Higher Education's Commitment to Sustainability: from Understanding to Action


Higher Education's Commitment to Sustainability: from Understanding to Action


The changes produced in the fields of thinking, science, economics, and society—such as the information and communication technology revolution—have configured a very different world map in comparison to fifty years ago.

Today we are able to document the interrelation between the various environmental, social, economic and human problems, as well as the linkage between the poverty of some and the infeasibility of an expansive economic model, unaware of the limits of others. We have a global map of the world's problems and this view allows us to affirm that when we advocate the introduction of sustainability into our way of inhabiting the Earth, we are talking about creating a new culture.

So when we talk about sustainability we actually mean a new paradigm from which to think and articulate new forms of life, relationships and understanding of our place in the world. Sustainability implies a change in our forms of relations with the ecosystems of the Earth, and its living beings, and supposes the possibility of advancing towards a culture based on good fellowship and equity.

It is necessary to integrate what has been fragmented and to reconnect what has been excluded from knowledge. Principles such as interdisciplinarity, contextualization of knowledge, the systemic approach, the intergenerational perspective, and societal commitment configure a notion that encompasses environmental, social, and economic dimensions in a broader cultural horizon which seeks to reintegrate into the processes of nature.

Global Frameworks on Education and Sustainability

In the creation of this framework have been contributed the objectives of the United Nations Decade on Education for Sustainable Development (DESD, 2005-2015), the Bonn Declaration, a result of the World Education Conference for Sustainable Development (UNESCO, 2009), and the Final Communiqué of the World Conference on Higher Education (UNESCO, 2009). All of these represent valuable contributions which help clarify the scope and incorporation of sustainability’s meaning into higher education in the world. It is also important to acknowledge the contributions from many academics around the world that are committed to sustainability principles, and have generated practical experiences, tool kits, initiatives and academic material that have increased the interest of the higher education community on this issue.

After five years of the DESD principles such as interdisciplinarity, networking or the local focus of knowledge, form the basis of the language on which new references are being built for education.

Also, in the Bonn Declaration the principles of sustainability are understood as a starting point. These principles include the interdependence of the economic, social and cultural dimensions in a broad time perspective, as well as the contextualization of knowledge or the ability to deal with the uncertainties to solve complex problems. It also proposes to incorporate aspects of sustainability through a systemic and integrated approach. The Bonn Declaration invites the various actors from industry, civil society, local communities and the scientific community to engage in networking with the education institutions and the networks of education for sustainable development.

In the same line is the Communiqué issued by the World Conference on Higher Education (UNESCO, 2009) that, emphasizing the social responsibility of higher education that derives from its value as a public good, is highlighting the need to advance our multidimensional understanding, from social, economic, scientific and cultural dimensions of the global challenges and our ability to respond to them. It should lead society in generating global knowledge to address global challenges, such as food security, climate change, water management, intercultural dialogue, renewable energy and public health. The global education agenda should contribute, as the text states, to the eradication of poverty and sustainable development and to progress towards the internationally agreed upon development goals, which includes Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Education for All (EFA).

Transforming Higher Education for Sustainability

In order to orient higher education to a committed contribution of knowledge towards a sustainable world, most of the aspects of the current educational system, including its values and its norms, must be reconsidered. The educational context teaches through the structures, methodologies, and assumptions underlying the curricula. Higher education can provide graduates with the attitudes, knowledge and abilities required to undertake this process of sustainability; and it can develop and provide knowledge that contributes to sustainability through research and practice. There is also an upcoming major role for higher education related to the renewal of thought, by making knowledge accessible and useful in the broader sense of engagement with society.

Two aspects are fundamental to steering this change in higher education: a personal transformation and a change in the educational model, restoring the basic function of education as one that trains the person as a whole. This requires considering the following aspects:

1) How to reestablish the connection between thought and action in order to restore the ethics of knowledge.
2) How to reintegrate the human being into the biosphere, overcoming the nature-culture dualism.
3) How to understand the human condition from its particular position in the network of living systems.

They all have as a guideline the notion of integration:

- Understand the Earth from the viewpoint of the subject. Speaking of Earth as a living being. Learning how to treat it with respect and not as something external and objective, but as a complex being whom we include and who has its own mechanisms of balance, interaction and self-organization. That is why it is important to convey a biocentric worldview where human actions are aimed at optimization of the biosphere and where history is written in relation to all beings and ecosystems, as well as train people with a whole and interconnected vision of the world, connected with social reality and with enough sensibility to appreciate the Earth. These new generations will have learnt to think together, building consensus through participatory methodologies. In addition, we have to teach them the value of the setting limits, and how to fit in every moment and context.

