institutionalise sustainability in their curricula, research, operations and outreach along with their subsequent successes and failures. The points discussed in the present article will also be highlighted with relevant examples. This final issue aims to further piece together the outline of a gradual transformative and transitional process that would turn 21st century HEIs into sustainable organisations leading by example.


Alshuwaikhat, M. H. and Abubakar, I. (2008). An integrated approach to achieving campus sustainability: assessment of the current campus environmental management practices. Journal of Cleaner Production, 16, 1777-1785.

Calder, W. and Clugston, R. M. (2003). International efforts to promote higher education for sustainable development. InPlanning for higher education, Journal of the Society for College and University Planning, Spring.

Clare, L., Mathaisel, D. F. X., (2005). A case study in applying lean sustainability concepts to universities. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 6 (2), 134-146.

Cole, L. (2003). Assessing sustainability on Canadian University campuses: development of a campus sustainability assessment framework, unpublished Master thesis, Victoria: Royal Roads University.

Cortese, A. D. (2003). The critical role of higher education in creating a sustainable future. Planning for Higher Education, 31, (3), 15-22.

Davis, S. A., Edmister, J. H., Sullivan, K., West, C. K. (2003). Educating sustainable societies for the twenty first century.International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 4 (2), 169-179.

Filho, L. (2000). Dealing with misconceptions on the concepts of sustainability, International Journal for Sustainability in Higher Education, 1 (1), 9-19.

Holmberg, J., Svanstrom, M., Peet, D, J., Mulder, K., Ferrer-Balas, D., Segalas, J. (2008). Embedding sustainability in higher education through interaction with lecturers: Case studies from three European technical universities. European Journal and Engineering Education, 33 (3), 271-282.

Jacobsen, M.D., (1998).  Chapter 2, in Adoption patterns and characteristics of faculty who integrate computer technology for teaching and learning in higher education, a doctoral dissertation. Calgary, Alberta: Department of Educational Psychology. [Online]. [Accessed 19 February 2015].

Lidgren A., Rodhe, H., Huisingh, D. (2006). A systemic approach to incorporate sustainability into university courses and curricula. Journal of Cleaner Production, 14, 797-809.

Lozano, R., Lukman, R., Lozano, F. J., Huisingh, D., Lambrechts, W. (2013). Declarations for sustainability in higher education: becoming better leaders, through addressing the university system. Journal of Cleaner Production, 48, 10-19.

Orr, D. (1994). Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C: Island Press.

Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations, fourth Ed. New York: Free Press.

Savageau, A. E. (2013). ‘’Let’s get personal: making sustainability tangible to students’’. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 14 (1), 15-24.

Sharp, L. (2002). Green Campuses: the road from little victories to systematic transformation. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 3 (2), pp.128-45.

Sherry, L. (2003). Sustainability of Innovations. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 13 (3), pp.209-36.

UNEP. (1972). Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. [Accessed 19 February 2015].

Velazquez, L., Munguia, N., Platt, A., Taddei., J. (2006). Sustainable University: what can be the matter? Journal of Cleaner Production, 14, pp.810-9.

Wright, T. (2004). The evolution of sustainability declarations in higher education. In: Corcoran, P. B., Wals, A. E. J. (Eds),Higher Education and the Challenge of Sustainability: Problematics, Promise, and Practice. Dordrecth: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Article 4: HEIs as catalysts for the expansion of Sustainable Development at local, societal and global level: Case Studies and Discussions

In this fourth and final article, Antonescu outlines a number of successful attempts based on various case studies and attempts to identify the key factors that would enable HEIs to implement sustainability into their curricula, operations, research and outreach.

Expand the drop-down to read the article.

