Incorporating Sustainability into the University Curriculum

This post examines challenges of incorporating 'sustainability' into the higher education programs and way forward. DOI: 10.1080/07373937.2021.1908806
Published in Sustainability

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It is widely perceived that the post-Covid19 world will have three high impact opportunity areas, namely, Health, Digitalization, and Sustainability (Seeram Ramakrishna, 2020). Health and digitalization are self-evident from the ongoing worldwide measures of eradicating pandemic. Economic costs of climate change are projected to be profound than the pandemics, thus cannot be ignored.  It is to be noted that several countries around the world, as well as leading brands and multinational companies have pledged carbon neutral targets by 2050. Financial institutions- banks, investors, governments- are making more funds available for green financing of sustainability projects based on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) assessments.  More businesses are appointing Chief Sustainability Officers to guide their greener transition. A German financial industry person said ‘that in Europe it is important for every company to have some indication of its green commitments on its website. If your website doesn’t have it, many consumers will not want to buy your things’.  Similar views are held in other countries around the world. 

Aforementioned emerging changes are reflected in the new course offerings by front running universities, and new league tables of universities (THE, 2020).  Some universities began emphasizing in their advertisements that their new education course offerings and learning experiences are interdisciplinary and holistic.  Preparing students for the new normal post-COVID19 uncertain world includes developing new skills and re-vitalizing current skills and mental capacity for active learning, synthesis of broad and multi-disciplinary knowledge bridging natural and engineering science with social science and Arts and, co-creation of sustainability solutions, curiosity, growth mind-set, and mental stress tolerance.  In other words, the future ready graduates to be akin to Leonardo da Vinci (Simon Worrall, 2017), and become their own best by emulating Leonardo.

Leonardo fused all knowledge to create masterpieces of art which are perennially appreciated.  ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’ are notable and iconic examples.  He was curious about everything and all sorts of different disciplines, and was many things: a painter, an architect, an engineer, a thinker, and a scientist.   He chose to proactively interact with diverse domain experts and specialists who were mathematicians, architects, playwrights, engineers, and poets.  He spent a lifetime absorbing the best of art, science, optics and the universe, which shaped his mind, abilities, and personality.  He was a lively character, creative, and inquisitive just for curiosity’s sake, not simply because it’s useful. 

Sustainability is a broad canvas covering several areas and aspects, and the sustainability solutions most often require expertise in multiple disciplines and interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary approaches. In other words, incorporating sustainability into the university curriculum means emulating Leonardo da Vinci.

Aforementioned underscores the need and importance of incorporating ‘sustainability’ into the university curriculum.  Yet ‘sustainability’ does not appear in the vision and strategic goals of twenty thousand universities around the world.  For example, the Times Higher Education (THE) introduced Impact Ranking in 2019 to assess the universities’ performance against the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in four categories, namely teaching, research, outreach, and stewardship (THE, 2020).  It is to be noted that only a few hundred universities appear in THE Impact Rankings. Similarly, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Ration System (STARS) introduced by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education is a self-reporting framework to measure respective sustainability performance. Only just over one thousand  institutions, mostly from USA and Canada, have employed the STARS reporting tool. Further, among them only 674 have earned either Platinum, Gold, Silver or Bronze STARS rating. Why is this so? What needs to be done to overcome the obstacles to progress on the needed transformation of universities?

Answer lies in the fact that most of the countries around the world placed economic growth as the primary policy pursuit during the past several decades.   The country or community's social, environmental and sustainability dimensions were pushed back systematically.  Moreover, the career opportunities and wealth accumulation have become the priorities of students and their families.  Taking the cue from stakeholders, universities aligned degree programs and course offerings more closely with the perceived job opportunities and economic opportunities. Industry relevance is the most emphasized above all. Accordingly, faculty members were recruited and incentivized.  Hence, most faculty members do not have strong foundations and knowledge of sustainability principles and solutions.  Moreover, they are given less or no opportunities by the respective universities and national funding agencies, who prioritized narrowly focused economic growth objectives and goals.   Besides, the universities grew in scale and a broad range of course offerings due to the push for mass higher education worldwide.  Somewhat influenced by national policies of funding university education, the leaders of the universities created rigid disciplinary boundaries for ease of management, cost controls, and differentiated course fees. Over the decades, these discipline based frameworks and approaches to managing academic units fed on themselves and led to self-serving sub-cultures and academic processes.  For example, the STEM courses offering colleges/faculties/schools differ from the non-STEM colleges/faculties/schools.  Sustainability challenges require close partnerships between STEM and non-STEM faculty members in co-creating modules/courses, and generating solutions via interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.  Wherein, the interdisciplinary approach involves two or more different subjects or areas of knowledge, and the transdisciplinary is synonymous with the ‘interdisciplinary’ and relates to more than one branch of knowledge.

