Written in collaboration with Wim Lambrechts (Open Universiteit, The Netherlands), Luc Van Liedekerke (University of Antwerp) & Peter Van Petegem (University of Antwerp)

The accumulation of knowledge on sustainability and the preparation of students for the uncertain and complex context surrounding issues of sustainability is an important aspect of sustainable higher education. This does not mean, however, that teachers who see no possibilities for integrating the substantive aspects of sustainability into their lectures should simply ignore the topic. Sustainability requires more than just a substantive focus (accumulating knowledge and teaching about sustainable development). It also requires a focus on process (the manner in which we teach, the competences that we integrate). In this teaching tip, we attempt to go into greater depth on the process-related aspects of sustainable higher education and, more specifically, the competences for sustainable development.

Competences for sustainable development

Sustainability competences comprise the whole of knowledge, insight, skills, and attitudes that are regarded as necessary in the complex and uncertain context of issues of sustainability. Although various models and lists are available, the following core competences can always be identified:

  • Systems thinking: the ability to identify and understand connections between various dimensions
  • Anticipatory competence (future-oriented thinking): the ability to develop visions of the future, to apply the principle of precaution, to predict actions and reactions and to cope with change
  • Normative competence (values): the ability to chart, clarify, reconcile and negotiate values, principles and goals inherently connected to sustainability
  • Strategic competence (action-oriented effort): the ability to design and implement transformative strategies
  • Emotional intelligence (empathy, perspective shift): the ability to acknowledge and respect one’s own perspectives and those of others, to adopt another person’s perspective and to accept diversity
  • Coping with uncertainty: the ability to cope with conflicting interests, competing goals, contradictions in available information and set-backs
  • Critical thinking and reflection: the ability to challenge customary standards, practices and opinions, including in one’s own values and actions

In this regard, it is important to keep in mind that sustainable development continues to form the directive framework within which these specific competences are shaped. At the same time, it is perfectly possible to work on each of these competences within an educational setting in which the topic of sustainable development is not explicitly addressed. For example, consider teaching students to chart a variety of societal stakeholders in relation to issues of regional mobility (systems thinking); teaching students to empathise with the perspective of other parties (emotional intelligence, normative competence), or teaching them to conduct a life-cycle analysis  that extends beyond short-term economic aspects (future-oriented thinking).

One interesting example of how sustainability competences can be operationalised can be found in Wiek, A. et al. (2016). In this publication, sustainability competences are proposed according to concrete learning results, related concepts and methods (including teaching methods) and further specifications of the learning results in three levels of education (secondary education, Bachelor, Master). The following table provides a simplified example of how this can be elaborated for the competence ‘systems thinking’.

Systems thinking



Learning results

- Cause-effect chains, step-wise effects, feedback loops, delays

- Structures and dynamics across multiple scales (local-global)

- …

- Qualitative systems analysis

- Quantitative modelling

- Causal problem analysis

- …

- The student is capable of applying (Bachelor level) and developing (Master level) methods of system analysis, with the goal of identifying and explaining causal connections between causes, effects and intervention points.

Connection to other competences

One important question in the integration of sustainability competences concerns whether they – like learning content for sustainable development – should be integrated as separate competences, or whether they should be presented in association with other generic competences. The ‘twinning’ of competences is aimed at connecting sustainability competences to other competences, most of which are already present in the curriculum. For example, such connections could be made with entrepreneurial competences and research competences.


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.