Sustainable development as universities’ social responsibility. Ideas for development

By Martha Burkle

In current discussions, the idea of promoting a sustainable university has become crucial in the development of policies that regulate students’ learning, the growth of the university itself, and its impact on the community in which it is inserted (Leal, 2019; Verhulst & Lambrechts, 2015; Nicolescu, 2018).

UNESCO principles of development for the global world (UNESCO and Sustainable Development Goals) emphasize the importance of sustainability in education. Postsecondary education institutions play a crucial role not only in developing internal ecosystems that support sustainability, but also in creating awareness models among students that support a sustainable mentality and ethos (2030 Agenda | UNESCO).

Below are some ideas that support these principles. The ideas mentioned below were presented at a recent international conference on sustainable universities organized by the Open University in Barcelona, and a parallel meeting/conference organized by the United Arab Emirates. Each of these ideas established a framework from which to build the framework for a sustainable university of the future.

An educational institution that educates global citizens for sustainable development should take into account that sustainability should affect universities:

  1. Teaching – by discussing and analyzing relevant social challenges (Education for sustainable development: a roadmap – UNESCO Digital Library)
  2. Operation – by reducing the environment social footprint of its campus and operations
  3. Local community – by preparing students to respond to the challenges that the local community encounters
  4. Governance – by transforming sustainability into a priority for policy development

When applied to medical education, sustainability should consider:

  1. The creation of social awareness among students
  2. The empowerment process that takes place when students, faculty, and administration gain awareness of their role in impacting the ecology and transform their processes of use and consumption of goods
  3. Bringing real cases and projects into the classroom environment
  4. Transforming in academic credits students’ work towards community services

A sustainable model for the future university includes:

  1. A vision on how the university itself will continue to be relevant in the current context
  2. A university that is sensible to students’ profiles and community needs and respond to these
  3. A university that operates with a sustainable framework that respects the environment and promotes equality

Video links and references

Education for Sustainability TEDx: Education for Sustainability | Jaimie Cloud | TEDxWindham – YouTube

Measuring universities’ contribution to UNESCO sustainable development goals: Measuring universities’ contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals – YouTube

Sustainability: Why universities can lead by example: Dr. Troy Hammond – TEDx North Central College: Sustainability: Why Universities Can Lead by Example | Dr. Troy Hammond | TEDxNorthCentralCollege – YouTube

Sustainability in the Digital Age: Sustainability In The Digital Age | Dirk Messner | TEDxBonn – YouTube

The role of Higher Education video: 40. The Role of Higher Education in Sustainable Development – YouTube

References (includes references to ETHE articles for further reading)

Bowen, K., Barry, M., Jowell, A., Maddah, D., Alami, N. (2021). Virtual Exchange in Global Health: an innovative educational approach to foster socially responsible oversees collaboration. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education 18:32. DOI:

Coughlan, T. & Perryman, L-A. (2013). Beyond the Ivory Tower: A model for nurturing informal learning and development Communities through Open Educational Practices. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education 10, 312-326. DOI:

Koroivulaono, T. (2015). Open Educational resources: a regional university’s journey. International Journal of Educational Technology In Higher Education 11, 91-107. DOI:

Kyle, William C. (2020). Expanding or views of science education to address sustainable development, empowerment, and social transformations. Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research 2:2. Springer Open. DOI:

Leal, W., Shiel, C., Paco, A. Mifsud, M. Veiga, L., Londero, B. (2019). Sustainable development Goals and sustainability teaching at universities: Falling behind or getting ahead of the pack? Journal of Cleaner Production 232, 285-294

Lozano, R., Merrill, M., Sammaliksto, K., Ceulemans, K., Lozano, F. (2019). Connecting competences and pedagogical approaches for sustainable development in higher education: a literature review and framework proposal. MDPI Journal 9, 10.

Nicolescu, B. 2018. The Transdisciplinary evolution of the university condition for sustainable development. Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice and Education, 73-81. Springer UNESCO (2020). Education for sustainable development: a roadmap. Online available: Education for sustainable development: a roadmap – UNESCO Digital Library

Verhulst, E., Lambrechts, W. (2015). Fostering the incorporation of sustainable development in higher education. Lessons learned from a change management perspective. Journal of Cleaner Production 106, 189 – 204.