Competences for sustainable development: why business-as-usual is not an option for higher education

One of the critical roles of higher education is preparing students – the professionals, decision makers and consumers of the future – in taking up an active role in society. Taking into account this important societal role of higher education, and given the issues society is facing today, one has to ask the critical question “are graduate students equipped with the necessary competences to cope with the complex challenges related to sustainability, to find suitable solutions and to contribute to a society characterised by social and ecological sustainability rather than economic and financial profit?”

Competences for sustainable development

During the past years, the debate is focusing on the definition of general competences for sustainable development in higher education, also referred to as key competences for sustainability. Competences for sustainable development exist in various forms, definitions, settings and interpretations. Several authors defined these competences, offering knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes, necessary to ensure that graduate students are able to cope with the complexity and uncertainty of sustainability issues. This resulted in multiple sets of competences, stressing the importance of system thinking, future thinking, ethics, values, responsibility, emotional intelligence, action taking.

Furthermore, research has been done to find out in what way these general competences for sustainability are integrated within higher education programs. Results point out that competences related to responsibility, emotional intelligence, ethics and values are well integrated within higher education, while competences related to system thinking, future thinking, personal commitment and taking action are virtually absent. This leads to a growing assumption that the our graduate students did not acquire critical competences to cope with sustainability issues.

New competences require new education models

The acquisition and assessment of competence for sustainability requires different ways of teaching and learning, which focus on experiential learning, reflective learning, participative learning, active learning, creativity, collaboration, problem solving, practice-based learning, transdisciplinary approach and self-regulation.

It is clear that ‘business as usual’ is not an option for higher education. In order to prepare students to cope with complex challenges, take action and achieve sustainable societies, there’s a need to rethink the mission of higher education. Competence-based education offers great opportunities to re-examine and reorient educational systems towards sustainability, thus providing an important lever for sustainable higher education. Special attention needs to be paid to the competences linked with future orientation, system orientation, personal involvement, and action skills. This approach will enable to create the new mental models, and transform the way we interpret and respond to our existing world. Integrating competences for SD could speed up the integration process of sustainability in higher education.

Read more

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


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