How to develop Higher Education Students’ Sustainability-Oriented Competences?

Recently, 986 EUR students from different schools participated in an online poll. When being asked “what do you think about study courses on sustainability”, 405 students (41%) voted for “I think every study programme shoud offer them”. While sustainability has developed into a contested societal discourse which calls for Higher Education (HE) to produce creativity, critical thinking and sustainability-oriented competencies, current HE systems do not provide many opportunities to achieve these goals.


In our research project funded by EUR CLI Research Fellowship, we examined how to empower students to address sustainability challenges through the inclusion of transformative, interdisciplinary and intercultural learning into the current HE system. This research used an honours course on sustainability that we developed as a case study, and analysed students’ learning diaries which offered insights into some of the students’ learning process. This research approach allowed us to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the course design as well as draw implications to improve and renew courses on sustainability in HE.

To allow the students to understand sustainability as a contested discourse used by competing individuals and groups, and across cultures, we embedded three pillars in the course design, which are:

  • transformative learning as the overarching orientation,
  • interdisciplinary and intercultural education at the core, and
  • integrating universal, community and social justice, and environmental education approaches for developing sustainability-oriented competences.

Through analysing students’ learning diaries (N = 36), we found that the emphasis placed on transformative learning throughout the honors course enabled the students to become actors of their learning development. Also, the integration of pedagogical tools encouraged various types of collaborations and discussions among students and with the teachers. The feeling of empowerment associated with peer-collaboration was connected by the students to specific characteristics of the group. Namely, the intercultural and interdisciplinary dimension seemed to play an important role in motivating students to engage with one another. The fact that the students viewed the honours course as a unique learning experience highlights an important structural limitation of HE which tends to advocate for interdisciplinary and intercultural education, but often fails to implement such practices.

Last but not least, we found out when organizing this honours course that it requires significant institutional support in order to bring down walls between Departments and Faculties. However, as some scholars point out, despite a discursive emphasis on sustainability, very few Universities provide sufficient institutional support to renew curricula and teaching practices (Leal Filho et al., 2018). This jeopardizes the quality of sustainability education at tertiary level that, ultimately, tends to be limited to isolated efforts in stand-alone courses, often with pedagogies not entirely appropriated to Sustainable Development principles. Therefore, we concluded in our research that structural support is essential to ensure HE produces more than greenwashing discourses.

More information

Dr. Yijing Wang
Dr. Mélodine Sommier
Dr. Ana Vasques

Leal Filho, W., Raath, S., Lazzarini, B., Vargas, V. R., de Souza, L., Anholon, R., Ouelhas, O. L. G., Haddad, R., Klavins, M., & Orlovic, V. L. (2018). The role of transformation in learning and education for sustainability. Journal of Cleaner Production, 199, 286-295.

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