Article 4

HEIs as catalysts for the expansion of SD a local, societal and global level: Case Studies & Discussions

By Sorina Antonescu

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]. Available at: [Accessed 04 March 2015].

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