Sustainability science is increasingly getting attention in academia (Fang et al. 2018). It has even been considered as a new paradigm of science and education (Martens 2006), and can be viewed as an emerging, free-standing discipline. Sustainability science can be simply conceptualised as an academic take on principle-based sustainability, ‘as a discipline that points the way toward a sustainable society’ (Komiyama and Takeuchi 2006, p. 2). Sustainability science is also becoming widespread as a framing for educational programmes (Lozano et al. 2013). Sustainability science aims to evolve scientific foundations in the broader field of sustainability education or education for sustainable development (Disterheft et al. 2013). In its societal tendencies, it implies a so-called ‘fourth function’ of universities in their capacity as actors and societal co-creators of the broader sustainability transformation (Trencher et al. 2014). Universities will also need to address the challenge of reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which represent a development agenda that will require renewal of curricula with emphasis on competencies clearly related to reaching the SDGs (see e.g., Sustainable Development Goals and Institutions of Higher Education 2019).
The competencies of sustainability have become one of the focal topics for the research of sustainability in higher education, which is where we situate our study as well. Competences, defined as a complex set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, are important to the development of an emerging field in education (Barth et al. 2007). The bulk of the research focused on sustainability competences aims to elaborate them as specific process-oriented abilities in treating the problem complexes of sustainability (for example: Barth et al. 2007; Heiskanen et al. 2016; Mochizuki and Fadeeva 2010; Tamura and Uegaki 2012; Wiek et al. 2011, 2015). Competencies may assist sustainability science in becoming education with an aim for contributing to a larger scale of societal change, but may also contribute to the institutionalization process of sustainability science as a respective field of science (Meyer et al. 2016).
The majority of the available publications on sustainability competencies are theoretical or based on different forms and sources of literature review (e.g., Wiek et al. 2015). The frequently referenced Wiek et al. (2011) article that focuses on the key competencies sustainability focused graduates ought to possess serves as a landmark for several latter publications on the topic. Some earlier publications have addressed the competences integration of sustainability into education (e.g., Lozano 2006), or framing a whole-person approach to education (e.g., Podger et al. 2010), or weighing the different disciplines and branches of science represented in the vast field of sustainability education (e.g., Jones et al. 2008), while some others have addressed the concept through specific competencies of sustainability through education (e.g., Wals 2010). However, an empirical study of the competencies in the broad selection of sustainability education programmes has been missing.
As new programmes of sustainability education specifically employing the discipline of sustainability science are formed, a thorough look at the key competencies becomes important. Strong focus on sustainability competencies has also received some criticism among the researchers, regarding how they may shape or even narrow sustainability education (Cebrián et al. 2015). For instance, is there a risk in defining the response to sustainability, as education is based on a certain image of the current needs, led by a certain image of the hoped future? (Wals and Jickling 2002). Also, the reciprocal relationship between the theory of sustainability science and the application of the conceptualised competencies in the programmes stays somewhat undefined; are the structures of the programmes based on the suggested competencies? To what extent does the theory of the sustainability science develop based on the programmes in action? Finally, whether sustainability science is as transformative as it aspires to be remains to be seen (Thorén and Breian 2016).
This research studies a selection of sustainability science master’s programmes curricula for the employment of the suggested, theory-based, key competencies for sustainability. These competencies are: systems thinking, anticipatory thinking, strategic thinking, and normative and interpersonal competencies. The master’s programmes included in this study were selected by featuring definitions of education that is sustainability focused (O’Byrne et al. 2015). The material for this study consists of 1023 individual course descriptions from 45 different master’s programmes worldwide. Through a qualitative content study, we aim to answer the following four questions: 1. What kind of sustainability competencies can be found at sustainability science master’s programmes curricula? 2. How are the suggested sustainability competences, defined by Wiek et al. in 2015, represented at the programmes? 3. Are there other kind competencies of sustainability emerging from the programmes in operation? 4. How do they reflect the current discussion on sustainability science as a discipline and could they be considered as additional competencies—in reflection of sustainability science specifically?
First, we introduce the theoretical basis of the research by explaining the main frameworks used in the study. Then, we explain the details of the study material and method used. After this, we present the major findings from the materials and suggest three emerging additional sustainability science competencies. Finally, we discuss the findings in reflection to the discipline and field of sustainability science and give some suggestions for future research on the topic.
The theoretical frame or the lens we used to explore the sustainability science educational programmes is composed of two parts. The first is how the framing of the competencies for sustainability (explained further) guides the analysis of competencies in the curriculum data. The latter framing of sustainability science (explained further) guides the analysis of the unclassified competencies from the curriculum data.
Competencies for sustainability
Competence-based education focuses on abilities for solving problems in a certain context (Lambrechts et al. 2013), thus key competencies have become focal to the framing of sustainability education. They frame the education as a response to a need for sustainability transformation and as such direct the whole education, including its mode and mission (Lozano et al. 2015). The developments in sustainability education have multiple implications for all aspects of education, not only to the future professionals under schooling, but also to teacher education and the societal subsectors in which the employers are located and the context wherein the new talent is practiced (Dahl Madsen 2013; Vincent and Mulkey 2015). Additionally, one could also assume that the content created in education has implications for the evolution of the discipline in question through the graduates, who become practitioners of and in the field.