Interconnectedness as the key to achieving transformative change

In the previous issue, it was established that in order to adopt and implement a sustainability ethos across the university curricula, campus operations, research and outreach, HEIs have the moral and practical obligation to model SD as a fully integrated system. This would follow a top-down approach where a strong and committed university leadership appoints a select SD committee to overlook and produce educational material that empowers lecturers and faculties to incorporate with relative ease the concept of SD in their respective teaching domains. This, coupled with outside classroom experience of SD achieved through campus restructuring, would raise student awareness of SD through practices that would make them alert to their individual waste generation and resource consumption. One proposed solution entailed undertaking SD induction courses, similarly to the academic integrity tutorials which students are required to complete at the start of their undergraduate programme. The difference would lie in the fact that unlike the one-off academic integrity tutorial session, the SD course would be an on-going, compulsory module. It would bear the same weight as the discipline oriented introductory modules which are often given priority to enable students to progress to their next academic year. These activities would be carried out in an environment that allows the flow of information back to the top management, with lecturers, administrative staff and students being able to provide constructive feedback, ask for further assistance, give advice or offer suggestions. The system would also allow for inter-departmental collaboration and information exchange at all levels, in order to facilitate and help speed up the SD process. The university leadership would be in tune with the success rate of their policies based on specially developed SD measurements.

While it runs the risk of being labelled incomplete or overtly simplistic, it aims nevertheless to give a sense of the interconnectedness needed in HEIs in order to achieve what Cortese (2003, p.17) calls ‘transformative change’ at the university level. He makes the point that each and every area of the university system is critical in achieving systemic change. Students learn from their surrounding environment, meaning that through the various activities they undertake throughout their undergraduate studies, they will ‘form a complex web of experience and learning’ (ibid). Cortese highlights the often obvious truth that ‘in many cases we think of teaching, research, operations, and relations with local communities as separate activities; they are not.’(ibid).

But increasingly, as university leaders, intellectuals, politicians and other prominent world advocates of SD in HEIs are making their voices heard at international conference gatherings (see blog number 3), and as the size of universities raise concerns of campus pollution and material use, an increasing number of HEIs around the world have started to use this as an impetus for localised action. It is a first attempt to restructure their curricula and campus operations to respond to the nexus of environmental, socio-political and economic problems facing modern day societies. A number of case studies highlighting such attempts are discussed in the next two sections. The first section looks at raising student awareness of SD through their learning experience, while the second section focuses on students’ living experience through their involvement in campus activities.

  1. Embedding SD in the student learning experience.
  2. 1. Commitment at management level;

As mentioned earlier, one of the ways to encourage the embedding of SD into university curricula is by empowering faculties and academic staff to make principles of SD an inherent part of their discipline. It was established that in order to do so, training and educating lecturers on areas of sustainability is a priority. Adequate training would enhance academic staff’s understanding of SD, beyond strictly environment-related concerns that do not completely shed light on the complexity of problems and which tend to be of a political, social and/or economic nature.  As a result, one of the challenges facing the embedding of SD into the student learning experience has been on how to approach individual academic staff and get them actively involved in promoting systemic curricular change (Holmberg et al. (2008).

Holmberg et al. (2008) relate a series of case studies carried out at three European universities that have taken on the challenge of reaching their departmental staff on matters of sustainability. The institutions in question are the Chalmers University of Technology, Delft University of Technology (DUT) and the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC), each established in Sweden, The Netherlands and Spain respectively.

These universities are among the largest in their countries where subjects in engineering, mathematics and architecture dominate the educational landscape. Each of the universities has strong connections with the industry, and are located in areas that play an important part in the national economy (ibid, p.271). In this context,

Issues of pedagogy are thus vital in reorienting education towards sustainability, and teachers in the courses of a programme have a crucial role when it comes to turning the ideas into practice (ibid, p.272)

As highlighted in the previous article, one such issue is that of legitimacy, and whether it is deemed a priority for lecturers to focus on SD in their research and teaching (ibid, 273). Often, the recognition of SD as an important facet of a discipline is given through initiatives from a number of committed individuals or groups. These can be internal, e.g. university leadership, or external, e.g. national authorities (ibid).

