• Higher education institutions in Europe acknowledge the urgent need for rapid and radical transformation towards sustainable development and agree that higher education has an important role to play in this process (Lozano et al. 2013; Sterling 2004). But how can this role be assumed, what values should guide the process, what should be transformed, how, and who should lead and who be engaged? Suggestions and models providing orientation and guidance exist (Lambrechts et al. 2018; Mulà et al. 2017), but they remain niches, often nested at institutional levels that are disconnected from relevant larger-scale, standard-defining quality and policy bodies (Fadeeva et al. 2014).


    Among the challenges that need to be addressed are the following:

  • First,

    value-based research and teaching are often believed to be problematical by academics, who consider freedom of thinking to be the highest good at a university; some still believe that facts and values can be separated (Kläy et al. 2015). Moreover, researchers are often not used to considering that higher education institutions are accountable to society (Schneider et al. 2019). And those who teach are concerned that taking into account society’s normative goals conflicts with the “no indoctrination” rule of education (“Überwältigungsverbot”: see the Beutelsbacher Konsens (Reinhardt 2016)). Where can or should sustainability values be included in research and teaching and how can this be done?


    assessment and quality assurance processes are currently measuring what can be measured instead of what should be measured (Lockhart 2018), and predominant institutional setups of higher education institutions rely on competition rather than on collaboration. What indicators should be measured to ensure that higher education can play its leading role in transformation towards sustainable development? How can we make publishing of results part of a sustainable development venture? What other outputs could be defined as both “assessable” and “transformative”?


    activities at higher education institutions tend to be compartmentalized; while this is necessary to ensure expertise and efficiency in science, teaching, and operations, it also hampers the systemic, interdisciplinary, and cross-sectoral approach needed for sustainable development and for moving “from knowing to doing” (Rice 2013). In the past thirty years, considerable progress has been made in the fields of inter- and transdisciplinary research; corresponding teaching is also progressing – but do we have the structures, policies, and quality assurance criteria we need to ensure that this work has traction power for careers? And how can the hinge between disciplinary work and inter- and transdisciplinary work be shaped so that it is transformed from an “either/or” barrier to a creative connector?


    are we able to take up the challenge of teaching and researching with sustainable development in mind? This requires a focus on competences in addition to knowledge, as well as a shift from teaching to learning (Barth 2015) and to transformative teaching (Förster et al. 2019); lecturers find this challenging, in particular because there is a notorious lack of professional development to support these changes towards education for sustainable development (Mulà et al. 2017). How can the community of adult educators support the academic community by sharing experience with ways of teaching that enable transformative learning and education?


    students are now challenging their universities to be role models with regard to sustainable development goals, in particular concerning climate change. In light of the fact that sustainability educationalists conceive of students as agents of change (Warwick 2016), students’ activities should be seen as an interculturally driven broadening of a higher education institution’s mindset, and be adopted as an integral part of the institution (Higgins et al. 2013; Scott 2016). Can we accommodate and support student initiatives within the existing structures of higher education institutions and if yes, how? How can we balance this support with the necessary freedom and flexibility of student initiatives, and allow for potential contradictions with existing structures? How can students support and facilitate transformative learning for sustainable development? And what place is given to their engagement with social actors?


    in addition to research and teaching, the mission of higher education institutions is to serve society and support our common transformation towards sustainable development (Fadeeva et al. 2014). This involves making sustainability-relevant insights from scientific knowledge available to specific audiences through targeted publications, conferences, and scientific mediation. But it also involves implementing collaborative research where research questions and results are co-produced between researchers and society (Heiskanen et al. 2016). How can these new partnerships between science and society be implemented? With what actors (Public administration? Civil society organizations? Business? Politics?) What types of impact can be expected? What kinds of mechanisms exist at universities to promote them? How can researchers’ work in relation to society be acknowledged? What does this imply for quality assurance processes and standards?

  • References

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    Fadeeva Z, Galkute L, Mader C, Scott G. 2014. Sustainable development and quality assurance in higher education: Transformation of learning and society. England, Hampshire.

    Förster R, Zimmermann AB, Mader C. 2019. Transformative teaching in higher education for sustainable development: Facing the challenges. GAIA - Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society. 28(3):324-326.

    Heiskanen E, Thidell A, Rodhe H. 2016. Educating sustainability change agents: The importance of practical skills and experience. Journal of Cleaner Production. 123:218-226.

    Higgins P, Nicol R, Somervell D, Bownes M. 2013. The student experience. Campus, curriculum, communities and transition at the university of edinburgh. In: Sterling S, Maxey L, Luna H, editors. The sustainable university: Progress and prospects. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Earthscan (Routledge). p. 132 - 150.

    Kläy A, Zimmermann AB, Schneider F. 2015. Rethinking science for sustainable development: Reflexive interaction for a paradigm transformation. Futures. 65:72–85.

    Lambrechts W, Van Liedekerke L, Van Petegem P. 2018. Higher education for sustainable development in flanders: Balancing between normative and transformative approaches. Environmental Education Research. 24(9):1284-1300.

    Lockhart AS. 2018. Monitoring esd: Lessons learned and ways forward. In: Leicht A, Heiss J, Byun WJ, editors. Issues and trends in education for sustainable development. Paris, France: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. p. 216-231.

    Lozano R, Lukman R, Lozano FJ, Huisingh D, Lambrechts W. 2013. Declarations for sustainability in higher education: Becoming better leaders, through addressing the university system. Journal of Cleaner Production. 48:10-19.

    Mulà I, Tilbury D, Ryan A, Mader M, Dlouhá J, Mader C, Benayas J, Dlouhý J, Alba D. 2017. Catalysing change in higher education for sustainable development. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. 18(5):798-820.

    Reinhardt S. 2016. The beutelsbach consensus. Journal of Social Science Education. 15(2):11-13.

    Rice M. 2013. Spanning disciplinary, sectoral and international boundaries: A sea change towards transdisciplinary global environmental change research? Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 5(3):409-419.

    Schneider F, Kläy A, Zimmermann AB, Buser T, Ingalls M, Messerli P. 2019. How can science support the 2030 agenda for sustainable development? Four tasks to tackle the normative dimension of sustainability. Sustain Sci.

    Scott G. 2016. Transforming graduate capabilities & achievement standards for a sustainable future.1-46.

    Sterling S. 2004. Higher education, sustainability, and the role of systemic learning. In: Corcoran PB, Wals AEJ, editors. Higher education and the challenge of sustainability: Problematics, promise, and practice. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. p. 49-70.

    Warwick P. 2016. An integrated leadership model for leading education for sustainability in higher education and the vital role of students as change agents. Management in Education. 30(3):105-111.