Wiek et al. define key competencies for sustainability as, “complexes of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enable successful task performance and problem solving with respect to real-world sustainability problems, challenges, and opportunities” (Wiek et al. 2015, p.242). Barth et al. (2007, p.417) in turn, formulate them as “dispositions to self-organisation, comprising different psycho-social components, existing in a context-overlapping manner, and realising themselves context-specifically”. Although these definitions are different in form, they capture the same ethos of a purposeful and practical know-how for sustainability (Tamura and Uegaki 2012). Further elaboration of competencies (Wiek et al. 2015) link them more directly to learning outcomes as topics of teaching, such as in a course on systems thinking, or conceptualise them implicitly and as practice, such as part of a project course where systems thinking is applied among other competencies. Although the single competencies are separately framed, they border closely with other competencies and several of them can be embedded in the same learning activity. When reflected after the fact, the competencies obtained seem to capture the whole of the education, rather than trace certain competencies back to any specific course or point of learning (Hansmann et al. 2012).
Along with the development of academic literature on sustainability competencies, several framings have emerged. The competencies differ in their form, but also in their approach to the subject. Where bulk of the competencies can be seen as rooted in the science or the process of sustainability itself (Wiek et al. 2011), some have taken a different angle: a perspective of the higher education institution (Tamura and Uegaki 2012); a perspective of employment in, e.g., industry or business (Heiskanen et al. 2016); or as a framing based on the pedagogical aspects of the taught competencies (Mochizuki and Fadeeva 2010). As many of the suggested framings are based on theoretical elaboration on the requirements of sustainability in education and literature reviews of those elaborations, they are generally all compatible and seem to have many common characteristics.
Wiek et al. (2011, 2015) offer an elaboration on the topic, which also generally captures the other studied competence frameworks from a practical perspective (Barth et al. 2007; Cebrián et al. 2015; Charli-Joseph et al. 2016; Dimity, Podger et al. 2010; Leal Filho et al. 2016; Hansmann et al. 2012; Heiskanen et al. 2016; Karatzoglou 2013; Meyer et al. 2016; Mochizuki and Fadeeva 2010; Steiner and Posch 2006; Vincent and Mulkey 2015). The framework is especially useful for the rich descriptions of the key competences, which are: systems, futures, normative, and strategic thinking and collaboration. Therefore, this framework was also chosen as the starting point for this study (see Table 1).
In addition to all the features above, the ability to justify the need for a given competence to sustainability and the professional activities of it repeats as a feature of all the competencies. To continue, Wiek et al. (2015, p.243) define a sixth ‘integrated competence’, as a “meta-competence of meaningfully using and integrating the five key competencies for solving sustainability problems and fostering sustainable development”. This competence somewhat describes a schematic outlay of the process of sustainability problem-solving framework (Wiek et al. 2011), or the process of sustainability making.
The second part of the theoretical framing for this study is nested in the current academic sustainability science discourse. In this paper, we scope sustainability science from different perspectives by its plural framings and descriptions.
Concerning the disciplinary framing in the landscape of science, sustainability science has been framed as neither ‘basic’ nor ‘applied’ research, implying its transgressive nature between the two, as use-inspired basic research (Clark 2007). It has been defined as a science of sustainability, as compared to a science for sustainability (Spangenberg 2011). The distinction implies that sustainability science is a scientific effort specifically oriented to produce sustainability—the science of sustainability, compared to basic science which can be utilised to advance sustainability (Spangenberg 2011). From the perspective of knowledge production, it can be framed to resemble the mode of Mode-2 science (Nowotny et al. 2001). Sustainability science carries the features of transdisciplinarity and strong societal contextualization and implies systemic change in knowledge production, institutional use, and how it is utilised in the society—thus, transformation (Thorén and Breian 2016). Continuing, that “part of the mission of sustainability science is to determine what knowledge is needed” (Miller 2013, p.285).
Onuki and Mino (2009) suggest that sustainability science might not be a discipline defined by the subjects it deals with, rather by the core principles included, which are holistic thinking, transdisciplinarity, and diversity. The several descriptions of the sustainability science are taken as inclusive characterizations and the ethos of the discipline. Inclusive implies here that these characterizations aim to construct the character and ethos of the science through descriptions of what it is, and what it is for, rather than suggesting an exclusive definition focused on what it is not. Beyond the characterization of sustainability science as a scientific discipline, as by the framing by Clark (2007), the majority of its characteristics focus on the subject matter it treats. Famously described by Kates et al. (2001), p.641), sustainability science “seeks to understand the fundamental character of interactions between nature and society”.
From this Jerneck et al. (2011) continued by stating that additional to this understanding, it is an attempt to ‘seeking creative solutions to these complex challenges’, and Yarime et al. (2012) suggesting that it is “for transforming and developing these [interactions] sustainably” (Yarime et al. 2012, p.101). Further, Dedeurwaerdere (2014) suggested that strong sustainability combines these analytical perspectives ‘with a transformational agenda’. As for the functions of sustainability science, it is often addressed to bridge different gaps, like those between “the social system and the ecological system, the social system and the economic system, diverse disciplines, knowledge and action, and of course, the current state and a sustainable future.” (Kajikawa et al. 2014, p.437). Or simply put, it is a “discipline that points the way toward a sustainable society” (Komiyama and Takeuchi 2006, p.2).
Thus, the selected dimensions of sustainability science employed to recognise potential emerging competencies from the curricula are human–environment dynamics, strong contextualisation and co-creation, and deliberate aim for transformation (see Table 2).