Sunday, 21 July 2013

Pathways to a sustainable university

The relationship between higher education and sustainability is one of tension.


Universities are sometimes seen as leading the way in accelerating un-sustainability through their thinking, teaching and research (e.g. Wals, 2008). Therefore, a growing number of scholars (e.g. Wiek et al, 2012) propose that addressing sustainability requires a different approach to education and research in higher education.


This indicates that, in order to address sustainability effectively, universities themselves should change – a view that is common among a number of international consultations and declarations that many universities have subscribed to (e.g. Talloires 1990, Copernicus 1994 and Luneburg 2001) (Scott and Gough 2007).


The issues that universities would confront when addressing sustainability are of two types (Ferrer-Balas et al 2010): (1) harder issues: making changes in operations, courses, curricula and research, (2) softer issues: making changes in values, attitudes, motivations and societal interactions. Confronting these issues, many universities worldwide have progressed along different pathways towards ‘Sustainable University’.


Research into sustainability in higher education has generated a number of sustainable university models. One of the most widely recognised is the 4C model, which comprises: (1) Curriculum – learning and teaching (and related research) (2) Campus change (3) Community engagement (4) Culture – encircling the other three (Blake and Sterling 2011).


The literature charts four pathways to a Sustainable University:
  • Reorient core functions of universities – e.g. education, research, outreach – around the concept of sustainability
  • Minimise adverse environmental and social impacts of universities through greening operations
  • Develop of an institution-wide sustainability culture in within universities and beyond
  • Develop a pro-sustainability institutional framework

The pathways and their corresponding purposes as indicated in the literature could be summed up as follows:





To produce sustainability-oriented/ competent graduates ready to work in green economies and to live (and lead) in increasingly diverse communities


To generate new knowledge (and to learn from the existing but lesser known sustainability-rich knowledge systems) to address wider community’s sustainability issues


To lead, partner with and contribute to the sustainability endeavours of the wider community – local to global


To minimise universities’ environmental and social impacts at all levels – local to global


To develop a sustainability culture within the university community and beyond


To develop a pro-sustainability institutional framework that would nurture not hinder pro-sustainability developments in the other five pathways


According to the literature, when considering the universities that are working to become more sustainable, most show significant progress in one or two pathways only, usually in operations.

Future posts will explore each pathway in more detail….


Useful Resources


Higher education, sustainability, and London buses
Sustainable University News and Information website
Sustainable University Good Practice website (a visual celebration of sustainability practice at UK universities)

Greening Universities Toolkit (draft) (UNEP)
Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability in Higher Education
Rio+20 Treaty on Higher Education
Why and How Higher Education is Embracing Sustainability (Triple Pundit)

Higher Education in the World 4 Higher Education’s Commitment to Sustainability: from Understanding to Action  (Global University Network for Innovation GUNI report)
Assessing the sustainability of higher education institutions
How can higher education institutions become more sustainable? (The Guardian)

Greeningspires / Universities and the green agenda (UUK)

Sustainable development in higher education: 2008 update to strategic statement and action plan (HEFCE)

Sustainable Development in Higher Education: CurrentPractice and Future Developments (The Sustainability Information Teaching Exchange)
Sustainable Development on Campus (International Institute for Sustainable Development IISD)

Talloires Declaration

Date not clear

Declarations for Sustainable Development: the Response of Universities (IISD)
Declarations on higher education and sustainable development (1972-2008)
Second Nature (‘…to create a sustainable society by transforming higher education’)
The Role of Higher Education Institutions in Promoting Sustainable Development (UN University)
Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC)
Education for sustainable development (HEA)
People and Planet Green League
The Sustainable University One-stop Shop
The Sustainability Exchange
Sustainable Development (HEFCE)
Education for sustainable development and globalcitizenship (ESDGC) (HEFCW)
Sustainable Development (SFC)
Sustainabilityin Higher Education Developers (SHED) (HEA)
The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)
Learningin Future Environments (LiFE)
London Universities Environmental Group (LUEG)
Sustainability Leaders Programme (EAUC)
International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
Higher Education Environment Performance Improvement (HEEPI)

References & Bibliography

Bacon, C.M., Mulvaney, D., Ball, T.B., DuPuis, E.M., Gliessman, S.R., Lipschutz, R.D. and Shakouri, A. (2011) The creation of an integrated sustainability curriculum and student praxis projects. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12(2), pp.193-208.

Beringer, A. and Adomssent, M. (2008) Sustainable university research and development: inspecting sustainability in higher education research. Environmental Education Research, 14(6), pp.607-623.

Blake, J. and Sterling, S. (2011) Tensions and transitions: effecting change towards sustainability at a mainstream university through staff living and learning at an alternative, civil society college. Environmental Education Research, 17(1), pp.125-144.

Brinkhurst, M., Rose, P., Maurice, G. and Ackerman, J.D. (2011) Achieving campus sustainability: top-down, bottom-up, or neither? International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12(4), pp. 338-354.

Chalkley, B. and Sterling, S. (2011) Hard times in higher education: the closure of subject centres and the implications for education for sustainable development (ESD). Sustainability, 3, pp. 666-677.

Djordjevic, A. and Cotton, D.R.E. (2011) Communicating the sustainability message in higher education institutions. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12(4), pp. 381-394.

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, pp.607-610

Lozano, R. (2010) Diffusion of sustainable development in universities' curricula: an empirical example from Cardiff University, Journal of Cleaner Production, 18, pp.637-644.

Minguet, P.A., Martinez-Agut, M.P., Palacios, B., Pinero, A. and Ull, M.A. (2011) Introducing sustainability into university curricula: an indicator and baselines survey of the views of university teachers at the University of Valencia. Environmental Education Research, 17(2), pp. 145-166.

Rieckmann, M. (2012) Future-oriented higher education: Which key competencies should be fostered through university teaching and learning? Futures, 44, pp. 127-135.

Savelyeva, T. and McKenna, J.R. (2011) Campus sustainability: emerging curricula models in higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12(1), pp.55-66.

Scott, W. and Gough, S. (2007) Universities and sustainable development: the necessity for barriers to change. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 11 (4), pp. 107-115.

Waas, T., Verbruggen, A. and Wright, T. (2010) University research for sustainable development: definition and characteristics explored. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18, pp. 629-636.

Wals, A.E.J. (ed.) (2008) From cosmetic reform to meaningful integration: Implementing Education for Sustainable Development in higher education institutes – The state of affairs in six European countries. Amsterdam: DHO.

Wiek, A., Farioli, F. and Fukushi, K. (2012) Sustainability science: bridging the gap between science and society, Sustainability Science, 7 (Supplement 1), pp.1-4.

Yarime, M., Trencher, G, Mino, T., Scholz, R.W., Olsson, L., Ness, B., Frantzeskaki, N. and Rotmans, J. (2012) Establishing sustainability science in higher education institutions: towards an integration of academic development, institutionalization, and stakeholder collaborations. Sustainability Science, 7 (Supplement 1), pp. 101-113.

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