Higher education’s contribution to sustainable development: the way forward

JANSEN, Leo (2010)

In this article Leo Jansen, Professor Emeritus at the Technological University of Delft, explains that in order to integrate sustainable development in higher education, the entire education system, as well as its values and norms, must be rethought.

Sustainable development and the obligations of higher education

All men and women are a part of development in their place and level in society. The process of sustainable development (SD) requires that each of them attain the skills needed to handle the complex challenges of change and uncertainty, a large number of stakeholders, conflicting interests and rigid barriers of self-interest and short-term thinking on every level (Weaver et al., 2001). SD does not come about on its own; rather, it must be guided by long-term analyses and goals. This requires that higher education (HE) play a double role: it must provide graduates with the attitude, knowledge and skills to lead this process, while also developing and delivering the knowledge to support research on SD.

Social learning (Wals, 2007) is a framework for developing the necessary skills, as SD is essentially a learning process on all levels. The characteristics of SD demand long-term integrated system changes. To gain broad support for these changes, all relevant parties must become involved. SD is a learning-by-doing process in which social challenges are met step by step by the social parties involved, supported by science and technology disciplines in a cooperative effort. The cumulative effect of such interaction is change in different domains and at different levels (micro, meso and macro), which may lead to a societal transition to SD. Thus, by contributing to education and research, HE becomes a key player in social learning (Kibwika, 2006).

From environmental care to the transition to SD

The process of SD did not appear overnight. Early warning signs were given in Silent Spring (Carson and Darling, 1962), followed by the Club of Rome’s report Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972). Around the same time, the OECD launched important principles such as ‘normative forecasting’ (Jantsch, 1969).

In its visionary report Our Common Future, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (Brundtland, 1987) connected the challenges of saving the environment and fighting against poverty. Nevertheless, the environment continues to deteriorate and the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. In terms of ‘planet, people and prosperity’, environmental protection covers ‘planet’, whereas SD integrates all three.

Obstacles to change

In working towards a sustainable future, changes in culture and structure may affect the position and power of individuals and institutions. Resistance is expressed in bad attitudes, inabilities and defensive actions as a result of the stress between the need for (bureaucratic) certainties to keep society running and the need for flexibility towards change. This is manifested as opposition to long-term risks, insufficient innovative power and a rigid disciplinary organization of science.

The main remedy to these drawbacks is to shape conditions for developing broadly supported future views, as interest in long-term convergence is much stronger than interest in short-term rat races.


Even where resistance to change is not felt, urgency is lacking, especially in developed nations, where the direct deterioration of health and the environment has largely been overcome. In developing nations, however, environmental and economic problems are still matters of existential urgency. One fundamental barrier is the lack of willingness to accept a fair global distribution of environmental capabilities as a condition for common survival. SD requires cooperation, which goes beyond the search for individual certainties.


Many groups, such as the Factor 10 Club (1997) and Robert et al. (2002), have developed visions of a sustainable future and a path thereto. However, responsible governments have proven incapable of developing long-term integrated visions of a sustainable future. The benefits of bureaucracy—providing certain expectations and responsibilities for civil stakeholders as a means of democratic control—conflict with the need to handle the uncertainties of fundamental change and cooperation in which the bureaucracy is just one partner. Nation states operate in enlarging and changing circles under rules fashioned by history; this is reflected in the laborious implementation of international treaties and conferences like the Kyoto Protocol, Johannesburg, and Copenhagen.

The operational challenge of SD

The main challenge of SD is to initiate evolutionary change in an unsustainable world. This evolution involves renewing integrated systems, making transitions and meeting the requirements of a growing population with growing prosperity. This will require SD education on all levels and in all modes of learning: formal, non-formal and informal (Dam-Mieras and Rikers, 2005). This education should focus on teaching skills, developing SD-oriented visions in civil society, integrating a future orientation in public policymaking and in public debate, transforming structures of society for SD, and breaking through barriers.

Systems renewal for SD is a complex social process that encompasses not only radical technological innovations but also changes in behaviour, organization, institutions, power relations and many other non-technical aspects. The latter may be even more decisive for implementation than the availability of ‘technology’. Systems renewal requires a long-term future orientation on the part of a variety of stakeholders with conflicting interests in an environment in which the level of uncertainty is high.

The recognition of ‘needs’ as a starting point for innovation for sustainability, as set out in the Brundtland definition of sustainable development, deviates from the more traditional engineering- and business-related approach to innovation, which focuses on production and consumption in existing structures:

Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

‘Meeting essential needs requires not only a new era of economic growth for nations in which the majority are poor, but an assurance that those poor get their fair share of the resources required to sustain that growth.’(Brundtland, 1987)

As a societal transition process, SD comprises numerous innovation projects of varying origin, (scientific) environments, scopes and levels. These projects are often unrelated on the micro scale (niches), the meso scale (regimes) and the macro scale (landscapes), but are inspired by a general orientation. Transition is described as ‘the result of developments in different domains, as a set of connected changes which reinforce each other but take place in several different areas, such as technology, the economy, institutions, behaviour, culture, ecology and belief systems’ (Martens and Rotmans, 2002).


