“The glaciers are melting faster than the curriculum is changing.” – David Blackstein, National Council on Science and the Environment

Universities and colleges have an opportunity and a responsibility to prepare all graduates for thoughtful and appropriate living in the 21st century. Graduates who go on to assume influential roles in their working lives will need particular knowledge and skills—and values and attitudes—to help create the sustainable and desirable future we so need.

Education for sustainability, properly delivered, guides people in making decisions and taking action for a more socially just, economically sound, and ecologically responsible future.1 This will require a rethinking of the purpose, policies, and practices of higher education to fit current realities and conditions.2

A UN Global Compact survey, including responses from 1,700 companies worldwide, confirmed education as an urgent development priority, noting that sustainable development should be included in curricula at all levels.3 A study in the UK found that nearly half of employers consider social and environmental responsibility in the selection of recent graduates, while 55 percent feel universities needed to do more to prepare students in these areas.4

A UK study of more than 5,000 first-year students found that sustainability-related skills were considered significant for employability and some two-thirds of those surveyed felt that sustainability issues should be addressed throughout the curriculum (rather than as a separate module).5 A large US university establishing a sustainability major experienced immediate, strong demand. When enrollment was capped, the number of students seeking places meant that the entry standard was among the highest of any program in the university.6 A Canadian University establishing an undergraduate Environment, Sustainability and Society (ESS) program experienced similar interest. A survey of the first-year class indicated that for two-thirds of them, the ESS program was influential in their decision to come to the university. For nearly half the students, ESS was a major or primary reason for their choice of university, while one-fifth said they would not have enrolled had the program not been available.7

There are clearly both ‘pushes’ and ‘pulls’ for increasing attention to sustainability across the curriculum.

Driving Change 

Over the years, a variety of international conventions have addressed the role of higher education in the pursuit of sustainable development. Likewise, there are numerous international and regional declarations relating specifically to sustainability in curriculum.8

UNESCO’s Stockholm Declaration in 1972 was the first to reference sustainability in higher education. The Tbilisi Declaration followed in 1977 with an emphasis on environmental education initiatives. Agenda 21, with its focus on environmental sustainability, resulted from the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. Chapter 36 covered sustainability in education, with main points including the reorientation of education towards sustainable development and promoting proper training among educators. The Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 aim to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. Goal 4 addresses quality education and includes a 2030 target relating to sustainable development knowledge and skills.

Centre for Sustainable Futures Global Challenge - student event *** Local Caption *** CSF
Students at Plymouth University in the U.K. participate in a Sustainability and Global Citizenship Program.

The Talloires Declaration, signed in 1990 by 22 university presidents, vice-chancellors, and rectors, was the first to focus on sustainability in the curriculum. It called for the creation of “programs to develop the capability of university faculty to teach environmental literacy to all undergraduate, graduate, and professional school students.”9 Other similar initiatives include The Halifax Declaration (Canadian universities) in 1991, Swansea Declaration (Commonwealth universities) in 1993, and the CRE Copernicus Charter (European universities) in 1994. Common principles or themes in the declarations include moral obligation, ecological literacy, and the development of an interdisciplinary curriculum.8

In spite of the honorable intentions of these declarations, the number of institutions becoming signatories to them is limited. And of those that have signed on, many have failed to work towards sustainability in a meaningful way, or struggled to fulfil their commitments.10–12

Many institutions embark on the sustainability journey without signing on to one of these declarations. For those contemplating such an effort and choosing to make a start, help exists from regional organizations such as EAUC (The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges) in the UK, the U.S.-based AASHE (The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education), and ACTS (Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability). Resources and support include sustainability assessment tools, publications, and training workshops.

Even with this kind of support, examples of interdisciplinary, institution-wide sustainability initiatives are still rare.13 UNESCO’s Decade of Education for Sustainability drew attention to the issue, but some suggest there is still widespread indifference and in some cases even active resistance to change.14, 15 With all of this, it remains highly possible for students to complete a university or college degree and have little idea of the kind of world they are graduating into.

Embedding Sustainability    


In spite of the generally slow uptake, there are pockets of real progress and innovation and much can be learned from their efforts, including factors critical to success (see accompanying table) and active steps institutions can take to address them. Ten such ‘steps’ are discussed briefly below, and include ‘top–down’ initiatives of senior management that help create a nurturing environment conducive to change. Meanwhile, ‘bottom–up’ responses from involved faculty include creative approaches to staff development, curriculum content, and delivery methods.

