Higher Education in the World 4, Higher Education’s Commitment to Sustainability: from Understanding to Action

GRANADOS, Jesús; FREDI, Jonathan

This article describes the content and implications of the latest GUNi Report, which aims to stimulate serious and profound thought, opening opportunities that should be jointly analyzed, discussed and hopefully used by academics, university leaders, policymakers and members of civil society and the business community.

In terms of social value, higher education’s greatest challenge in the coming years is to materialize the contribution made by knowledge to build a sustainable future for society. Sustainability involves the development of a new culture, encompassing an analysis of knowledge itself, reviewing the assumptions that sustain our understanding of the world and the human dynamics within it.


Our newest report, titled Higher Education in the world 4 - Higher Education’s Commitment to Sustainability: from Understanding to Action represents the next step in the GUNi series of reports on the social commitment of universities, with its aim to explore the commitment of higher education (HE) to sustainability. For this we have brought together 85 authors, representing 38 countries from around the world, working on sustainability in HE. We wish to note that 32% of developing states are represented and 45% of the authors are women.


The report is structured into four parts; the first analyzes the current context, as an awareness of the state of the world is what justifies the need for this transformation to sustainability. Lester Brown, in The World on the Edge, notes an increase in worrisome signs for our society. No civilization can survive the ongoing destruction of its natural resources, yet the economists look at the future differently. Modern economic policies have created an economy that is so out of sync with the ecosystem upon which it depends, that it is approaching collapse. If we continue down this path, how much time do we have before we see serious breakdowns in the global economy? Lester Brown proposes to save civilization, but do we need to save or reform it? The first thing we need is a contemporary economy, where the market tells us the ecological truth. The overarching question is: Can we change fast enough? Paul Raskin presents different scenarios of time, level of commitment, and the degree of the transformation.


HE plays a leading role in the domains of education, understanding and action. A university embracing the mission of transition to sustainability must center on the cultivation of informed and thoughtful global citizens; building foundations of knowledge for the transition, assessment of global dynamics, cultural change and institutional design. It is time to make a choice. Daniella Tilbury provides a global overview on the progress to this point. There is evidence suggesting that higher education doesn’t understand the true nature of the challenges to ESD. Sustainability challenges current paradigms and structures, as well as predominant practices in higher education. Though international declarations provide visible commitment encouraging progress, they are not sufficient to change institutional and disciplinary practices in HE. Achievements have been random, and mostly disconnected from the core business of HE, usually engaging minority groups, failing to reach the core of staff, students and stakeholders or influence the culture of institutions.


The majority of the universities engaged in sustainability are preoccupied with the greening of the campus through efforts such as minimizing waste and energy consumption, developing low carbon buildings, and modeling sustainability to influence the behavior of students and staff. Examples of initiatives influencing core university personnel are rare, and seldom impact students’ formal learning opportunities.


In the last decade we have seen a rise in more complicated research methods. We have seen the investigator become both expert and partner, with research both on and with people. Research that is inter- and multidisciplinary while discipline-focused, with academic and social impacts, that both informs and transforms, focusing on technological, behavioral, social and structural change.


Partnership platforms bring together universities committed to this agenda. Their annual meetings confirm that universities are increasingly recognizing the need to work together to share common issues but also learn from best practices. These initiatives represent tangible transitions towards ESD in core areas such as curriculum integration, changing views on how we work to solve these issues and moving from isolation in our approach to collaboration.


The second section presents the regional perspectives of how sustainable education has been incorporated into HE up to now, starting with overviews as in-depth analyses of the work accomplished towards the goal of global sustainability throughout each area of our world. The regional chapters also each include a detailed sub-regional analysis, spotlights on important issues pertaining to the individual regions and information on networks and organizations dedicated to sustainability in HE within each region.


The regional analysis is structured into four areas: management, research, education and learning and community engagement. As shown in Figure 1, Asia and the Pacific is the region which is involved in every subject. Latin America and the Caribbean lacks in education and learning and in community engagement. Canada and USA is the leading region in HE sustainable management. Europe focuses on management, research, and teaching and learning. The transition in Africa has been slow and we are just now seeing efforts in community engagement and bottom-up initiatives in education and learning. In the case of the Arab States we can affirm their transition is still to come.


