What is sustainability?

The South African term for sustainable development, which translates roughly to ‘maintainable development’, provides an apt reflection of the meaning of the concept: our development should be economically, ecologically and socially responsible both today and in the future, at both the local and world scale. In other words, sustainable development can be reduced to development in the area of the three P’s: People (the social dimension), Planet (the ecological dimension) and Prosperity (the economic dimension). These three dimensions should not be seen as separate from each other, but they can always influence each other. The balance between these three P’s is becoming increasingly important in our current society.

Encouraging sustainability in higher education

If our goal is to prepare students for a more active role in society, with an increasing focus on sustainability, the education we provide must also devote attention to sustainable development. We can work to build a sustainable higher education not only by providing education about sustainable development (e.g. integrating an additional module on sustainable development), but also by implementing education for sustainable development (e.g. developing a learning pathway on sustainability). It is also possible to combine education about and for sustainable development, which would imply reconsidering the curriculum. A full reconstruction of the curriculum, however, requires time. Education about and for sustainable development could constitute an important step in the right direction. The message is thus to start small.

A brief overview of the various ways of fitting sustainability into the curriculum is presented below. It is in the form of a continuum, ranging from weaker embeddedness of sustainability in the curriculum to very strong embeddedness.

Vertical embeddedness in the curriculum (additional topic)

Education on sustainable development

Horizontal embeddedness in the curriculum (structured approach)

Education for sustainable development

Reconstruction of the curriculum (integrated whole)

Sustainable education


In sustainable higher education, the teaching methods (and forms of evaluation) used should be adapted to the discourse on sustainability. More specifically, more and more teaching methods should be used to refine sustainability competences. One example of ‘vertical embeddedness’ in the curriculum can be found in the Master programme in Business Engineering at the University of Antwerp, particularly in the Corporate Social Responsibility project. This module adopts project education as a teaching method in order to support students in their efforts to develop sustainability competences.

Example: The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project

For five years, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project has been a compulsory module within the Faculty of Applied Economics, and it is an integral part of the Master thesis portfolio. It is an integrated project that is carried out in groups of three or four students from the second year of the Master programme in Business Engineering. This module is intended primarily to broaden the vision of aspiring managers with regard to important sub-areas of society and aspects from the social sector. The integrated approach refines several new or supplementary basic competences (e.g. cooperation in teams, analytical and problem-solving thinking with a focus on realistic and usable output, coping with practical difficulties, and communication with multiple parties). The central goals of the project are as follows:

  • To provide a platform where students come into contact with the outside world, including with the non-profit sector
  • To provide students with a broader view of society and encourage their active participation
  • To provide a more varied programme from within the university
  • Non-profit organisations in Antwerp (and elsewhere) attempt to help by offering a form of consulting free of charge.

The students carry out their projects in non-profit organisations, associations or other foundations that often lack resources. In essence, the students offer their knowledge and abilities as junior consultants free of charge. In summary, the primary focus of this module is on the social dimension of sustainable development (i.e. People), while also addressing the economic dimension van sustainability (i.e. Prosperity).


Want to know more?

Lambrechts, W., Mulà, I., Ceulemans, K., Molderez, I. & Gaeremynck, V. (2013). The integration of competences for sustainable development in higher education: an analysis of bachelor programs in management, Journal of Cleaner Production, 48, 65-73.

Rieckmann, M. (2012). Future-oriented higher education: Which key competencies should be fostered through university teaching and learning?, Futures, 44(2), 127-135.

Wiek, A., Withycombe, L. & Redman, C.L. (2011). Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development, Sustainability Science, 6, 203-218.

Wiek, A. et al. (2016). Operationalising competencies in higher education for sustainable development. In: Barth, M., Michelsen, G., Rieckmann, M., & Thomas, I. (Eds.) (2016). Routledge Handbook of Higher Education for Sustainable Development. Routledge, pp. 241-260.