Reimagining sustainability – A key role for higher education

Sustainable development has become a prominent focus of tertiary education in recent years – in some cases the orienting principle for institutions. Students are to be educated in sustainable development, academics are to research and publish on it and professional staff to ensure the institution itself is sustainable. Yet to what extent can tertiary education institutions (TEIs) meaningfully promote sustainable development, and align their diverse activities around it?

In recent years the idea of sustainable development has moved from the confines of geography textbooks and United Nations declarations to the centre ground of tertiary education rhetoric and strategy.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in particular have become a common framework around which TEIs both map and classify their activities and actively align their work. There is even an entire academic journal dedicated to the topic (the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education).

Sustainability has become an apparently consensual idea around which to gather the diverse actors and functions of the institution, and provide a public justification of its existence.

Nevertheless, there are some highly problematic aspects of the notion of sustainability. For one, sustainable development and sustainability are flawed concepts, in their vagueness and consequent susceptibility to either co-optation by agendas that are hostile to social justice and health of the ecosystem, or alternatively a limp consensus accompanied by inaction.

Nevertheless, it is better to engage with the notion than not to engage. In the first place, it is an idea that already has wide currency, generally in society, and within tertiary education, and, as such, academics must grapple with it, contest and advocate for better versions.

Furthermore, despite its ambiguities, the term does have the potential for alerting humanity to the need for a fundamentally different way of organising itself, and can be a vehicle for much-needed debate and action.

Three forms of engagement with sustainable development

The dominant conception of an educational institution is that it serves as a vehicle for producing benefit outside itself: as a factory producing new goods, a blacksmith refashioning iron or a surgery rectifying ailments.

Most commonly through their teaching function – and in the case of institutions at the tertiary level also through research – they are seen to produce knowledge, skills and values (and through them products, services and technologies) that individuals and society need.

Yet we can also see educational institutions in a different way, in having a real existence and value in themselves, in the here and now. Schools and TEIs are communities that matter – despite their transience – independently of the future and external benefit they produce. The latter idea we can term the expressive as opposed to the projective function of education.

These two modes capture much of what educational institutions do. However, there is an assumption in both of them that the ideas or purposes are predefined or externally generated. We might also then point to another function of education institutions – and in this case TEIs are particularly prominent – which is to generate new ideas about what is to be projected or expressed.

For this we can borrow the term ‘constructive’ from Amartya Sen. In his well-known discussions on democracy, Sen has distinguished between its intrinsic value (as part of what it means to have a valued and dignified life), its instrumental value (in achieving the kinds of decisions that will further interests of all members of society) and its constructive value: ie, that “the practice of democracy gives citizens an opportunity to learn from one another, and helps society to form its values and priorities”.

These three ideas express themselves in different ways in relation to sustainable development.


In the first of these modes, sustainable development is something that TEIs help to bring into being. The most common way in which they do this is through teaching their students to be sustainable.

This provision is sometimes integrated into existing courses, and conceptualised as a modification of professional training (ie, the formation of sustainable engineers), or involves the creation of new courses: in the United Kingdom it is now possible to do, for example, a BSc in Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, a Master of Studies in Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge or an MBA in Sustainability Impact at the University of Stirling.

In other cases sustainable development forms part of the general civic and personal learning of all students, and may occur outside of the accredited syllabus.

There is a sizeable body of literature on education for sustainable development, and on the more specific area of climate change education, involving personal accounts of teaching courses, pedagogical approaches, competencies and curriculum models.

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