Why smart universities care about sustainable development

Why should sustainable development be on universities’ agendas? Monika Skadborg from the European Students’ Union discusses the purpose of higher education institutions and why it is strategically smart to start caring about sustainability.

Universities have always been good at identifying challenges faced by society. Researchers working in higher education institutions document the ways in which our society is unsustainable. They have recently told us how urgently we must limit climate change to avoid devastating consequences. This is one example of why now, more than ever before, universities need to be active not only in pointing out the challenges, but also in being a part of the solution.

Addressing global challenges is a bit of a handful. It takes energy and resources - especially in times when institutions are increasingly pressured to focus on employment statistics and bibliometric indicators. It is easier to leave policy makers to answer the question of “what purpose should universities serve”, or to simply fall back on beliefs that “universities must be non-political”. However, continuing business as usual is political as it means siding with the status quo. Because the status quo leads to environmental destruction, water-related conflicts, and many other man-made disasters, it is time to do better.

But how can universities step up their responsibility in sustainable development? All higher education institutions should clearly work to support the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number four on equal rights to high-quality education. Achieving this goal requires higher education institutions to be active in analysing the barriers that some groups face in accessing education and in dismantling them. In addressing this, they would also support the achievement of SDG10 on reducing inequalities in general, and SDG5 on gender equality specifically.

While some SDGs are clearly related to the higher education sector, universities cannot ignore the rest. It is not only about corporate social responsibility either. Like other organisations, universities should divest from fossil fuels, save energy and sort waste to minimise their negative footprint. However, it may be even more important for universities to address the footprint they leave with the research they conduct and the students they educate. For example, when research clearly tells us that we must phase out fossil fuels quickly to avoid grave consequences of climate change, is it then responsible for a university to establish research projects explicitly focused on extracting more oil? On the contrary, some institutions are starting to include sustainability in more courses in order to better equip graduates to see science and technology through the lens of benefiting humanity. In fact, integrating sustainability into curricula is becoming increasingly common across education types and will likely be the norm of education in the future. Anything less would mean failing to deliver on universities’ responsibility to society.

Leaving aside for a moment the discussion on universities’ moral obligation to society, the push toward sustainability is also a global trend that any smart institution should put on its agenda. This trend is seen in three key areas that many institutions care about: Recruiting students, receiving high rankings, and complying with political demands.

As for student recruitment, studies show a clear demand for increased emphasis on sustainability in curricula. For example, according to an international study by the UK National Union of Students, “Student perceptions of sustainability in higher education”, ninety-one percent of students agree or strongly agree that sustainable development is something that all universities/colleges should actively incorporate and promote. Eighty-one percent would like to learn more about sustainability in their education than they currently do. Simultaneously, student movements are increasingly getting involved in sustainability movements, graduates are pledging to only work for responsible companies, and job portals with emphasis on sustainability are becoming successful. This shows that if you care about recruiting the best talents in the future, you must meet the demand for learning about sustainability.

As for rankings, they often promote arbitrary measures of “quality” that are completely out of touch with students’ needs. Still, there is great interest in the new tendency to include a broader range of indicators in rankings. Times Higher Education has developed a ranking focused on the SDGs, acknowledging that societal impact is also a part of what makes “a good institution”. If I were a university leader, I would pay close attention to this tendency as it is perhaps more relevant to do well on impacting society than on many of the other more arbitrary indicators.

Finally, on a political level, there are also signals that mainstreaming sustainability will be a norm of higher education in the future. In Switzerland, for example, it has already become a criterion in quality assurance. To achieve accreditation, institutions must consider their impact on sustainability, not only financially, but socially and environmentally. In Norway, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research has made it very clear, through both the next long-term plan for the sector and the prioritisation of funding, that higher education institutions must play a key role in making the green transition possible. The European Commission sends similar signals with sustainability centrally placed in the working documents for its next strategy, as presented at the Forum for the Future of Learning where the Commission was very clear in its statements about the role of education in achieving sustainable development.

At the European Students’ Union, we welcome these signals and offer a strong message to higher education institutions: Sustainability must be integrated into everything that we do. It is a responsibility that cannot be ignored, and it will be a natural part of the role of universities in the future. The question for today is: Will your university be a first mover or late to the party?

The European Students’ Union (ESU) is the umbrella organisation of 45 National Unions of Students from 39 countries. It represents almost 20 million students in Europe. The aim of ESU is to represent and promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at the European level.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Monika Skadborg

Monika Skadborg is a member of the Executive Committee of the European Students’ Union (ESU), representing the students in 39 countries through 45 National Unions of Students. Her main areas of expertise are education quality, internationalisation, and sustainability.


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