There are a number of other reasons for inertia or inaction by the universities.  One prevailing view is that sustainability or SDGs is not the core business of universities, and it is the agenda of governments, businesses and the consumers.  Universities around the world find it hard to precisely define curriculum and relate to the student’s career opportunities.  Moreover, the multitude of sustainability articulations thus far are often perceived as broad vision statements and goals, and not with sufficient details to build or reposition the respective curriculum of academic programs, departments, schools/faculties/colleges, and universities.  There is also general inertia for making changes ahead of time due to the perception that there will not be enough career opportunities for all the sustainability focused graduates.

Universities are diverse in terms of a) comprehensiveness, b) resources, c) talents, d) scale, e) mandate and f) geographical locations.  Some universities are highly specialized while others are more comprehensive in terms of range of disciplines.  Impactful sustainability education demands interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary treatment of subjects and projects, thus compromising the ability of narrowly focused universities to deliver on such requirements.  Some institutions are primarily undergraduate education focused with limited involvement in graduate education and scientific research.  They are less equipped than research intensive universities as well as post-graduate universities who are able to integrate leading-edge knowledge into their sustainability education programs and learning experiences. Rural based universities are often far removed from the new developments and innovations. Less than ten percent of 20,000 higher education institutions worldwide have adequate resources to upgrade their academic programs, faculty members and infrastructure with deeper aspects of sustainability education, research and solutions.  In other words majority of the universities unable to match the requirements of sustainability vision and goals with adequate talents and expertise.  Moreover, promoters of majority of universities around the world primarily focus on the economies of scale and immediate employability of graduates when considering various course offerings as well as introduction of new academic programs.  Thus, leaving less room for the introduction of sustainability related educational training and research.  In other words, stricter mandate by the promoters of the university leave less room for the university leaders and academic members to explore new and emerging frontiers such as sustainability education and research. 

Moreover, in general, the curriculum changes in universities are often associate with cumbersome and lengthy approval processes.  Academic units (Department and Faculty/School/College/Divisions) are resourced and incentivized based on the student numbers and their full time equivalents (FTEs).  In other words, leaders of each academic unit fight very hard to retain and grow FTEs. This means less intention to give way for subjects and co-teaching by faculty members from other academic units.  This financial model disincentives meaningful evolution/transformation of universities overarching role to be boundless. This built-in traditional system is very much in vogue in most universities around the world.  Hence, the rigid academic units and disciplinary structures of the university cause immense resistance for any changes.  Moreover, in the case of affiliated higher education institutions, it is even harder for them to make any changes to their curriculum, pedagogy, and students’ assessment systems.  In the case of professional degrees, any changes to the curriculum and degree programs have to be reviewed and endorsed by the professional accreditation bodies and societies, which tend to be national as well as international. These accreditations exercises are scheduled at intervals of three to five years, thus posing limitations on the speed of changes the universities might like to make.  Professional bodies have diverse standards and criteria.  In other words, the university faculty members and academic leaders have to educate them and persuade them on the need for changes and usefulness of educational outcomes in terms of graduates’ future.  Moreover, stricter core disciplinary requirements often do not allow for substantial changes in the curriculum.  In other words, the existing curriculum is often crowded with subjects/modules/courses offered by the academic unit/department, faculty/school/college, and the university.  Even more challenging hurdle is the faculty members who do not have the opportunity to upgrade the knowledge and/or lack of incentives for changes and transition into new areas.  In the case of research oriented universities, faculty members tend to teach subjects closer to their own research areas.  Annual assessments, promotion & tenure processes, and awards & rewards selection processes favor and mostly encourage narrowly focused mono-disciplinary pursuit by the individual faculty member.  Thus causing in-built inertia on the part of individual faculty members to transition from the traditional areas to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary pursuits as needed by the sustainability domain.  This is accentuated by the deeply embedded academic cultures and cliques of main-stream faculty members.  Such sceptics are lukewarm about any changes and they also peddle influence so as not to slow down the decision processes.  Moreover, the cognitive and memory biases do not allow faculty members to be open to the alternative perspectives.  Policy makers and promoters of the universities primarily concerned by the costs and benefits, will not take risk with new programs unless the employment opportunities for the graduates are assured, and opportune costs of policy choices are convincing.  In other words, too much emphasis on future career opportunities as opposed to creating a future and enabling students to create their own opportunities.  Many universities suffer from the excessive governance and bureaucratic layers in the name of SWOT analysis, audit practices, and risk assessment and mitigation measures. In some cases, academic leaders are chosen or appointed for fixed or limited terms, and thus they are less incentivized to radically change or upset the status quo.  This poses chicken and egg situation thus causing stronger inertia for changes and trying out new things.  In most developing countries, university students are the pioneers in the family to pursue higher education.  Thus having no one to guide them at the home front.  Such students rely on the anecdotal information and internet/social media professed information with different intended purposes.   Internet no doubt provides vast amounts of readily and instantly searchable information. Unfortunately, much of the information is not validated. Too much information is also often time hard to synthesize to draw a conclusive decision of university education seeking students.  They are often swamped by the mountains of information and convoluted details of academic programs, their quality and relevance. Established disciplinary degree programs and cyclic nature of market for jobs, reinforces the traditional disciplines and conventional wisdom. This situation contributes to risk-averse culture on the part of all stakeholders of university education.  This results in students discouraged from pursuing transdisciplinary degree programs and subjects. 