Such is the case at Chalmers university where the president of Chalmers kick-started the process that led to the establishment of The Gothenburg Centre for Environment and Sustainability (GMV) in 1989. The centre operates as a cross-disciplinary network for researchers at Chalmers and Gothenburg University who co-ordinate ESD workshops within the EU, in collaboration with the Swedish Prime minister, who took the role of the chairman of EU in 2001. In 2004, Chalmers and the University of Gothenburg, at the request of the Swedish prime minister, hosted an international conference on ESD.  In 2006, it became embedded in the Swedish university law that all activities at the university level would promote SD (ibid, 274).

Similarly at DUT, under the chairmanship of Professor Leo Jansen, a committee on SD was put together which compiled a plan to integrate SD into the educational programmes of the university during the 1990s. The plan received financial back up from the university board from 1998 to 2005 and a project group on ESD was formed.

Also during the 1990s, at UPC, increasing pressure from students, alumni and members of staff, placed the issue of environmental responsibility at the top of the university agenda. This resulted in a 1996 internal conference, where keen and committed UPC staff created the first UNESCO Chair in Sustainability ‘with the aim of becoming an interdisciplinary, critical, reflexive and open space which would contribute to reorienting technology towards SD.’ (ibid, p.274) The university board also gave their consent to a 5 year- environmental plan (1996-2001) that covered areas of education, research, campus and communication. This, in conjunction with the university government council’s approval of the Sustainability Declaration, further legitimises ESD at UPC.

Aside from a committed and proactive leadership, the notion of sharing responsibility throughout the organisation is equally important.

 For this reason, at Chalmers the bulk of research and education activities have been coordinated though the GMV network (ibid, p.275). This practice has taken away the risk of having responsibility channelled only through a few hands, but rather has encouraged the provision of SD courses across different departments.

Similarly, at UPC, it was deemed essential as part of their initial 5 year plan tactic to avoid compiling targeted environmental degrees, but rather make environmental issues an inherent part of the university curricula. This meant that the responsibility of embedding SD into various disciplines was assigned to individual teachers. This, coupled with the development of a Curriculum Greening Plan which took place under the framework of the 2nd Environmental Plan (2001-2005), encouraged lecturers to include environmental aspects across the available disciplines. On a less positive note however, Segalas et al. (2006) report that the embedding of SD into university curricula eventually came to a halt with only a 20% increase in the courses that incorporated aspects of sustainability (as cited in Holmberg et al, 2008, p. 275).

What emerges from the discussion carried out so far is the fact that in order to be able to implement SD across the university disciplines, an effective structure of organisation must be put in place. Regardless of the strategies taken on board by each university, a mixture of a strong leadership along with proactive staff  empowered to adapt their SD understanding to their respective discipline, is an important part of the curriculum greening plan at the three universities.

For example, at Chalmers, the responsibility for courses transitioned from departments to a central university system where content and quality issues ceased to be only the focus of teachers. The end result was improved collaboration between and within programmes as well as being able to implement top-down directives with relative ease.

Similarly, the educational system at DUT enables research groups in faculties to be in charge for the content of courses where educational directors ‘ coordinate and tune the different courses to each other’ (ibid, p.276). This limits the ability of the various heads to prescribe SD learning objectives on an independent basis but instead ‘the formation of learning objectives is a joint construction of the director and the lecturers’ (ibid).  This is not to say however, that in one to one interaction activities, teachers are difficult to approach; a large majority of lecturers, given the opportunity and appropriate training, have shown an interest in talking about SD in their respective disciplines. 

One important aspect that might make intra-departmental and institutional collaboration difficult is the relative size of HEIs. UPC with its 35.000 students and geographical dispersions that spans across seven campus sites is one such example. As Holmberg et al. (2008) report, UPC was established in the 1970s as the merger between long-standing engineering schools. Moreover,

(…) many times these schools’ decisions and inertia limit the effectiveness of overall policies such as those for SD. UPC has a matrix organisation with schools that deliver degrees and departments that perform research. The programme director decides on the contents of each course when he/she designs the degrees and orders courses from the departments (ibid).

