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Can universities have a determining role in sustainable development?

As noted in an article from the Brookings Institute (Can leading universities be engines of sustainable development? A conversation with Judith Rodin) universities are increasingly interested in contributing to the UN sustainable development goals through but also beyond educating. If this means that universities will need to evolve in their ways of teaching, it also bears the question as to wether or not that is a feasible goal for them.

On 20 February 2020, a ministerial lunch at the European Council held an informal debate on ‘Green education and training for a sustainable Europe’ pondering the link between education and sustainable development goals. However, a desire to have an impact in sustainable development doesn’t mean that universities can indeed take on such a role and the results of some of their actions prove that.

Universities certainly wish to be considered capable of such objectives. First of all with minor yet public internal projects related to diverse objectives such as better recycling, integrating more biodiversity on their grounds and so forth. A good example of that would be the Challenge Green TIC campus in France that offers a national competition encouraging students to innovate for a “green campus”. Campuses all over the world seek to be more “green”: in the UK, the University of London has put in place solar panels in new buildings for energy saving purposes, an initiative followed by many universities.

The impact of such measures could be considered to be minor since wanting to have a determining role in sustainable development has pushed universities to also go forward with new degrees. Many universities are thus putting forth degrees with specialisations or main topics surrounding sustainable development. In France, the University of Angers has created an eco-tourism option for a Bachelor in Tourism; the University of Lyon has been working on inter-disciplinary degrees mixing Agriculture and Ecology or Urban studies with Ecology etc. Finally Australian universities have noted an increase in students choosing environmental-centric degrees. Many universities are choosing to experiment with interconnecting departments, topics and creating new degrees, but the question remains as to how effective those are from a sustainable development perspective.

As the example of France’s Eco-Tourism degrees show, while there might be an increase of such degrees, there isn’t necessarily the same amount of working opportunities in the job market.  The risk might be that some of those degrees are part of a “fashionable statement” to attract young undergrads that appear more sensitive to “green” initiatives and degrees. Many students fear that their degrees might not have corresponding job offers, forcing them to accept working opportunities within companies focused on “greenwashing”, leading Universities to have the opposite effect from the one pursued.

In any case, if degrees are to evolve towards more inclusiveness towards themes relating to sustainable development, there will be a need to break down the barrier between sciences and social sciences, which is not necessarily an easy task. In the end, maybe it isn’t about wether or not universities want to have a determining role in sustainable development, but about knowing if creating degrees influences the job market and therefore the world, or if they can only replicate what the job market asks for.

Brookings Institute

European Council