Most universities around the world do not have adequate training methods to introduce and upgrade faculty members with improved pedagogical methods and teaching tools.  They need further training and new methods of students’ engagement to embark and appreciate collaborative teaching with other disciplinary experts in delivering sustainability and UN SDG related education and learning. This is accentuated by the lack or short supply of quality and relevant teaching text books related to the sustainability which is often viewed as very broad based with no core set of principles which can be imparted to the students.   Moreover, faculty members themselves need resources, content, time and retraining opportunities to teach and enable to learn new as well as emerging sustainability knowledge and skills. Often they need to develop skills, talent and motivation to engage and work with beyond university agents such as the society, organizations, policy makers, businesses and industry as demanded by the nature of sustainability education, research and service. Such processes are time consuming and require faculty members to work outside their traditional comfort zones of respective academic units when they are already overloaded with their large class size teaching as well as administrative assignment besides their constantly evolving research program development.

Part of the solution is the priority accorded to the sustainability by the university leaders and their promoters.  If they can hold sustainability in high regard, then the rank and file will follow the suit and make things happen.  Unfortunately, this is not shared universally.  Academic leaders and faculty members’ attitude towards sustainability is lukewarm, and often perceived as a slogan or vision than passionately and creatively approaching sustainability education.  Embracing unknown or undefined is very hard for the university leaders and academics due to the outdated or unduly micro-managed governance systems. University education needs an overhaul. Different universities ecosystems or contexts, require different and customized sustainability education approaches and pedagogy.   It is very important that sustainability education programs of the university are to continually evolve, and how they are related to the students and society at large. It also should involve University as a system – to use the resources available at source to break new grounds beyond academic curriculum- it means a much broader involvement of university purchase, procurement, planning, expansion, strategic infrastructure, space and facility division integrating to bring a new experiential learning that compliments the sustainability education and training programs.   Current rigid, mono-disciplinary, and cookie cutter approach will not be sufficient.  Greater collaboration among diverse disciplines of the university is central to instilling sustainability education.  Moreover, deeper collaboration and partnerships among academic, civil society and economic sectors of the nation are needed for progressing on the sustainability education and solutions generation and implementation.   Academic leaders need to focus on designing and developing new and creative sustainability education programs fundamentally and radically different from the current established practices.  This requires deeper and stronger collaboration among the faculty members of diverse disciplines and expertise.  University leaders to rethink and create collaborative spaces which are inspiring and in where teams can come together and gel with new ideas for sustainability learning and research.

Sustainability solutions are dynamic for several reasons which include a) circumstances of sustainability challenges are changing.  In other words solutions are not always transferable from one ecosystem or scenario to another ecosystem or scenario, b) new scientific understanding and knowledge are emerging, c) creative and innovative ways of paring up solutions with the sustainability problems and challenges, and d) new business models, social models and governance models are emerging. Sustainability education benefits from students exposure to the real problems and immersive experience.  History of human progress and overcoming nature posed challenges suggest that solutions and innovations require more vital interaction of all disciplines or knowledge, and they cannot be addressed with narrow knowledge or artificially separated knowledge domains over the centuries.  