One potential solution would involve organising SD appointed committees for each School. These would then take charge of co-ordinating curricula development in collaboration with programme directors who would engage in planning and discussions with individual teaching staff, in order to develop ways to make SD practices an inherent part of all subjects.

At DUT, projects centred on the integration of SD have been undertaken using the Individual Interaction Method (Peel et al., 2004) where the institution carried out activities through a specific task group involving individual discussion with academics. This was in order to improve the ESD process by asking the question ‘How can your discipline contribute to SD?’(Holmberg et al, 2008, p.278)

The common element across similar projects was a focus on the ‘interaction with the lecturers on the relation between SD and their (sub) discipline’ (ibid). In other words, combining the knowledge of SD specialists with that of lecturers in their own field established links between their discipline and SD. This helped prevent a narrow interpretation of SD and its relevance to most subjects. The ideas resulting from these discussions were compiled into a report which contained suggestions for the educational director. The director is in charge of supervising the implementation process of ideas put forward jointly by SD experts and lecturers.

For the ESD project at Chalmers, a resource group made of  academic staff active in ESD was put together, in order to ‘motivate and support teachers and programme directors in integrating ESD in existing courses and programmes’ (ibid). The resource group initiated an ESD workshop for programmes or departments that targeted various actors within the institution in order to assist them with the ESD learning process. While the programme director has the responsibility to develop, organise and follow up changes within the discipline, the resource group is there to guide them during this process. One key aspect is that teachers are asked to produce a presentation on the ways that their subject incorporates SD, and whether there is room for improvement. The presentations are shortly followed by group discussions and developing plans for further action. The resource group then documents the progress made and promotes information of successful instances where SD has been fully incorporated into a particular discipline. For example, this could be a collection of good teaching examples within ESD. Discussions on the quality of ESD have the potential to produce guidelines on how ESD should be advertised at Chalmers and on ways to measure the quality of ESD in terms of its relevance to the university curriculum.

At UPC, the main challenge that remains is on the best way to integrate SD at bachelor level. The measure taken in this instance include a mix of ‘individual interaction with lecturers, a workshop and a conference on sustainability in technical education, and the development of ESD recommendations for new bachelor programmes’ (ibid). For instance, approximately 60 lecturers were approached for discussions by ESD staff in order to support the embedding process of SD into their courses.  The role of Holmberg et al. (2008) was to gather information on SD teaching and research methods, which would then be reported on the university website, in conferences, seminars and publications. This would contribute to the growing importance of SD teaching and research. The authors’ aim was

(…)to put SD in the centre of the daily debate at UPC and generate knowledge e.g. on the real needs of teachers and the main barriers to embedding SD into university activities. By doing this face-to-face, with recognition of and respect for the academic task, and based on dialogue, it aims to create a more attractive framework for the lecturers than by imposing directives’

For instance, 60 lecturers were encouraged to engage in a 1-day workshop on ESD in technical studies. Other measures involved attending a two-day conference that aimed to generate a network among academic staff implementing ESD in their programmes, based on collaboration and dialogue.

In light of what has been discussed so far, a number of success factors enabling the embedding of SD into the student learning experience have emerged, as shown through case studies conducted at three European universities, namely Chalmers in Sweden, DUT in the Netherlands and UPC in Spain. Based on Holmberg at al.’ (2008, p.280) research, some of the success factors involve:

  1. Legitimised efforts from groups within the organisation;
  2. An organisation with overview and responsibility outside and across traditional disciplines;
  1. Continuous pressure from internal and external agents and organisations;
  2. The autonomy of teachers in their own discipline;
  1. Forming a resource group responsible for the integration of SD in the curricula of the institution.
  2. Embedding SD in the student living experience.

Finally, curriculum greening , as is the embedding of SD into the student learning experience, must be perceived as a process rather than an outcome, a process that is proactive, gradual and on-going, regardless of the setbacks.  

