Embedding Sustainability in Academia: Deans as Change Makers

Ben Jongbloed, Senior research associate - Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) · Anete Veidemane, Researcher - Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS)

'Deans have a unique role in driving sustainability transformations at universities. By linking top-down and bottom-up efforts, they serve both as connecting pins and amplifiers – as change-makers.'

  • Introducing the DECODE Sustainability project

The above quote from the former UN Secretary General is a call on higher education institutions around the globe to internalize the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But to address these goals and to really play a transformative role in society, our universities and colleges require a fundamental transformation. From creating appropriate structures, strategies, and recognition systems to building up staff capabilities, universities are set on a challenging journey. To proceed on this journey, the whole academic community will need a ‘sustainability mindset’. Along with academic leaders, students are expected to play a major role. They have already raised their voices, with almost 9 out of 10 UK students surveyed in 2018 stating that sustainable development is something that universities should actively incorporate and promote (Students Organising for Sustainability).

How does this sustainability transformation look in practice and who can take the lead? Embedding sustainability throughout the higher education institutions’ education and research activities is a challenging undertaking, especially given the many competing demands that are already placed on them. The universities’ leadership can choose to play a proactive role in promoting the sustainability agenda. It can shape the institution’s vision and create a strategy that inspires and guides the staff and students. However, the middle managers of the institution – the deans and heads of departments – have an equally important role to play in all this. They are much closer to the shop-floor level of their institution and are in a unique position to drive change by connecting top-down and bottom-up efforts. As such, they serve both as connecting pins and amplifiers - they can act as change-makers.

The DECODE Sustainability project, sponsored by the European Commission’s Erasmus+ programme, aims to support deans in their efforts to embed sustainability in their academic units. A consortium of five university-based teams from Latvia, Spain, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands works on building tools for deans to help them in this transformation process.

· Critical success factors

From a survey sent by DECODE, more than 500 deans from 30 European countries responded to the question of what they regarded as the critical success factors for encouraging sustainability in their work portfolio (see Figure 1). The four key factors were: (1) commitment of the institution's central leadership, (2) commitment of the unit’s leadership, (3) involvement of all staff in the unit, and (4) the presence of multidisciplinary research teams. This shows that having an institution-wide commitment from top to bottom is critical for the success of efforts to embed sustainability.

Figure 1: Critical success factors for undertaking sustainability initiatives in academic units

In our survey, two-thirds of the respondents said they have a central level sustainability strategy in their institution, but slightly less than half have one for their department. Thus, it appears that deans still have some way to go in pushing their unit’s sustainability strategy. On a positive note, more than 80% of the deans engaged in sustainability initiatives indicated that sustainability is both a shared value among their staff and a strategic priority for their unit. This signals a strong intrinsic motivation to pursue such initiatives.

Obstacles for deans

Higher education institutions are often slow to change, due to institutional and other barriers and constraints that may be out of their control, such as their funding and regulatory environment. However, the intrinsic characteristics of the academic community (its disciplinary silos, organisational structure, and academic incentive) can also create obstacles and challenges.

From our survey, we conclude that the three most important obstacles to undertaking sustainability initiatives mentioned by deans (Figure 2) were: (1) the lack of time, (2) the lack of funding for sustainability-related education and research, and (3) the lack of knowledge about sustainability-related topics. Academic staff seem to experience competing demands in terms of their research, teaching, administrative, and societal engagement obligations. While funding is not the main driver, it certainly is an obstacle. This was also indicated in a recent study by the European University Association (Gaebel et al., 2021).

Figure 2: Obstacles for undertaking sustainability initiatives in the academic unit

the key obstacles include the lack of…

  • Support for deans

We also asked deans to report on what support they would need to make progress on implementing the sustainability agenda in their unit (Figure 3). They were quite like-minded about five types of support: (1) help to develop their unit's sustainability strategy, (2) external project funding, (3) staff training opportunities, (4) peer learning and good practice exchange, and (5) support (including funding) from their institution. Staff training may include didactical/ pedagogical skills-building, for instance, about ESD (i.e. Education for Sustainable Development) principles, challenge-based learning, or similar transformational teaching methods (UNESCO, 2021).

Figure 3: Support needed for making progress on the sustainability agenda in the academic unit

How can the DECODE project contribute to this transformation? Some 60% of the deans express a wish to learn from each other and exchange good practices with others – even beyond the borders of their department, institution, or country. Peer learning is part of the supporting instruments that the DECODE project aims to provide. In our survey, but also in the supplementary interviews we held with 30 deans from across Europe, we were made aware of some good practices around embedding sustainability in the curriculum or the research portfolio. Work is underway to share some of these examples among the deans that have enrolled in the DECODE’s Deans Council, a community of practice that has already enlisted more than 160 deans so far.

  • Finally

More than 75% of the deans surveyed agreed that in the next five years the attention for sustainability would increase in their academic unit across all functions – teaching, research, societal engagement, and operations. This signals a clear priority given to embedding sustainable development in academia. Deans can play a major role in this transformation by connecting top-down and bottom-up efforts, amplifying voices, and accelerating the transformation. We hope our DECODE project will be helpful in supporting this transformation agenda.

Article originally published at ACEEU (16/03/2021)


DECODE – European Deans Council for Sustainable Development. Accessed 17 February 2022 from https://decode-council.org/.
Gaebel, M., Stoeber, H., & Morrisoe, A. (2021) Greening in European higher education institutions. European University Association. https://eua.eu/resources/publications/982:greening-in-european-higher-ed....
Students Organising for Sustainability. (n.d.) 10 years of research on education and sustainability. Accessed 17 February 2022 from https://www.sos-uk.org/post/10-years-of-research-on-education-and-sustai....
UNESCO. (2021). Education for sustainable development. https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-sustainable-development

About the author

Ben Jongbloed
Senior research associate, Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS)
Ben Jongbloed is a senior research associate in the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) at the University of Twente, where he received his PhD. He has worked at CHEPS for almost 30 years, studying issues of governance and resource allocation in higher education. He was involved in several policy evaluations and consultancies for clients such as ministries of education and the European Commission. Ben published widely on the public and private funding of higher education and research. Besides that, his work focuses on embedding entrepreneurship (HEInnovate) and sustainability in higher education (DECODE). He also teaches public policy and higher education economics at the University of Twente and in Oslo University and he regularly supervises students and PhD candidates working on their thesis.

Anete Veidemane
Researcher, Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS)
Anete Veidemane (MSc), a graduate of Master of Research and Innovation in Higher Education, works as a researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) in the Netherlands since 2018. Her work entails projects centered around embedding sustainability in academic departments (e.g., DECODE project), developing new indicators on social inclusion and education for sustainable development (U‐Multirank project), and piloting a European framework for community engagement (TEFCE project) as well as a European‐wide comparative policy research. Before joining CHEPS, Anete interned at the UN and OECD.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government