Sustainability advocacy has been there for a few decades.  So what is different now that calls for deeper commitments and actions by the universities? Sustainability challenges are real, and there is a global shortage of suitably trained human capital and talent around the world.  The higher education should be reimagined or redesigned with sustainability in mind in nurturing future ready graduates.  Fortunately, there is a growing number of on-line courses which all universities around the world can leverage as they build up own ecosystems.  It is time for the universities to make ‘Sustainability & SDGs literacy’ as a core requisite of all faculty members and students.  Universities and affiliated institutions to mandate all degree programs and post graduate programs to have elements of relevant UN SDGs in certain subjects via short courses, case studies, seminars, student projects and internships. Appreciating greater good, and contributing to values more than mere monetary benefits will further enthuse or inspire students as well as the faculty mentors.  Ultimately the education culture at the universities to change so that it encourages students to learn via experimentation and critical thinking from multiple perspectives.  Must make efforts to encourage young minds to take up sustainability education and careers.  Universities must celebrate the immense benefits of sustainability in terms of economic growth, wellbeing of humans, and healthy planet Earth.  World Bank estimates that a transition to low-carbon and resilient economies could create tens of millions of new jobs and trillions of dollars of economic growth.  According to a study, less than a third of family businesses survive into the second generation; twelve percent make it to the third generation, and three percent to the fourth generation.  Such tendencies could be mitigated provided the family run businesses allow their next generations to pursue sustainability related opportunities so as to feel purposeful and valued by the society at large.

Increasingly millennials find it rewarding way to spend life i.e. using own career to develop solutions to the sustainability challenges which range from micro-scale to a very large scale.  Embracing sustainability is about enabling graduates future ready, and giving a deeper sense of real world and life.  Their careers and future involve transitioning from the ‘point of use/consumption thinking’ to ‘life cycle thinking’ of products & services.  Progressive and timely efforts by all stakeholders of university education would help to promote the well-being of humans as well as planet Earth.  Sustainability in curriculum will transform the minds of students, and thus enabling transition to healthy individuals, society and Earth. 


Seeram Ramakrishna (2020) Achieving success and meaning in research maze shaped by the 21st century human civilization, Drying Technology, DOI: 10.1080/07373937.2020.1829885.

Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings (2020)

Simon Worrall (2017) What Made Leonardo da Vinci a Genius? National Geographic.

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Go to the profile of Mohamedazeem M. Mohideen
over 3 years ago

Hi Prof,

Again one of the most delicate articles from you with a lot of new information for readers. Implementing sustainability in university education is very fresh and exciting to read.

Your concept of having a sustainable education system will be a great alternative to current education system and will play a huge part in moving towards the SDG scenario quickly.

Finally, in recent times, I'm closely reading your articles related to sustainability. From that, I observed you're giving a new shape and definition to sustainability and the road to developing sustainable modern society.

Go to the profile of Wayne Hu
about 3 years ago
Great metaphor between da Vinci and High education in Sustainability, a picture of multi-disciplinary knowledge
Go to the profile of Mark McCaffrey
about 3 years ago

Interesting to get a sense of what is happening outside of North America, but please don't overlook the work of AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainaiblity in Higher Education and in particular their STARS program, which has been tracking efforts to infuse sustainable practice into the academy and the curriculum for more than a decade:

Their system allows schools plenty of flexibility since the needs and challenges of a large research university will be very different from a liberal arts college. They have developed and keep refining a "score card" approach that heavily weighs whether and how sustainable practices are taught, but relying on the universities themselves to have the conversation internally about what sustainability is defined as.  Students-- frustrated that they aren't learning more about these issues-- are often driving the process.

We developed a plan for deploying the STARS system at the University I was working at in Central Europe, but, alas, the adminsitration decided not to prioritize the plan and it sits on a shelf.... 

COVID of course adds a new and important wrinkle to what sustainability (and survivability) means, as many campuses around the world have learned the hard way. 

Dear Mark, thank you so much for your helpful comments.  Your experience is valuable.  May I invite you to join me in editing this post? It will be of great help to thousands of higher education institutions around the world. warm regards, Seeram

Dear Mark, based on your inputs, I further updated the post.  Thank you so much, appreciated, warm regards, Seeram