Figure 1. Regional Analysis


Regional Analysis



In Part III, the reader will also find our study: Sustainability in Higher Education, Moving from Understanding to Action: Breaking Barriers for Transformation.


This part of the report represents a schism from simply reporting attained knowledge; it emphasizes the move from the simple generation of information to its utilization towards a specific goal. Part III is a study on the barriers currently in place which are preventing the advancement of sustainability in HE, as well as possible solutions to these barriers towards the implementation of these sustainable initiatives. The barriers identified in the report are those voted on in two separate polls conducted by GUNi, the first being a prioritization of a list of the specific difficulties faced by these institutions in implementing education for sustainability by 200 institutions which participated.


The second being used to gauge the degree to which each of these barriers affect the transition of the 201 institutions who participated in the second poll. Also of paramount importance to the work of this section was the input from the 115 expert participants of the parallel workshops at the 5th International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education, hosted by GUNi. There seemed to be a general consensus among participants on the relevance of ESD, as well as the most urgent barriers, which are:

  • Difficulties in acquiring integrative thinking, transdisciplinary learning and interdisciplinary cooperation in universities;
  • Sustainable development is felt as an add-on to education, not a built-in aspect of HE;
  • Lack of vision and prioritization of sustainable development at the leadership level of HE;
  • Lack of a common understanding of ESD in HE.


The solutions seen as priorities are:

- Developing an institutional understanding, vision and mission on sustainable development in HEIs, taking into account faculty, students, and external parties, and engaging in open dialogues with all of them.

  • Changing the incentive system and quality indicators for encouraging and promoting multidisciplinary work, interdisciplinary teaching, theses and projects.
  • Building a culture of sustainability by involving and engaging the local community, universities, families, schools and other stakeholders in sustainability issues and projects. Including active learning courses and action research with local community projects that take students out of the classroom.
  • Involving internal stakeholders in such a way that leads to ownership, empowerment, participation and willingness to contribute to, and be responsible for change. Communicating and sharing more information through team-building, awareness-raising of ESD issues, etc.
  • Monitoring the design and implementation of sustainable development contents in curricula, offering awareness-raising and/or training programs on ESD for all university academic and administrative staff.


The fourth part of the Report, Visions for transformation, aims to shed new light on the current paradigm and to propose a different perspective on it, where alternative ideas can be raised. Within this section of the Report we would like to make a breakthrough on the established paradigms; renovating and adjusting them into the current realities in which we live. We have encouraged authors to move away from the normal and conventional way of thinking and suggest innovative ideas that can offer new future perspectives and give new horizons for academia and policymakers working in the field of HE. We expect readers to find different proposals for acting in alternative and creative pathways.


The Report ends with an extensive statistical appendix on HE, painting a global picture of enrollment rates, public spending on HE, and the Human Development Index (HDI), among other numerical representations of where HE stands today. Last section is a bibliographic compilation of publications dealing with sustainability in HE.


This report presents an exciting series of ideas, options, visions and specific challenges for the commitment of HE towards sustainability. The final goal of this Report is to stimulate debate among all those whose different links with the world of HE could contribute to enriching the discussion. We aim to stimulate serious and profound thought, which will open opportunities that should be jointly analyzed, discussed and hopefully used by academics, university leaders, policymakers and members of civil society and the business community. Thus, we invite everyone to follow the discussion in the GUNi knowledge Community, a new collaborative network initiative by GUNi.

About the author

Jesus Granados holds a PhD in Education from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) with a thesis on Education for Sustainability and Teaching Geography. Graduated in Geography (UAB), he holds a Master in Social Sciences Education (UAB) and a Master in Environmental Education and Communication (ISEMA). Granados worked at Universidad de la Rioja and in 2004 moved to the UAB to teach and research at the Faculty of Education, where he implemented, amongst others, the subject of Education for sustainability that was an optional campus subject available for all the degrees at the UAB.

His main fields of interest are the building of a knowledge society; Education for Sustainable Development; Higher Education institutional change; Post-cosmopolitan citizenship; innovative participatory approaches to learning; the change of social structures, and the re-conceptualization of personal agency.

Jonathan Fredi holds a Master of Arts degree in International Relations while specializing in Peace and Security Studies from the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals, as well as a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and one in Spanish Studies from Louisiana State University.

After University he spent a year as a learning specialist and studies coordinator for athletes at Louisiana State University before coming to Spain to pursue his Masters Degree.


  • 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