Whether change will be slow and incremental or sweeping and transformative, each institution needs to set a course that suits its own particular situation. The action steps included here are meant to provide a guide for change and give a sense of what’s possible.

Vision, Mission, and Goals

Integrating sustainability into a vision or mission statement, or declared goals, allows the institution to progress in a way that is consistent with its culture and values. Here is one example: “Middlebury College as a liberal arts institution is committed to environmental mindfulness and stewardship in all its activities. This commitment arises from a sense of concerned citizenship and moral duty and from a desire to teach and lead by example.”16 The statement was adopted by trustees of this Vermont college some two decades ago. Throughout its history, Middlebury had demonstrated sustainability leadership through campus operations, curriculum innovation, and community involvement. As a continuing part of this, in 2010 Bill McKibben, renowned author and environmentalist, was appointed Schumann Distinguished Scholar at the college.

Beyond statements and goals, sustainability can be woven into working documents that direct and regulate institutional practices. ‘Sustainability education’ is part of the sustainability policy at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and embedded in its strategic and academic plans.17 A commitment to sustainability in the curriculum is reflected in the vision, mission, and strategy statements for the entire 33-campus network of Mexico’s Monterey Institute of Technology.18

Getting it down on paper is a start. Acting on it—living it—in daily operations is the key.

Graduate Competencies

Considerable effort has gone into establishing key competencies (also called abilities, attributes, or capabilities) for problem-solving and task performance associated with sustainability.19–21 One approach organizes competencies under three headings: ‘Knowledge and understanding of…,’ ‘Values and attitudes,’ and ‘Skills in…’ Another divides competencies into a strategic knowledge cluster, a practical knowledge cluster, and a collaborative cluster.

At RMIT, the graduate attribute, ‘environmentally aware and responsible,’ commits the university to developing in all students the requisite knowledge, attitudes, and skills.17 At Oakland Community College in Michigan, a concerted effort was put into having a list of 10 general education attributes include three relating specifically to sustainability. They were as follows: acquire interpersonal and personal development skills, develop a strong commitment to social responsibility, and understand the global environment. This approach led to some faculty integrating sustainability into courses so they would qualify as a general education credit and thus be open and attractive to students from all disciplines. This helped gain support for sustainability in the curriculum in two ways: it was attractive to those concerned about enrollment numbers in their courses and it avoided the addition of (threatening) new courses in what is often perceived as an already crowded curriculum.22

The undergraduate sustainability specialization at Michigan State University is based on eight competencies, four relating to content and four based on process. The latter include civic engagement, critical and systems thinking, and personal development. Seven to eight tasks guide learning in each competency area.23

A comprehensive set of competencies plays a part in curriculum planning at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability (SOS). Basic competencies (relevant for all of the university’s graduates) include critical thinking, communication, and data management. Layered on top of this for SOS students is interpersonal competence, and above this a combination of systems thinking, anticipatory, normative, and strategic competencies.20

Single-discipline knowledge will not be enough to tackle sustainability challenges. Graduates will need to be “complex problem solvers, capable of synthesizing information across disciplines.”24

Neutral Arena

One study comparing sustainability transformation at seven universities worldwide found the existence of ‘connectors’ to be an important driver for change.25 A connector is an active network that reaches across a university, such as an interdisciplinary group. The study also established the importance of a coordinating unit to keep the change process going.

John Holmberg of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden has similarly emphasized the value and role of an organization with scope and responsibility across the traditional disciplines. He terms this a ‘neutral arena,’ an “engine for the issues that otherwise often become everyone’s interest but nobody’s responsibility.”26 The Gothenberg Centre for Environment and Sustainability was formed to serve as such an arena, involving faculty at Chalmers and Gothenberg universities and external stakeholders. The Chalmers Learning Centre was subsequently launched to support the quality of learning at the university. Important characteristics of these centers include being open, inviting, and service oriented, with a focus on lowering barriers and building trust.26

The College of Sustainability at Dalhousie University in Canada, offering the university’s ESS program, could also be considered a form of neutral arena. There was no move to hire sustainability ‘specialists’ when the College opened its doors in 2009. Instead, professors from faculties and departments across the university move into and out of the College on one-third time, three-year appointments. They bring in new ideas from their own discipline, team teach, and take back new perspectives to their specialty area—cross-fertilization at its best.

