Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Higher education for sustainable development: actioning the global goals in policy, curriculum and practice


Higher education for sustainable development (HEfSD) is being significantly shaped by the global sustainability agenda. Many higher education institutions, responsible for equipping the next generation of sustainability leaders with knowledge and essential skills, proactively try to action the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in HEfSD policy, curriculum and practice through scattered and isolated initiatives. Yet, these attempts are not strategically supported by a governing approach to HEfSD or coordinated effectively to tackle social and environmental sustainability. These predicaments not only widen the gap between HEfSD policy, curriculum and practice but also exacerbate the complexities between human and environmental interactions compromising overall sustainability. However, these efforts represent a potential for actioning the Global Agenda for Sustainable Development. Based on a qualitative research strategy, theory building methodology and various methodological techniques (surveys, policy and literature review, group and individual interviews), this research suggests that the advancement of HEfSD in policy, curriculum and practice depends largely on a better understanding of existing gaps, target areas, commonalities and differences across regional HEfSD agendas. This will hopefully provide higher education institutions and their stakeholders across regions with some conceptual and practical tools to consider strategically how HEfSD can successfully be integrated into policy, curriculum and practice in alignment with SDGs and with the overall mandate of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Development.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Graph 1
Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  1. Adara OA (1996) Strategies of environmental education in social studies in Nigeria by the year 2000. Environ Educ Res 2(2):237–246. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350462960020209

  2. Adomßent M, Fischer D, Godemann J, Herzig C, Otte I, Rieckmann M, Timm J (2014) Emerging areas in research on higher education for sustainable development management education, sustainable consumption and perspectives from Central and Eastern Europe. J Clean Prod 62(2014):1–7

  3. Aikens K, McKenzie M, Vaughter P (2016) Environmental and sustainability education policy research: a systematic review of methodological and thematic trends. Environ Educ Res 22(3):333–359

  4. Amatariyakul W, Tesaputa K (2009) Scenarios of Rajamangala University of Technology Isan in the next decade. Soc Sci 4:402–406

  5. Arima A (2009) A plea for more education for sustainable development. Sustain Sci 4(1):3

  6. Avila R, Leger N (2005) The future of higher education: a scenario evaluation of its prospects and challenges. iUniverse, New York

  7. Azeiteiro UM, Bacelar-Nicolau P, Caetano FJ, Caeiro S (2015) Education for sustainable development through e-learning in higher education: experiences from Portugal. J Clean Prod 106:308–319

  8. Azman N, Sirat M, Karim MA (2010) Building future scenarios for Malaysian universities. J Asian Publ Policy 3:86–99

  9. Bak N (1995) Green doesn’t always mean ‘Go’: possible tensions in the desirability and implementation of environmental education. Environ Educ Res 1(3):345–352. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350462950010309

  10. Barraza L, Duque-Aristizabal A, Rebolledo G (2003) Environmental education: from policy to practice. Environ Educ Res 9(3):347–357. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504620303462

  11. Barth M, Reickmann M (2012) Academic staff development as a catalyst for curriculum change towards education for sustainable development: an output perspective. J Clean Prod 26(2012):28–36

  12. Blass E, Jasman A, Shelley S (2010) Visioning 2035: the future of the higher education sector in the UK. Futures 42(5):445–453. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2009.11.029

  13. Boron S, Murray KR, Thomson GB (2017) Sustainability education: towards total sustainability management teaching. In: Filho WL, Brandli L, Castro P, Newman J (eds), Handbook of theory and practice of sustainable development in higher education, vol 1, pp 37–52. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-47868-5

  14. Braun V, Clarke V (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qual Res Psychol 3(2):77–101

  15. Brundtland, G. H (1987) Our common future-The Brundtland Report. World Commission on Environment and Development

  16. Caniglia G, John B, Bellina L, Lang DJ, Wiek A, Cohmer S, Laubichler MD (2018) The glocal curriculum: a model for transnational collaboration in higher education for sustainable development. J Clean Prod 171:368–376

  17. Ceulemans K, De Prins M (2010) Teacher’s manual and method for SD integration in curricula. J Clean Prod 18(7):645–651. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2009.09.014

  18. Comm CL, Mathaisel DFX (2008) Sustaining higher education using Wal-Mart’s best supply chain management practices. Int J Sustain High Educ 2008(9):183–189

  19. Conway M (2003) Scenarios and university planning. J Inst Res 13(2):34–40

  20. Corcoran-Nantes Y, Roy S (2018) Gender, climate change, and sustainable development in Bangladesh. In: Balancing individualism and collectivism. Springer, Cham, pp 163–179