The system’s approach to transition requires transdisciplinary cooperation of clusters of societal parties, for example citizens, consumers and non-governmental organizations; corporations and other production organizations; and governmental institutions and organizations involved in science and education.

This was explored in a learning-by-doing setting by Dutch Sustainable Technology Development (STD) (Weaver et al., 2000), a long-term technological innovation programme for SD against the backdrop of a policy commitment by the Netherlands.

The players operate in different arenas, driven by different currencies and adopting different roles in the SD process. The Adaptive Integration of Research and Policy (AIRP) project (Hinterberger, 2003) developed a set of SD principles and delivered a methodology to set up and evaluate SD-oriented research and technology development programmes and projects.

Demands on HE in the SD process

A major condition for initiating system changes is the availability of competent players capable of developing SD options and initiating and managing change processes. The development of this capacity must, as far as possible, be congruent with sustainability principles (Weaver and Jansen 2000). Thus, any SD programme depends on the extent of society’s understanding of SD and awareness of its urgency. Both understanding and awareness, and elements of education and research, are necessary but not sufficient conditions to initiate and execute SD-oriented programmes. In research, design is dependent on context and outcomes are dependent on design. The outcomes in turn influence the context for further research.

Future HE

The SD learning process is a common and interactive undertaking. Institutions of HE are expected to take the lead as agents of change. Future HE, as a key player shaping the SD process together with other stakeholders, may meet society’s SD demands by

1.-Educating graduates:

- To be leaders, champions in the process of change, and/or

- To keep ‘everyday business’ running, thus fostering the process of change.

2.-Contributing to life-long learning (for SD) in formal and informal learning and training activities and participating in processes of change.

3.-Conducting participatory research:

- Involving participants in social, spatial and technological planning, and

- Encouraging students to acquire skills for transdisciplinary research.

4.-Conducting institutional SD research on meeting societal challenges (industrial, regional and institutional):

- Business-induced, comprehensive and transition- and system-oriented research

- Product-oriented research in all phases: optimization, improvement and renewal of production and consumption systems

- Process-oriented research on participatory decision-making, the relationship between representative and participatory democracy, new forms and bodies of international cooperation (new rules for new games) and so on.

In order to implement these options, HE institutions must develop visions and derive strategies. In these strategies, HE institutions must resolve the tension between accountability, which often results in short-term thinking, and flexibility, which is essential to the process of change. In HE, the need for some bureaucracy must be reconciled with the merits of a centre for creativity.

HE in SD demands

The following are guidelines to finding a transitional path for HE in SD:

  • Research and education are not separate worlds. Rather, they interact, complement one another and interact with society.
  • The core requirements for graduates are a sound education in their discipline, the ability to position their discipline in the context of SD, and the attitude and skills needed to cooperate with other disciplines and key ‘non-scientific’ players.
  • SD is not an isolated discipline. It must be integrated in all operations, activities and departments.
  • HE research must respond to society’s problems.

Demands on education

The options for future HE are reflected in:

Demands on graduates

All graduates must be able to practise their profession under (future) conditions of SD. They should be aware of possible implications outside their field of study. The more SD-determined students must be offered opportunities to acquire skills for inter- and transdisciplinary operations.

At TU Delft (Delft University of Technology), this was developed in a learning-by-doing process (Jansen et al., 2006).

Demands on lecturers

Demands on graduates obviously translate into similar demands on lecturers. However, many lecturers have not been trained to meet these demands. A minority have received education in this direction. Moreover, the career-development system and the disciplinary organization of science are hampering the development of scientific skills for SD. Personnel managers at higher education institutions should include these qualifications in the profiles for new appointments and career development and offer lecturers opportunities for them to gain SD qualifications.

At TU Delft, ‘The Individual Interaction Method’ (Peet et al., 2004) appeared to successfully connect courses to SD as a follow-up to disciplinary reviews conducted by the DHO, the Dutch network for sustainable development in HE (See e.g. Tellegen, 2006).

In Dutch universities providing professional/vocational education, lectureships (approximately 270 by 2006) involving knowledge circles of lecturers were established to enhance the quality of teaching, professionalize teaching staff, break through compartmentalization, strengthen capabilities for applied research and foster the circulation of knowledge (Daniels, 2006). Although some 20 lectureships are more or less directly related to SD, the skills acquired in these knowledge circles are also useful in education for SD in general.