In all cases, activities of the neutral arena are not meant to replace comparable initiatives. Instead, they serve to complement and build on the institution’s other sustainability-related programs.7

Campus Operations

Challenge Lab students at Chalmers Campus Lindholmen, the location for the Challenge Lab 2014-2015.

‘Greening’ campus operations, as a movement, has led by some margin greening of the curriculum. Where good practice has occurred, the campus can serve as a venue for meaningful experiential learning. Termed the ‘informal’ curriculum, this aspect of courses can include field trips, interactions with staff, and projects linking campus operations with formal study.14

Campus facilities and grounds offer tremendous opportunities for sustainability research and learning. Students can be engaged in understanding the ‘institutional metabolism,’ looking at energy and water use, waste management, purchasing decisions, and transportation (commuting practices and service vehicles), and the ecological and social footprints of all these activities.27

In a modest and simple effort, an undergraduate course at the University of Wisconsin–Madison focusing on energy management uses campus buildings and resident halls as the ‘setting’ and changes taking place on campus as the ‘script.’ Those delivering the course remind us that facilities and operations staff have a wealth of knowledge and expertise that should be drawn upon for the benefit of all. On a grander scale, students at Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina spend regular weekly time on crews supporting all campus operations, including a six-acre garden, 300-acre working farm, and 700-acre managed forest.

Professor David Hamilton of The University of Waikato in New Zealand says, “Universities should act as practicing models of sustainability.”28 When they do, they serve at once as inspiration, example, and laboratory for student experiences.

Community Connections

Beyond the campus, real-world learning opportunities await in the community, in local businesses, and with government organizations. Problem- and project-based learning, service learning, and internships allow students to work collaboratively with community stakeholders and link knowledge to action for sustainability.19

The Sustainable Future, an introductory course at Roosevelt University in Chicago, uses the city and its suburbs as an outdoor learning laboratory. Students explore and study important architectural and cultural sites and natural areas, learn from experts in the field, hear about the work of nonprofits, and contribute to the likes of beach and waterway clean-ups.

The Oberlin Project in Ohio is a joint effort of the city, Oberlin College, private investors, local businesses, and regional economic development agencies. Its aim is to improve the resilience, prosperity, and sustainability of the community. Launched in 2009, initiatives include the development of a central Green Arts District in the city as a driver for community economic revitalization, shifting the city and college to renewable energy sources, and creating a robust local foods economy to meet 70 percent of the community’s needs. College students are actively involved in these initiatives, and the project is further focused on integrating sustainability into education at all levels.29

Resources and Support

The general structure of higher education, organized into traditional disciplines focusing on specialized areas of knowledge, is at odds with the holistic, complex nature of sustainability. Resources and finances are typically linked to disciplines, which acts as an impediment to interdisciplinary work and collaboration amongst departments.

Adequate resources and support, and a true spirit of cooperation, are needed to embed sustainability across the curriculum. This may require modifying administrative systems and structures, and individual roles, to ensure lasting change.30 The use of fixed-term appointments and rotating faculty into and out of the ESS program at Dalhousie, for example, was seen as a way to infuse sustainability into instructors’ home departments.

Sustainability ‘champions’ can lead the way and draw others into the cause, so putting someone in charge makes good sense. The Sustainable Universities Initiative (SUI), a collaborative effort of three universities in South Carolina, saw the president of each institution appoint an SUI fellow. The fellow, receiving a small stipend, was seen as an opinion leader capable of finding collaborators and engaging faculty keen to be involved.31

Reporting at the highest level is important, too. To this end, Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand has appointed an assistant vice-chancellor (sustainability) with a mandate including teaching, research, and operations.

Faculty Development

Efforts to engage faculty face a number of challenges. At a very basic level, there may be a need to spark an interest in sustainability, demonstrate its connection and relevance to different disciplines, and overcome concerns about any disruption it might cause to the current curriculum. It will also be necessary to convey a proper understanding of the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability, provide information for inclusion in courses, and promote new delivery methods. Group workshops, one-on-one training, and resource materials can all play a part in this.