While adequate teaching in SD is pivotal to imbue into students’ consciousness an awareness of sustainability and the issues that it covers, it is not enough for an all rounded student experience of SD and its importance to their everyday existence. The campus setting, facilities and outlay, which form an important part of the student living experience, must harmonise with the classroom practice in order to promote long-term  systemic change in the students’ approach to environmental, socio-political and economic issues and indeed, to enable them to continue with this approach in their post-university life. For this reason, the university campus should be an additional platform to practice SD to enable wide-spread awareness of the individual and well as the collective role in campus waste generation and management of primary resources such as water, heat and electricity. A responsible campus community would also be concerned with the origins of basic supply procurement such as furniture acquisitions from suppliers practicing sustainable forestry, or desk supplies such as recycled printing paper, biodegradable plastic and other informed purchases.

Additionally, across all level of administration, from the university leadership to campus and estates services, recycling schemes should be wide-spread and mandatory, whereby all staff would be required to dispose of used materials - from used notebooks, desk paper, paper towels and so on, to chemical substances used for cleaning activities and waste resulting from campus maintenance. A number of reward schemes would be put in place to motivate and encourage staff to act proactively and in line with recycling schemes. These could take the form of financial incentives, additional pay, tax levies, additional holidays and/or formal recognition within their team. University employees would be encouraged to designate another member of staff for an award similarly to the ones encountered in the corporate sector, where employees setting an example in their field are identified and recognised though the  ‘Employee of the month’ scheme and rewarded accordingly at staff gatherings.

However, for this type of campus environment to thrive, it is necessary to put in place a series of campus-oriented policies that focus on structural re- adjustments which proactively deal with raising student and staff awareness of their daily routine and the environmental and economic impacts associated with it. 

As Savageau (2013, p.16) points out,

(…) very few students have an accurate idea of their own consumption or waste, because they receive little or no feedback on these behaviours. Residence halls do not charge students for individual consumption of water, heat and light; the energy used in classrooms, libraries and other campus spaces are controlled by facilities that typically do not share information with campus consumers. As a result, members of the campus community have little knowledge of their resource use and waste generation. Without immediate and specific feedback, there is little incentive for consumers to change their behaviour.

The author then focuses on a study conducted at Oberlin College in the USA, which stands as an example on the crucial role of instant feedback in raising student SD awareness. According to Savageau (ibid)

 ‘dormitory residents who were provided with real-time web-based feedback on their energy and water use achieved dramatic reduction of resource use and reported that they were willing to continue conservation practices’ (for a more thorough account see Petersen et al, 2007).

Another success story on campus greening initiatives is related by Cortese (2003, p.20) who also talks about measures taken by Oberlin College ,which under the direction of David Orr, has put in place the Adam Joseph Lewis Centre for Environmental Studies. This building, according to Cortese (ibid) is ‘one of the most environmentally sustainable buildings at any university’. He makes this assertion based on the fact that the building makes extensive use of natural light, has not had any toxic building materials added during its construction and is 100% solar powered with the potential to harness a surplus of energy  for the rest of the campus. Additionally, it has no records of air pollution, abides by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for drinking water quality and its grounds were landscaped such that it accommodates native species of plants supporting biological diversity.

During the development of the building, which was a 5 year project, 250 students participated in the planning and design process as well as collaborating with an array of design specialists and vendors in the Oberlin town community. A special course was developed for this very purpose, namely, to enhance students’ hand-on experience of SD practices and apply it to the building project. Enabling students to actively contribute to the improvement of their campus infrastructure is not only a highly relevant and educational experience, but it empowers students to lead the way into SD through the construction of an institution designed for their benefit and that of the overall campus community. 

Cortese (2003, p.22) also makes the point that it is imperative for university planners to ‘focus as much on the education and research being done in higher education as on the physical, operational, and external community functions and do so in an integrated, interdependent manner’. For Cortese, this is fundamental to achieving long-term behavioural change within the university setting. More importantly, he stresses the pivotal role played by faculty and students who are ‘an integral part of the educational process’. He adds that without the engagement of these central actors, any university that ‘models sustainability in all its operational functions and actions to collaborate with local and regional communities’, ‘will lose 75% of the value of its efforts and cannot fulfil its role in society’ (ibid).