  21. Cortese AD (2003) The critical role of higher education in creating a sustainable future. Plan High Educ 31(3):15–22

  22. Dalhousie University (1991) Halifax declaration. Dalhousie University, Canada

  23. Dlouhá J, Moldan B (2013) Sustainability in higher education: the central and eastern European case. In: Adomßent M, Otte I (eds) Higher education for sustainable development in Central and Eastern Europe. VAS, Bad Homburg, pp 13–32

  24. Duderstadt JJ (2012) The future of the university: a perspective from the Oort cloud. Soc Res 79(3):579–600

  25. Eisenhardt KM (1989) Building theories from case study research. Acad Manag Rev 14(4):532–550

  26. Escobar A (1995) Encountering development: the making and unmaking of the third world. Princeton University Press, Princeton

  27. Franco I (2014) Building sustainable communities: enhancing human capital in resource regions. PhD Dissertation. Brisbane, Australia: The University of Queensland

  28. Frobel F (1826) On the education of man (die Menschenerziehung) Keilhau/Leipzig: Weinbrach

  29. García-González E, Jiménez-Fontana R, Azcárate Goded P, Cardeñoso JM (2017) Inclusion of sustainability in university classrooms through methodology. In: Handbook of theory and practice of sustainable development in higher education. Springer, Cham, pp 3–19

  30. González-Gaudiano EJ (2006) environmental education: a field in tension or in transition? Environ Educ Res 12(3–4):291–300. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504620600799042

  31. Hall TJK, Daneke GA, Lenox MJ (2010) Sustainable development and entrepreneurship: past contributions and future directions. J Business Ventures 25:439–448

  32. Hashimshony R, Haina J (2006) Designing the university of the future. Plann High Educ 34(2):5

  33. Hernandez PM, Vargas V, Paucar-Cáceres A (2018) Education for sustainable development: an exploratory survey of a sample of Latin American higher education institutions. In: Implementing sustainability in the curriculum of universities. Springer, Cham, pp 137–154

  34. Holdsworth S, Wyborn C, Bekessy S, Thomas I (2008) Professional development for education for sustainability. Int J Sustain High Educ 2008(9):131–146

  35. Inayatullah S, Ahmed S, Alam P, Davis S, Hashemi S (2013) Alternative scenarios for BRAC University. On the Horizon 21:275–285

  36. Jóhannesson IÁ, Norðdahl K, Óskarsdóttir G, Pálsdóttir A, Pétursdóttir B (2011) Curriculum analysis and education for sustainable development in Iceland. Environ Educ Res 17(3):375–391. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2010.545872

  37. Jongbloed B, Enders J, Salerno C (2008) Higher education and its communities: interconnections, interdependencies and a research agenda. High Educ 56(3):303–324

  38. Kanie N, Biermann F (2017) Governing through goals. MIT press, Cambridge

  39. Kivati G (2016) The Role of Kenya’s formal higher education in sustainable development within the context of globalization. In Filho WL, Skanavis C, do Paço A, Rogers J, Kuznetsova O, Castro P (eds), Handbook of theory and practice of sustainable development in higher education, vol 2, pp 17–34. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-47889-0

  40. Leal Filho W (2011) About the role of universities and their contribution to sustainable development. High Educ Policy 24(4):427–438

  41. Lozano R, Ceulemans K, Alonso-Almeida M, Huisingh D, Lozano FJ, Waas T, Lambrechts W, Lukman R, Hugé J (2015) A review of commitment and implementation of sustainable development in higher education: results from a worldwide survey. J Clean Prod 108(2015):1–18

  42. Lozano-Garcia, Huisingh (2006) Sustainability in higher education: what is happening? J Clean Prod 9(11):757–760

  43. McNay I (1992) Visions of post-compulsory education, society for research into higher education. Open University Press, Maidenhead

  44. Miller R (2003) The future of the tertiary education sector: scenarios for a learning society. In: a Paper presented at the OECD/Japan seminar (Tokyo, Japan)

  45. Milutinović S, Nikolić V (2014) Rethinking higher education for sustainable development in Serbia: an assessment of Copernicus charter principles in current higher education practices. J Clean Prod 62(2014):107–113

  46. Mochizuki Y, Fadeeva Z (2010) Competences for sustainable development and sustainability: significance and challenges for ESD. Int J Sustain High Educ 11(4):391–403

  47. Molderez I, Fonseca E (2018) The efficacy of real-world experiences and service learning for fostering competences for sustainable development in higher education. J Clean Prod 172:4397–4410

  48. Naeem MA, Peach NW (2011) Promotion of sustainability in postgraduate education in the Asia Pacific region. Int J Sustain High Educ 2011(12):280–290

  49. Ngoc UN, Schnitzer H (2009) Sustainable solutions for solid waste management in Southeast Asian countries. Waste Manag 29(6):1982–1995

  50. O’Byrne D, Dripps W, Nicholas KA (2015) Teaching and learning sustainability: an assessment of the curriculum content and structure of sustainability degree programs in higher education. Sustain Sci 10(1):43–59