Students at Plymouth University in the U.K. volunteer to green the campus and increase biodiversity.

In the U.S., early work of Tufts University’s Environmental Literacy Institute (TELI) and the nonprofit organization Second Nature was instrumental in developing an effective workshop format. The Ponderosa Project at Northern Arizona University (NAU), launched in 1995, used this format to assist faculty in revising or preparing new courses to cover a broad range of sustainability topics. Other institutions followed suit, with the Piedmont Project at Emory University in Atlanta becoming a model for faculty development and curricular innovation.32 A long-term study of participants in TELI and Piedmont workshops showed significant benefits. In addition to the effect on teaching (new topics and new teaching methods), many participants reported it led to new research directions, grant proposals, and publications. Interdisciplinary cooperation increased and personal engagement with environmental issues was enhanced.33 AASHE now offers “Sustainability across the Curriculum” leadership workshops based on the Ponderosa/Piedmont model.

In the UK, both vision and leadership have come from the Centre for Sustainable Futures, established at Plymouth University in 2005. More than 40 Centre Fellows from all schools and faculties play a role in helping to embed sustainability across the curriculum and faculty have written guides to help other institutions do the same.34, 35

Individual interaction is a further way to engage and involve staff. This method has been used effectively at Chalmers University of Technology. Informally interviewing instructors and discussing how their topics relate to sustainable development leaves them in control of their course and open and receptive to change.36

Engaging faculty developers and others involved more broadly in professional development—including the various academic discipline associations and their continuing education schemes—can add to the cause and bring legitimacy to it.

Incentives and Rewards

Progress will be limited if it relies solely on the passion and commitment of a few keen individuals. Intrinsic rewards such as knowing that one is doing meaningful work and satisfaction gained from student engagement only go so far. In time, efforts to weave sustainability into the curriculum must be fully integrated into the incentive (salaries, promotion, and tenure) structure of the institution.

Providing a small stipend to faculty who attend workshops and develop new modules or courses has been common and is a good start. While it doesn’t fully compensate for the time involved, it is an acknowledgement in principle. In efforts to change at RMIT, part of the budget provided those involved relief from some of their daily activities. At ASU’s School of Sustainability, with its problem- and project-based learning, there is recognition of the additional effort required for the network- and relationship-building involved in engaged research and learning. Incentives and rewards include faculty stipends and paid student assistance to develop problem- and project-based learning courses.37

At Dalhousie, every course in the ESS program is team taught by at least two faculty. Recognizing that co-teaching is often as much or more work than teaching alone, faculty receive full credit for the teaching load. Change and innovation at Plymouth University is supported by a teaching fellowship award scheme.

Initiatives like these increase legitimacy and address an issue that is often a real barrier to change: time constraints.

Course Content

There is no shortage of topics to cover. Climate change, biodiversity, land use changes, air quality and pollution, water use and quality, energy use and transportation, and natural disaster management are on the list. So are agricultural practices, fisheries management, food safety and security, tourism management, and corporate social responsibility. And then there’s health and well-being, human rights, social injustice and poverty reduction, income and gender inequality, preservation of indigenous cultures, and population growth.

With this long and varied topic list, it’s important to structure a curriculum that goes beyond traditional resource conservation issues to consider society, the economy, and the environment together. Where sustainability is integrated into existing courses, issues most directly related to the core topic can be emphasized to ensure relevance and interest.

A stand-alone course that all students must take can cover the issues, but it may be unpopular simply because it is required. It also risks ghettoizing sustainability if there isn’t sufficient coverage of these themes elsewhere in the curriculum. Alternatively, an (introductory) optional course that is truly engaging and inspiring could draw students in and see its popularity grow through word-of-mouth.

