Sustainability? Teach them how!

A random Google search for ‘sustainable development’ scores over 220 million search results. The world is talking about sustainability. From financial and economic policies to baby diapers – it could all be branded as sustainable (and it is). This has almost turned sustainability to a cliché.

Sustainability, however, isn’t about things. It all comes down to individual behaviour that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (the Brundtland Commission, 1980s). Currently, unsustainability is a lifestyle. The environment and resources serve us here and now without a long-run perspective. The unsustainable economic model collapsed and burdened future generations with the consequences. And societal challenges such as demography, employment, education and skills are undermining the stability of our communities.

The big question is how to establish the sustainable mind-set and encourage sustainable behaviour in order to turn away from unsustainability. A very good answer is through the process of education. Higher education has a major role in shaping individuals because it is a transition period to real life. Higher education institutions (HEIs) facilitate personal development and change. Universities form micro communities where institutional environment could foster creativity, productivity, social responsibility and environmental awareness. On the one hand, university campuses have the potential to become a model for environmental, social and economic sustainability. On the other hand, students bring along high motivation, energy and fresh thinking. Thus, higher education is a stable platform for ideas that belong to younger generations.

The challenges:

The idea of sustainability relates to HEIs in a simple twofold way. One vector is the concept of a sustainable university. The second vector covers the idea of integrating sustainability in the actual curricula. However, there is a catch – a list of pending obstacles to sustainability is to be ticked off:

• The risk of running sustainability as a marketing technique. Words and phrases that have to do with sustainable have become taglines. Simply put, painting a building green does not make it sustainable.
• Limiting the perception to an environmental concept only, excluding the two other pillars – society and economy.
• Introducing sustainability in higher education curricula requires plenty of efforts for HEIs and a small number of them are willing to invest time and money in it.
• Sustainability principles are not compulsory for HEIs and their curricula. Thus, some HEIs are true pioneers in the field while a large group of the organisations lag behind.
• 40 years after Stockholm Earth Summit in 1972 no sustainability strategy is being implemented in the field of higher education. Thus, there is no path to follow and no strategic approach in setting goals and measuring their implementation and impact.
• UN’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005 has not influenced significantly policy making at EU level due to the fact that higher education is still heavily dependent on strictly national policies and 28 different policies are implemented.


Despite the fact that the Europe 2020 strategy has set a target to achieve sustainability, a limited range of tools is available when it comes to higher education. The variety of crises (financial, economic and debt crises) that clouded over the EU made the process of introducing sustainability to higher education even slower.

The idea of sustainable development is a horizontal process that involves different governmental agencies and levels of governance – local, national, and European. Sustainability is a bottom-up process and it requires commitment and leadership. This is why all stakeholders should equally contribute to achieving the goal.

The long-term outcome from integrating sustainability in the higher education is the establishment of a mind-set and values that will be embedded in all fields of our lives. Through education, our social, economic and environmental behaviour could become sustainable by default.


To higher education institutions:

• Include the three pillars of sustainability in the organisations’ mission statements and strategic goals.
• The sustainable development education requires multidiscipline approach. Instead of being a separate isolated subject (where it exists), it has to be an integrated part of large number of subjects such as economics, finance, strategic management, human resources management, engineering, medicine, etc.
• Introduce sustainability policies based on standard frameworks such as the Environmental Management Systems and ISO 14000 / ISO 14001. The framework should focus on several aspects – facilities, waste, transportation, energy, administration, etc.
• Develop sustainable campuses because they create a micro environment capable of shifting students’ mind-sets. More HEIs should establish sustainability information desks/centres at their campuses in order to generate further interest among students.
• Form partnerships on sustainability with local governments, businesses, NGOs and foundations. This will provide access to additional research capacity and funding.
• Aim at project-based learning and practical involvement in sustainability initiatives. Universities could recruit volunteers among the students who have good knowledge on sustainability. They could form groups for generating sustainability ideas, activities and cause a snowball effect for many other students.

To the EU member states:

• Focus on translating sustainability to HEIs and students so they could “buy” the idea. Currently there is no big demand for sustainability, since most of the HEIs and students do not appreciate the benefits of it. Universities consider it a burdensome budget item.
• The EU Member States should be encouraged to bind accreditation and evaluation of higher education institutions to sustainable development. A special set of criteria could be established that would influence the accreditation and ranking of HEIs.
• The 2014-2020 programming period should play a vital role in funding schemes for sustainable development in higher education through operational programmes at national level.
• Funding for public HEIs should include sustainability research grants, awarded for sustainability projects. Budgeting should shift to performance based, taking into consideration sustainability criteria.

To the European Commission:

• The next European Commission should work even closer with the member states to achieve a harmonised approach in integrating sustainability in higher education across the EU.