  51. Okolie AC (2003) Producing knowledge for sustainable development in Africa: implications for higher education. High Educ 46(2):235–260

  52. Puk T, Behm D (2003) The diluted curriculum: the role of government in developing ecological literacy as the first imperative in Ontario secondary schools. Can J Environ Educ 8:217–232

  53. Regional Centres of Expertise on ESD Network (RCE Network) (2018) RCE Vision and mission. Retrieved from https://www.rcenetwork.org/portal/rce-vision-and-mission. Accessed 30 Jan 2018

  54. Ritzen J (2006) Scenarios for higher education, 2020 or when will China Invade Iran?. In: Keynote address during the OECD Ministerial Meeting. Paris

  55. Ryan A, Tilbury D, Corcoran PB, Abe O, Nomura K (2010) Sustainability in higher education in the Asia-Pacific: developments, challenges and prospects. Int J Sustain High Educ 11(3):106–119

  56. Saito O, Managi S, Kanie N, Kauffman J, Takeuchi K (2017) Sustainability Science and implementing the sustainable development goals. Sustain Sci 12(6):907–910

  57. Shephard K (2015) Higher education for sustainable development. Palgrave Macmillan, UK

  58. Singleton JR, Straits BC (2010) Approaches to social research, 5th edn. Oxford University Press, New York

  59. Siraj-Blatchford J, Pramling-Samuelsson I (2016) Education for sustainable development in early childhood care and education: an introduction. In: International research on education for sustainable development in early childhood. Springer, Cham, pp 1–15

  60. Sleurs W (2008) Competencies for ESD (education for sustainable development) teachers. A framework to integrate ESD in the curriculum of teacher training institutes. Comenius, 2.1 Project 118277 -CP-1-2004-BE-Comenius-C2.1. Available online at http://www.ensi.org

  61. Snyder DP (2006) From higher education to longer, fuller, further education: the coming metamorphosis of the university. On the Horizon 14:43–61

  62. Steinfeld JI, Mino T (2009) Education for sustainable development: the challenge of trans-disciplinarity. Sustain Sci 4(1):1

  63. Stephens S (2011) Science or science fiction? The application of scenario techniques to the study of possible futures for learners in higher education. In: Fifth education in a changing environment conference book 2009: Critical Voices, Critical Times. Informing Science

  64. Sultana P, Thompson PM (2007) Community based fisheries management and fisher livelihoods: Bangladesh case studies. Hum Ecol 35(5):527–546

  65. UNESCO (2014) Roadmap for implementing the global action programme on education for sustainable development. UNESCO, Paris

  66. UNESCO (2015) Guidelines on sustainability science in research and education. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Jakarta

  67. UNESCO (2017) Practical guidelines to apply sustainability science frameworks: science-policy-society interface policy paper. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Jakarta

  68. United Nations (2015) Transforming our World: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. United Nations, New York

  69. Vaughter P, Wright T, McKenzie M, Lidstone L (2013) Greening the ivory tower: a review of educational research on sustainability in post-secondary education. Sustainability 5(5):2252–2271

  70. Vaughter P, McKenzie M, Lidstone L, Wright T (2016) Campus sustainability governance in Canada: a content analysis of post-secondary institutions’ sustainability policies. Int J Sustain High Educ 17(1):16–39

  71. Vincent-Lancrin S (2006) What is changing in academic research? Trends and futures scenarios. Eur J Educ 41(2):169–202

  72. Yarime M, Trencher G, Mino T, Scholz RW, Olsson L, Ness B, Rotmans J (2012) Establishing sustainability science in higher education institutions: towards an integration of academic development, institutionalization, and stakeholder collaborations. Sustain Sci 7(1):101–113

  73. Yin R (2003) Case study research: design and methods. Sage, Thousand Oaks

  74. Yin R (2009) Case study: research design and methods (Fourth Edition ed. Vol. 5). SAGE Publications, Los Angeles

  75. Yonehara A, Saito O, Hayashi K, Nagao M, Yanagisawa R, Matsuyama K (2017) The role of evaluation in achieving the SDGs. Sustain Sci (Spec Feature Sustain Sci Implement Sustain Dev Goals) 12:969–973

Download references


This work was supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) (Grant No. JP17777). One of the authors would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for substantive comments in the development of this manuscript.

Author information

Correspondence to I. Franco.

Additional information

Handled by Gordana Kranjac-Berisavljevic, University for Development Studies, Ghana.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Franco, I., Saito, O., Vaughter, P. et al. Higher education for sustainable development: actioning the global goals in policy, curriculum and practice. Sustain Sci 14, 1621–1642 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-018-0628-4

Download citation


  • Higher education for sustainable development
  • Sustainability
  • Sustainable development goals (SDGs)
  • Policy
  • Curriculum
  • Stakeholders