The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Since the 1990s, the International Association of Universities has been active in encouraging universities to promote sustainable development, adopting a policy statement known as the Kyoto Declaration on Sustainable Development.
Universities have several roles within society that can contribute to sustainable development. Important and often, ground-breaking research is conducted within higher education establishments, helping to generate innovation and knowledge. Similarly, universities are responsible for educating industry’s future decision makers, thereby potentially advancing sustainable development beyond the walls of the institution. Finally, universities, as operational institutions, manage and run numerous buildings. They consume products and services and of course, generate waste. From research and education to controlling their carbon footprint, universities play an important role in advancing sustainable development.
Universities conduct a vast amount of research that enables the generation of new knowledge and seeks to answer important societal questions. Several factors influence whether a university contributes to sustainable development and the type of research undertaken can play an important role.
The type of research being done very much depends on who defines the agenda. If research is conducted because an industry leader is paying for it, chances are, the research will not be in the service of broader societal issues. An important role of universities in sustainable development is to investigate issues and undertake research that is relevant to their respective communities as well as to society as a whole.
Academic research can help to educate the general public, potentially leading to new policies and technologies that impact positively on human economies and natural ecosystems.
From new skills to knowledge, education enables individuals to discover and develop their potential. Universities grant the highest degrees of the education system and should encourage students to strive to become global citizens. Rather than churning out passive consumers, the role of universities in sustainable development is to empower individuals to think and act for themselves.
UNESCO was the body tasked with driving the Education for Sustainable Development movement and as such, aimed to empower learners to “take informed decisions and responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society, for present and future generations, while respecting cultural diversity.”
Interdisciplinary education plays an important role in sustainable development from the perspective of higher education. It aims to promote the consideration of social and environmental implications alongside the economic. While engineering students, for example, may learn how to construct a building in the most cost-efficient manner, they will also learn how to construct a zero-carbon building that provides long-term benefits to its occupants. It’s possible to consider any topic or discipline and look at it from an economic, social and environmental perspective and as such, gain a richer perspective.
Education for Sustainable Development also tends to encourage more interactive learning. Rather than teachers imparting knowledge, they strive to facilitate learning by encouraging students to be more active and responsible.
Universities can also empower students to adopt a socially and environmentally responsible attitude in their personal lives and to disseminate this agenda within their organisations and communities.