An introductory, specialist course can be complemented (and built on) by integrating sustainability into a broad range of subjects across the curriculum. There are successful examples of this in, among others, law, business, engineering, nursing, sociology, theology, dance and drama, media and communications, and economics.38

Introductory economics is suggested as an important subject to infiltrate. In North America, at least, some 40 percent of undergraduate students take an introductory economics course, so it’s a sizeable audience. Sustainability concepts injected here can help counter the view that the economy exists in isolation of the environment, and can encourage questioning of traditional economic teachings, such as consumption is good, economic growth is desirable, and there are no resource limits, just externalities.15

Sustainability coverage is truly impressive at some institutions. A legacy of the Ponderosa Project at NAU is more than 260 undergraduate and 90 graduate courses on offer through departments across the university. Emory’s Piedmont Project has worked with more than 230 faculty. All of them have integrated sustainability into at least one course (and some as many as four). Over half of all departments in the arts and sciences colleges and the professional schools have at least one sustainability-related course. Sustainability issues are now integrated into the nursing curriculum, emergency medicine, mathematics, statistics, and many language courses—not disciplines one would normally expect. At the UK’s Plymouth University, 49 percent of courses have an embedded or major sustainability element. In addition, 50 percent of research funding and 25 percent of publications are sustainability related.

The Mona Campbell building at Dalhousie University houses the College of Sustainability. Constructed using leading-edge technology, including solar panels and smart lighting, it’s one of only three buildings in North America to use “BubbleDeck” technology, a revolutionary building method based on the use of hollow, recycled plastic balls.

Elsewhere, undergraduate and graduate programs in sustainability are offered at The University of Tokyo and Stellenbosch University in South Africa, among others.37 The concepts of a “green university” and “sustainable curricula” have also taken root in China and other emerging countries.39

Some take it a step further. At Green Mountain College in Vermont, for example, all students complete a 37-credit environmental liberal arts sequence, regardless of their chosen major. Unity College in Maine has reorganized its curriculum around five sustainability-oriented centers housing 16 well-defined majors, with a focus on three academic strengths of the college: science, service, and sustainability.

Delivery Methods

The simple transmission of knowledge is obviously not enough. Education for sustainability should “aim to be experiential learning, starting from real problems, grappling with the multidimensional, transdisciplinary nature of these in an attempt to come to real, rather than reductionist, solutions.”40

The options and approaches discussed above all play a part. This includes connecting with the campus and community beyond, problem- and project-based learning, hands-on projects and internships, and meaningful interaction with practitioners. These provide opportunities for group and peer learning, collaborative work, community involvement, civic engagement, and a chance to reflect on all of these experiences. In sum, it involves applied learning with an emphasis on positive community impact.41

ASU’s School of Sustainability follows what they call a functional and progressive model to build sustainability competence through real-world learning opportunities. This involves a four-part, staged approach: bringing the real world in (addressing real-world issues in class), visiting the real world (through field trips, for example), simulating the real world (peer-review activities or role games), and engaging with the world (through applied case studies on campus or in the community).19

Professor Stephen Sterling, of Plymouth University, proposes a model of progressive engagement and deeper learning that includes education ‘about,’ ‘for,’ and ‘as’ sustainable development and change. Education ‘about’ focuses on information and content. Education ‘for’ goes further to examine existing values and beliefs and facilitates reflection on alternatives. Education ‘as’ emphasizes capacity building, empowerment, and action competence.2 Knowledge, values, and competence—all are important and have their part to play.

Making Real Gains     

Properly embedding sustainability across the curriculum will have a number of important benefits. Among them, it will lead to improved quality and relevance of education for all enrolled students. It will better prepare domestic students for meaningful work at home and abroad. And it will strengthen offerings to attract foreign students in a competitive international education marketplace.

To benefit more students and more institutions, government financing of tertiary education and agencies supporting research will need to pay greater heed to sustainability issues and challenges and allocate funds accordingly. Senior administrators at universities and colleges that are leading the way on sustainability could help by reaching out to inform and educate key government and agency decision-makers on this crucial role and responsibility of higher education in the 21st century.

Higher education is facing rising costs, funding challenges, and disruptions through the likes of open online courses. With all of this, a focus on sustainability can provide a source of hope and opportunity for institutional change and a renewed sense of mission.42

Professor David W. Orr of Oberlin College put it nicely when he said, “Educational institutions committed to the real work of building a sustainable and decent human future and willing to learn what that requires of us would be exciting and challenging places. More to the point, they would equip the rising generation to see that the world is rich with possibilities and prepare them to act competently in that light.”43


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Gord Stewart

Gord is an environmental sustainability consultant based in Matamata, New Zealand. His academic involvement has included teaching MBA students and supervising their research projects relating to sustainability...

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