- In the field of knowledge this involves overcoming the divide between theory and practice, integrating analytic and synthetic functions in different areas of knowledge, taking a step beyond the division between science and humanities, and between natural and social sciences. That means overcoming the tendency of fragmentation and classification and move towards a holistic way of seeing and understanding

- Organize studies, departments and areas of knowledge from commonplace complexity and interdependence, overcoming hyper-specialization by creating bridges between knowledge areas and by opening the language to social uses, to seeking further commitments with everyday reality. These changes involve a deep transformation of the curriculum that takes into account the contextualization of knowledge. This also involves a research based on ethical principles aimed at finding solutions to humanitarian and environmental challenges and being engaged in problem solving by sharing knowledge to serve the needs of the people.

- Learn to think in networks: Interculturalize knowledge, ways of learning and transmission, valuing the plurality of the ways of being and thinking. Create epistemological bridges between cultures to facilitate dialogue and the joint resolution of common problems through the creation of solidarity knowledge networks.

In recent years, many of these aspects have begun to be treated by higher education. Several higher education institutions have included sustainability courses in their curriculum, dedicated resources to sustainability research and centre development, while others also have bolstered their connection to the community by participating in local problem-solving, becoming a laboratory of ideas that includes a responsible management of material and human resources.

A sustainability perspective however, must be part of the teaching-learning processes in all global educational projects. We need to share how to integrate the fragmented areas of knowledge and to find proper methodologies to connect thinking and action. It is time to ask: How can we teach a holistic vision of reality? How can we learn to work in a transversal manner? What new competencies are needed for future citizens? What do we research and how do we research it? How can the collective consciousness, democratic processes and the citizenry be reinforced? How to foment cooperation and working in group networks? All these questions form part of the challenge of sustainability and it is necessary to clarify them in order to have a clear vision about the direction of where we are headed as a planetary society.

Advancing towards a more sustainable world will require a shift in thinking in all disciplines as well as in our way of dealing with others. Increasingly, the sustainability notion is taking a more holistic sense, signaling a shift in our lifestyles and in our collective assumptions about human beings’ place in the world.

5th International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education

The Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI) joins the work on the contribution of higher education to sustainability currently being carried out by international agencies, special programmers of the United Nations, networks and institutions of education in the world with the conviction that the greatest challenge of higher education consists in putting the knowledge at the service of social transformation, a process which at present means moving towards sustainability.

The 5th International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education will analyze how higher education in the world is transforming itself to contribute to the articulation of the paradigm of sustainability and how to identify aspects of this transformation in order to discuss and agree upon the ways of action on which one has to advance. GUNI has tried to design the programme with the objective of having constructive outcomes that could contribute in some way to move forward the action.

Therefore, the main objective of the Opening Session, ‘Listening to the Earth: What is at Stake for Education?’ is to present the state of the world in the different aspects (social, human, environmental and economic). Speakers will share with the audience, which are the environmental limits and how human activity is putting unprecedented pressure on these limits, which are the consequences and the need to change our development model in this time of crises. This will help us to set the global framework in which higher education has to play its role.

The Plenary Session ‘Higher Education and Sustainability: What are we talking about?’ is aimed to set the conceptual framework on higher education and sustainability, the meanings and implications for the systems and institutions; and to present an overall analysis of the actions done by HEIs to introduce sustainability. The idea is to set the conceptual framework on the topic by providing participants with a common understanding about the challenges that are already agreed upon by global frameworks. This will serve as a base for the following discussions during the conference.

This session will be followed by ‘Regional Dialogues: Drawing Regional Maps: What has been achieved at this stage?’ It will be a set of parallel sessions, one per region and oriented as a workshop. We expect that this session will be very dynamic and productive, enriching the debate and conclusions of the conference. The objectives of these regional dialogues are to show and discuss the map on how the regions are advancing with regard to higher education and sustainability in the following areas: curriculum and learning methodologies, research, institutional management and linkage with society; and to propose the priority strategies that could be taken into account to advance sustainability in each region.

During the afternoon, are scheduled a set of Parallel Sessions on Good Practices: Sharing Actions for Change where participants will know about a selection of initiatives, experiences and good practices presented at the Call for Good Practices. In addition, both days there will be a Poster Session with the same objective.

On the second morning of the Conference, the Plenary Session ‘Moving from Understanding to Action: Breaking Barriers for Transformation’ is aimed at briefly identifying the challenges of sustainability in Higher Education, and to describe the barriers of the current HE systems that make difficult to solidify the commitment of HE with sustainability and to move from understanding to action. The results of the GUNI Poll: Breaking Barriers for Transformation will be also presented at this session.

The Parallel Workshops ‘Moving from Understanding to Action: Breaking Barriers for
Transformation’ aim to offer a space for collective discussion and proposals to overcome the main barriers of the transformation of Higher Education systems towards sustainability.

All the debates and conclusions will be reflected in the next GUNI Report “Higher Education in the World 4, 'Higher Education's Commitment to Sustainability: from Understanding to Action'” (to be edited in 2011) and the participants at the Conference will receive an issue of the Report once it is published.


  • 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