  1. Curriculum and campus greening: mutually reinforcing in the overall SD practice - a case study

4.1 Introduction to Sustainable Design

A fine example of curricular initiatives aimed at raising student awareness of their resource use on campus in a bid to educate students on SD practice as a way of life, is Savageau’s (2013) case study on an integrated undergraduate course, conducted at the University of California, Davis. The course, entitled Introduction to Sustainable Design,

(…) introduces sustainability principles (environmental, economic, cultural and social vitality), sustainability frameworks (Cradle to Cradle, Natural Capitalism, The Natural Step and others), sustainability tools (e.g. life cycle assessment) and sustainable design strategies (dematerialisation, substitution, localisation, design for disassembly, etc.), and these are applied to design problems (ibid).

In conjunction with this, students carry out a personal Resource Consumption and Waste Audit which aims to raise awareness of their individual resource and waste generation on a daily basis. The audit is referred to during the entirety of the programme during class discussions. The advantages of this course are that it does not require any novel technology and it involves students directly in the audit design and self-reflection on their individual habits. Savageau concludes that the strategy is an effective way to encourage student to measure their personal resource use and waste associated with their daily activities. More importantly,

(…) the results suggest that the case for practicing sustainability becomes more compelling when consumption and waste are made more tangible as well as personal, when students engage in self-reflection on their consumption and waste behaviours (ibid, p.17)

4.2 Steps taken for conducting the audit

At the start of the audit, students are given examples of methods to measure and track their resource consumption and waste output. They are introduced to the notion of Kilowatt Hours along with ways to measure it which includes a number of websites that provide helpful information for determining one’s consumption in Kilowatt Hours. If students are unable to keep a record of their energy consumption using this form of measurement, or in the case that it becomes challenging to do so in public spaces, they can note down the time spent using a certain appliance or lighting.  There is an element of freedom however, where students are left to develop the steps allowing them to measure and keep track of their consumption and waste generation. The instructor is there to assist if the situation requires nevertheless; one example is providing them with model student charts which students can follow and build on. During the three day audit, the students are given the following instructions (Savageau, 2013, p.17-18):

Day 1: ‘Business as usual’

Establish a baseline for your normal behaviour by following you usual routines; do not change any of them(…).

Day 2: ‘Fifty Percent Reduction’

Try to achieve a 50 percent reduction in the following: water, energy and waste. (…) use your Day 1 system of measurement and create a table showing your results. For each category, discuss the reasons why you were successful or unsuccessful in achieving your goals.

Day 3: ‘Zero Waste’

Measure just one category, waste (defined as anything you throw away), and try for 100 percent reduction. See how close you can come to achieving this goal. Discuss the reason you were successful or unsuccessful in achieving zero waste: is your ability to achieve zero waste contingent on your personal habits, or does the current system of production and consumption play a role?

Students are then asked to provide a summary which should include:

  • A detailed narrative summary and analysis of your base consumption on Day 1 and of your results on Day 2 and Day 3; describe how successful you were at achieving the reductions and give reasons you could or could not achieve them;
  • Your speculation on the nature and amount of hidden resources and waste that you generate on a daily basis, for example the water and electricity the dining hall uses to prepare your food; the gasoline used to grow, harvest and transport your food the resources used to create your appliances and clothing;
  • Your reaction to this project, and what you learnt about your consumption and waste behaviour;
  • How this project will affect your behaviour in the future;
  • The implications of this audit for larger social and environmental issues that we face today and will face in the future;

4.3 Results of the audit

In view of the charts and the written summaries collected from the students who conducted the self-audit, the following points emerged:

  • The majority of the students involved were not aware of the amount of resources they use and waste. On the contrary, students are surprised and apprehensive at the results of the audit as the large part had underestimated their daily consumption and waste ;
  • The audit allowed students to get an accurate assessment of their personal consumption;
  • A large part of the students involved in the audit wish to minimise their consumption and waste;
  • For a considerable number of students, the audit is ‘life-changing’ (ibid, 20), suggesting that it should become a mandatory practice for all students across the university curricula;
  • Students are keen to share their experience with family and friends;
  • Students understand the role that the current infrastructure of production and consumption has in influencing their personal behaviour, making it difficult at an individual level to adopt a sustainable lifestyle;
  • Students develop an awareness on the origins of the produce they obtain which includes the extent of the energy required in their production.

