A change management perspective on sustainable development in higher education

Worldwide policy initiatives such as the RIO+20 Higher Education Sustainability Initiative and the COPERNICUS Alliance, encourage higher education institutions (HEI) to integrate sustainable development in their curricula, research, societal outreach activities and campus operations. Numerous guidelines, declarations, charters, good practices, models and instruments provide inspiration on how HEIs can integrate SD. Many of these initiatives describe barriers for change, and possibilities on how to overcome them. However, these barriers are often described as very static and isolated elements within an organisation.

Typical examples of barriers are ‘lack of awareness’, ‘lack of money’, or ‘the structure of the organisation that does not allow change’. Describing barriers in such a way omits the typical characteristics of such organisational features, i.e. (1) barriers are not static and can change over time; (2) barriers are not isolated and could influence each other. This is where the change management perspective could enhance our understanding of SD integration in higher education, especially when human factors are focused upon during an integration process.

Looking at sustainable higher education from a change management perspective indeed reveals the complex nature of the institution and the underlying reasons why certain initiatives are taken and others are not. Furthermore, it acknowledges the HEI as a dynamic, changing organisation, in which initiatives are taken in different stages, and in which a multitude of factors are influencing each other. A profound understanding of these human factors in a change process, offers possibilities to tackle barriers for change within the SD integration process in higher education. It is the focus of a newly published article in Journal of Cleaner Production, of which the full reference and abstract are provided below.

Full reference of the article:

Verhulst, E. and Lambrechts, W. (in press). Fostering the incorporation of sustainable development in higher education. Lessons learned from a change management perspective. Journal of Cleaner Production, doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.09.049


In research and literature about integration of sustainable development in higher education, particular attention is given towards barriers for change and critical success factors, mainly with a focus on organisational aspects. Implementation models and integration guidelines are defined in order to guide sustainable development integration in higher education at the level of a single higher education institution. These initiatives look at factors that influence the integration process, however seldom from the perspective of change management and the impact of human factors on organisational change.

This paper studies higher education from the perspective of organisational change management and, more specifically, focuses on analysing the human factors in this process: resistance, communication, empowerment and involvement, and organisational culture. A conceptual model, which links human factors to the sustainable development integration process, is presented. The model structures and supports the analysis of this integration process in a higher education institution. It is applied in a specific case study of a Belgian university college.

The results indicate that the conceptual model helps to get a profound understanding of human related barriers for integrating sustainable development in higher education, as well as to understand the underlying reasons for these barriers and linkages between them in different stages of the integration process. Another main lesson learned is the importance of continuously supporting ambassadors of sustainable development integration in higher education. These and other insights from the case study are valuable for supporting future integration processes in higher education. Next to that, the model supports scholars to study the integration process of sustainable development and gather profound insights on what and why changes happen. This can trigger individual and collective reflexivity on sustainable development in higher education. Future research includes further improvements and application of the model in other cases.


One response to “A change management perspective on sustainable development in higher education

  1. Pingback: Professional Development for Sustainability: the Role of Empowerment | sustainable higher education·

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