Sustainability at Universities: Opportunities, challenges and trends

LEAL FILHO, Walter (2010)

In this article Walter Leal Filho, Senior Professor at London Metropolitan University, UK and head of the Research and Transfer Centre "Applications of Life Sciences" of the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, explains that sustainability in higher education needs to be perceived as work in progress and presents some opportunities and challenges.


The literature on sustainability contains a wealth of works which have been written on the subject of integration of sustainability in a higher education context. Whether it is in respect of approaches and methods (Leal Filho 1999), communication (Leal Filho 2000), teaching (Leal Filho 2002) or research (Leal Filho 2005), much ground has been covered. The same line of thinking applies to areas such as sustainability learning (Hansmann, Crott, Mieg, Scholz, 2009) or sectoral approaches to sustainability dealing, for example, with the academic profession (Hammond and Churchman 2008)  or in respect of campus operations (Conway, Dalton, Loo, Benakoun 2008). The many efforts which have been made in trying to understand and promote sustainability at, within and around universities is the reason why it is so well developed today. Indeed, the introduction of sustainability approaches and the execution of sustainability-based projects is still a dynamic process so that it can be regarded as a growing trend.

But sustainability in higher education needs at the same time to be perceived as work in progress. As far as the levels of implementation of sustainability in university systems are concerned, institutions of higher education may be found at roughly three different stages of evolution. These are as follows:

Stage 1: the principles of sustainable development are not universally understood, there are no significant efforts towards promoting sustainability at university operations and no systematic projects which try to promote sustainability.

Stage 2:  the principles of sustainable development are widely understood and there are significant efforts towards promoting sustainability at university operations. In addition, there are various sustainability projects, as well as a programme of research and extension.

Stage 3: universities which fulfill the requirements of universities at level 2, but which are also committed to sustainability on a long-term basis and which do so by means of sustainability policies, by means of certification, the existence of various senior member of staff who oversee its sustainability efforts and the existence of sustainability projects.

These levels of stage have some degree of flexibility in the sense that universities found at stage 1 may move  on to stage 2 at a given time, as long as they successfully increase their degree of engagement and commitment.  Of special interest is the fact that stage 3 is only achieved by those universities which have sustainability solidly embedded into their lives, both in terms of campus operations but also in terms of institutional philosophy, research, extension and, last but not least, in their way of thinking.

Some Opportunities and Challenges

The fact that most universities are found at stages 1 and 2 means that much work needs to be done so as to increase the penetration of sustainability into university systems. This discrepancy also illustrates the fact that there are many challenges which are still to be fully met before the presence of sustainable development in the structure of universities may be fully assured.  Some of these challenges are described in Table 1.

The list of challenges provided in Table 1 is by no means exhaustive. Rather, it serves the purpose of illustrating some of the problem areas which need to be addressed in any university willing to integrate sustainability as part of its activities.

In order to address these and the many other challenges which lay ahead of them, universities need to also acknowledge the subject matter of sustainability is not a silver bullet with which they will solve all their problems. Rather, the pursuit of sustainability may be one of the many tools they may use in improving the quality of the education their offer.  In addition, it is important that universities acknowledge the relevance and usefulness of sustainable development issues not only in respect of campus operations, but that they see it connected with the lifelong education of their employees and in the acquisition of knowledge, skills and values. In some cases, the implementation of sustainable development at universities may need an adaptation or (in the most critical cases of those universities found in stage 1) a wider reorientation of their curricula, which may need to be rethought and redesigned so as to take full advantage of the opportunities sustainability offers.

But these challenges also mean that many opportunities are presenting themselves. Some of them are:

  • The sustainability debate has been supported by the climate debate. The current degree of emphasis given to climate issues means that sustainability efforts may be also justified as a tool towards meeting the challenges posed by climate change. Some universities have recognized that. The Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, for example, has launched the “International Climate Change Information Programme” (ICCIP) in order to work out these connections and foster communication on climate change.
  • Sustainability as a uniting theme, can build bridges between various local and regional initiatives to promote education.  In this context, partnerships can be built between universities and government offices, local authorities, NGOs and the private sector, with a view to not only to promote research on sustainable development, but also towards finding common solutions to problems.
  • The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014, DESD), whose goal is to integrate the principles, values, and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning (UNESCO 2005), offers an additional opportunity to integrate sustainability efforts as part of the global efforts to improve the quality of education and learning at universities. The World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development – Moving into the Second Half of the UN Decade” which was held in Bonn, Germany, from 31 March to 2 April 2009 and was attended by some 700 stakeholders from all over the world,  reiterated the need for more integrated efforts.  The Bonn Declaration, approved during the conference, reiterates the need for concerned international action (UNESCO 2009).

Last but not least, a final opportunity worthy mentioning is the fact that the very nature of sustainability means that links with many subjects may be established, from health to ethics, from economics to social affairs, hence allowing a wider sense of awareness to be built.


Sustainable development is without any doubt a major scientific field, one which combines the precision of science with the social, economic and political elements which make up society as a whole. The likelihood of success of attempts to promote sustainability at universities may greatly increase if a common vision is shared across the institution. This is important since it leads to greater mobilisation and support in the search for resources to finance individual activities.

In many cases, the implementation of the principles of sustainability in universities may include new ways of thinking. It is not sufficient to organise campus based programmes and showcase them as examples of how sustainability is dealt with. Rather, it is important to place sustainability whenever possible centrally in research and extension programmes and to translate its principles in practice by means of projects. By combining the efforts of staff and administrations, universities may be a better position to adopt but also disseminate sustainable modes of production and consumption and encourage society to recognise the important role of sustainable development as a tool towards improved quality of life.


  • Conway, T. M., Dalton, C., Loo, J., Benakoun, L. (2008) Developing ecological footprint scenarios on university campuses: A case study of the University of Toronto at Mississauga International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9 (1), oo. 4-20.
  • Hammond, C., Churchman, D. (2008) Sustaining academic life: A case for applying principles of social sustainability to the academic profession. In International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9 (3), pp. 235 - 245.
  • Hansmann, R., Crott, H. W., Mieg, H.A., Scholz, R.W. (2009) Improving group processes in transdisciplinary case studies for sustainability learning. In International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 10 (1), pp. 33.42.
  • Leal Filho W. (ed) (1999) Sustainability and University Life. Peter Lang Scientific Publishers, Frankfurt.
  • Leal Filho, W. (ed) (2000) Communicating Sustainability. Peter Lang Scientific Publishers, Frankfurt.
  • Leal Filho, W. (ed) (2002) Teaching Sustainability – towards curriculum greening. Peter Lang Scientific Publishers, Frankfurt.
  • Leal Filho, W. (ed) (2005) Handbook of Sustainability Research. Peter Lang Scientific Publishers, Frankfurt.
  • Leal Filho, W. (ed) (2010) Sustainability at Universities: opportunities, challenges and trends. Peter Lang Scientific Publishers, Frankfurt.
  • UNESCO (2005) United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014): International Implementation Scheme. UNESCO, Paris.
  • UNESCO (2009) Report by the Director-General on the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development and the Bonn Declaration. UNESCO, Paris.

About the author

Professor Walter Leal Filho (BS, PhD, DPhil, DSc, DL, DLitt) is a Senior Professor at London Metropolitan University, UK and heads the Research and Transfer Centre "Applications of Life Sciences" of the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, where he is in charge of various sustainability-related projects across the world.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


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

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