Demand on institutions

In order to integrate SD in HE, the entire education system, as well as its values and norms, must be rethought. It is critical to address the need, for example, to change mindsets, build a new vision of purpose, and inculcate new competences for training and research among the academic staff (Kibwika, 2006). Above all, the boards of HE institutions must recognize the necessity and urgency of SD, be convinced of the role of HE in SD and support initiatives to integrate SD in HE. In a framework of vision and strategy, curricula and graduation conditions should be adapted to new realities and adequate educational forms, methods and resources should be developed. The facilities and resources (funding, time, personnel, and so on.) required to meet these demands should be provided by developing a structure and attitude of leadership and coordination.

This new attitude towards HE should be reflected in internal and external communication policies, in student recruitment and in innovative forms and methods of transferring knowledge to the public, for example distance education, participation in cultural events, and so on. Links with business and public organizations can be strengthened without detriment to the principles of autonomy (Haddad, 2007).

Standards, such as Auditing Instrument for Sustainability in Higher Education (AISHE) certificates (Roorda, 2001, 2004), can measure the comparative progress of integration in HE institutions. The Engineering Education for Sustainable Development Observatory (AGS, 2006) identifies the top 16 universities that are already pursuing SD goals.

Demands on stakeholders in society

Public and private stakeholders’ recognition of the necessity and urgency of SD is an essential condition for the co-evolution of HE and society in SD. Although the reach of HE institutions is worldwide, most interactions with society take place at the regional level. Therefore, HE and society should interact in a regional framework of knowledge networks that promote cooperation among HE institutions. One such vehicle is the United Nations University initiative to establish Regional Centres of Expertise (RCEs) for SD (Dam-Mieras and Rikers, 2005and Fadeeva, 2007), which function as regional connection points for SD knowledge exchange between social stakeholders (knowledge institutes, governmental institutes and bodies, community-based organizations, and companies). In this area, HE may expect the following from its societal partners:

  • A willingness to establish a vision of their role and position in the SD process
  • An understanding of the essential skills required for SD
  • Opportunities for on-the-job training to explicitly develop abilities and skills for (transdisciplinary) cooperation
  • A willingness to reformulate and identify SD problems in a coherent, transdisciplinary manner.
  • A reflection of their demands in graduate profiles
  • The inclusion of SD graduation conditions in HE accreditation (by law?)

Demands on research

The most intriguing element of SD research is research on systems renewal, which comprises long-term transdisciplinary societal research. However, the economic system considers this type of research to be of public interest and expects the government to fund it. Corporations sometimes develop concepts but participate in funding only when it is in their economic interest.

In this context, HE research is expected to support the phases of systems research in which private corporations are not (financially) interested (right-hand quadrants in Figures 4 and 5) (Jansen et al., 2005). This requires HE to have a clear vision of the role of science in the SD process. Specifically, this involves a vision of the nature of research in general and of the short-, medium- and long-term orientations of research. Alternatively, SD could be strategically embedded in the mainstream research of all departments in order to fulfil external expectations (Mulder and Jansen, 2005).

Closing the gap

The RCE’s as mentioned before are useful vehicles to bring parties together. A practical example (Jansen et al, 2010)  is the KISSZ initiative  (Knowledge in synergy for a Sustainable Zuid Holland) as an example of a knowledge network connecting people, teachers and governors (carriers of knowledge) in higher education with civil servants and politicians (carriers of policy making) of governmental institutions in a particular region: the province Zuid Holland, being the area of the most intensive economic activities and dense population in the Netherlands. The KISSZ initiative was taken to connect individuals from higher education and civil servants to create solutions to achieve a sustainable province. The initiative-group found that communication on societal problems within and among public authorities and knowledge institutes was often poor and that cooperation among different groups (each working on the same problems from their own perspective) often fails. This situation (of severe sustainability challenges, availability of potential knowledge, poor communication and lack of cooperation) inspired the initiative-group to explore with potential stakeholders their interest in a strategic network aimed at achieving greater “synergy in knowledge” for sustainability. The crucial question in this exploration is whether such a knowledge network will generate added value in the midst of numerous specific networks and programs.

This article is a revised version of Higher education’s contribution to sustainable development: the way forward published in Higher Education in the World 3, Higher Education: New challenges and Emerging Roles for Human and Social Development, edited by GUNI (2008).


The author thanks Rietje van Dam-Mieras, Didac Ferrer, Karel Mulder, Nico Roorda and Paul Weaver for their stimulating cooperation and discussions, which contributed greatly to the insights in this paper.


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About the author

Leo Jansen is professor emeritus of Delft University of Technology. He worked at AKZO/Nobel until 1972, was a member of the Netherlands parliament from 1972 to 1981 and vice chairman of the steering group of the national energy debate (1981-84). Afterwards he worked at the Department of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment. From 1993 to 2001 he supervised the national Sustainable Technology Development program. He is active in the fields of sustainable development, innovation, technology and higher education as guest lecturer, trainer and member / chair of SD oriented committees and organizations.

Friday, July 23, 2010


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