The audit experiment has also revealed the challenges faced by students when attempting to measure with any degree of accuracy their individual consumption and waste in group contexts. Among them are residence halls, libraries, cafeterias and classrooms where feedback systems are not set in place. Campus planners need to develop ways to make patterns of consumption more visible to the campus community and one solution that was briefly mentioned was to install visible meters across different common campus areas.

The audit also places emphasis on the fact that the campus infrastructure is a built in environment which sets the grounds for a number of potential studies, ‘the kind of real-world investigations that could get students out of classrooms to design and conduct projects that positively benefit their campus and that could transform them from passive consumers of knowledge into active participants’ (ibid, p.21). One particular example where students became personally involved in the campus development was Oberlin College (see above).

Often, students report feeling overwhelmed and unable to act in the face of the multidimensional and complex problems facing the current world. As a result, the audit is seen by some students as a way through which they are able to become more environmentally conscious as well as exert control over their individual behaviour. The audit has thus the potential to trigger real, long term and sustained behavioural change among the students involved, particularly in conjunction with community outreach activities around SD.

Savageau (2013, p.22), makes a poignant last statement, that captures the essence of the problem of successfully embedding SD into HEIs.  

Ultimately, real change in behaviour surrounding issues of sustainability must connect with individuals in a very personal way. Yes, feedback from our water and food bills, from reading our energy meters, and from prices at the gas pump is important. Incentives and fees and other means of extrinsic policies can help. However, if individuals do not internalise changes in their behaviour and are not more actively engaged in finding personal means of auditing their behaviour and choices, sustainability will remain remote and impersonal. The audit described in this paper allows individuals to become contributors to the means of assessment and empowers them to make decisions relevant to them on a very personal level.

Whether these individuals happen to occupy a seat at the university board, whether they are part of the academic or administrative staff or the student body, HE organisational systems must cater for each of these subcultures in order to enable staff and students to approach SD from an angle relevant to their personal and professional life. SD is no more a concept worth ignoring than universities being deemed unnecessary to a progressive and civilised society. More so, since HEIs are uniquely placed in the world as the leading educational institutions of their time, they have the moral obligation to challenge society’s demands for increased speed, growth and infinite productivity in an increasingly frail and finite environment. It is safe to say that, in the context of HEIs and SD, the phrase ‘bis vincit qui se vincit in victoria’ (He conquers twice who in the hour of conquest conquers himself) ( ), has never stood more true or more relevant to the efforts of HEIs towards embedding and institutionalising SD in their curricula, campus operations, research and outreach.


Cortese, A. D. (2003). The critical role of higher education in creating a sustainable future. Planning for Higher Education, 31, (3), 15-22.

Holmberg, J., Svanstrom, M., Peet, D, J., Mulder, K., Ferrer-Balas, D., Segalas, J. (2008). Embedding sustainability in higher education through interaction with lecturers: Case studies from three European technical universities. European Journal and Engineering Education, 33 (3), 271-282.

Peet, D.J.,Mulder, K.F., and Bijma, A. (2004). Integrating SD into engineering courses at the Delft University of Techonology: the individual interaction method. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 5 (3), 278-88.

Petersen, J. E., Shunturov, V., Janda, K., Platt, G. and Weinberger, K. (2007). ‘’Dormitory residents reduce electricity consumption when exposed to real-time visual feedback and incentives’’. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 8, 16-33

Savageau, A. E. (2013). ‘’Let’s get personal: making sustainability tangible to students’’. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 14 (1), 15-24.

‘bis vincit qui se vincit in victoria’. [Online]. [Accessed 04 March 2015].

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