THE ConsultancySupporting sustainable citizenship through higher education

Supporting sustainable citizenship through higher education

Higher education has an important role to play in modelling and developing sustainable practices that will help solve the most pressing challenges facing the world

Written by Kay Hack, principal adviser for learning and teaching at Advance HE.

The higher education sector has a unique responsibility to protect the planet and deliver on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). All stakeholders should be challenging the sector to support research that makes progress in line with the SDGs and to develop graduates with the core sustainability competencies to address financial, environmental and social sustainability.

Given the global influence, reach and impact of higher education, the sector has an opportunity to make a major contribution to the achievement of the SDGs, but the sector must take steps to ensure its people, practices and places are consistent with the goals. 

This ambition is already a priority for many higher education institutions. In 2022, there was a 25 per cent increase in the number of institutions submitting data to the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. A total of 1,524 institutions from 110 countries voluntarily provided data on how they were delivering on the SDGs, indicating the growing importance of sustainability to the sector.

As universities from across the globe start to articulate to all their stakeholders how they are approaching sustainability, their strategies need to be aligned across teaching and research, as well as through their people and culture. Institutional transformation with such a wide-reaching remit requires a model for strategic change.

Education for sustainable development

Research from THE’s Global Student Research Panel indicated that 82 per cent of students want to live in a way that is consistent with sustainable citizenship. Providing opportunities for students to develop core sustainability competencies will be attractive to students.

Today’s graduates will have a critical role in developing viable, inclusive and equitable solutions to the economic, social and environmental challenges the world is facing. The persistent impact they will have on the planet compels us to equip them with the skills to critique norms and practices, learn from others and seek to understand their needs, perspectives and actions while reflecting on how their values and perceptions inform their actions. The link between individual agency and our contributions to a broader culture of sustainability should be embedded within the educational and research experience of students. 

In the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Guidance, published by QAA and Advance HE in 2021, learning outcomes and teaching and assessment practices were framed around the Unesco key competencies for sustainability. This means asking what students should know, do, and be to “leave the world better than they found it”. Many of these competencies are also recognised as key attributes for graduate success and employability, including how we work with others within and across disciplines to solve complex problems.

Competencies will be critical for students to succeed in the complex and volatile world that they are graduating into. Supporting students to develop a deeper understanding of their role and agency in creating a sustainable future requires self-awareness and negotiation skills in a context of conflicts of interest and uncertainty. Embedding these competencies into curricula through the lens of the SDGs should be a priority for the sector.

Beyond learner outcomes and competencies, ESD can support broader strategic priorities that impact on graduate success including internationalisation and developing global perspectives, promoting employability and enterprise, working with communities, and progressing equality, diversity and inclusion within and beyond our institutions. 

There are examples of excellent and innovative practice from across the sector where the campus and the local community are being used as living labs that enable students to work with research groups, estates teams, social enterprises and community groups to develop solutions to sustainability dilemmas while gaining skills for sustainable citizenship.

Touching on so many aspects of the student experience and the institution, ESD can provide a powerful driver for change, but to enable all students to develop sustainable citizenship and to study at sustainable institutions, leaders need to think beyond ESD to how their strategies align across all areas of practice and impact.

Using the SDGs not just to design curricula but to set strategy related to research, people, culture and broader organisational performance can be an effective way for institutions to articulate how they are contributing to the sustainability agenda.

“Higher education has a critical role to play in transforming society’s relationship with the environment,” says Sam Barratt, chief of youth, education and advocacy at the UNEP. “We urgently need to empower young people to not just be certified, but to have the skillsets and mindsets to become leaders, entrepreneurs, employees and citizens that support a green transition across society. Universities can also play a much broader role in this transition. Whether it is through their operations, estates, research or teaching, the UNEP is calling on universities to play an active and dynamic role in the transition to a greener economy.” 

As universities from across the globe start to articulate how they are approaching sustainability through their environmental, social and economic actions, they will need a strong narrative and leadership that demonstrates that everyone has a role to play in developing sustainable futures. 

Steps taken by institutions in engaging with the SDGs are varied and often applied in localised contexts, for instance certain disciplines considering the role of their specific research or teaching in relation to the SDGs. System-level thinking is always challenging in large, complex organisations, however there can be value in considering what strategic approach can be taken across the organisation to maximise opportunities for impact. A strategic change model can help leaders design a strategy for sustainability using an evidence-based approach.

Advance HE and THE Consultancy have partnered to develop a Strategic Change Framework for Sustainability, which is one method of considering the steps required to create robust strategies, policies, processes and practices that embed SDGs across the institution. The framework encourages institutions to consider five steps of managing a change cycle: first, gathering and understanding critical data; second, drawing the right insights and conclusions from the data; third, using that as evidence for strategic planning; fourth, developing the right behaviours, practices and culture; and fifth, measuring and evaluating impact.

The framework was recently tested at the THE Impact and Innovation Summit in Stockholm, where leaders representing 41 institutions from 23 countries engaged in an exercise of working through the framework in the context of education, research and organisational performance. The framework can be used as part of strategic planning processes to help structure decision-making and prioritisation.

For further information on the framework and how it can be applied to your institution, contact Kay Hack at

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