The growth we want – Reflections on the 6th University Business Forum from a Sustainability perspective

The University Business Forum (UB Forum), organised by the European Commission, DG Education and Culture, is a (bi-)annual event connecting university, business, and policy representatives. The Sixth UB Forum has been organised in Brussels on the 5th and 6th of March 2015. This edition was dedicated to entrepreneurship issues in higher education, with special focus on teaching, university leadership, institutional change, innovative pedagogies, social innovation and social entrepreneurship.

In this blog post I reflect on some key issues touched upon during the first day of the UB Forum. Having worked on the integration of SD within the university system, it came to my attention that a lot of the discourse could be aligned, however the blurriness of the issues and concepts, and the lack of recognising sustainability as a regulative idea often prevents this.

A first issue is the competence concept. It cannot be denied that there’s a mismatch on the job market. Despite a high amount of educated people with specific skills and competences, and a reasonable amount of jobs on the market, there’s a high level of unemployment and of vacancies which are hard to fill. Business representatives claim that it is hard, if not impossible, to find suitable candidates with the competences and skills they need for the jobs. Furthermore, the markets, companies, products, business models and consumer needs are changing constantly and quickly, and it is highly uncertain what competences and skills will be needed for the jobs in the (near) future, as early as 2030. Higher education is called to act: deliver students with the competences and skills that are needed from the business side. This raises the critical question: which competences and skills do we envision exactly? The discussion is further complicated by the high level of uncertainty: what we think is important today might not be important tomorrow. Looking at competences from a sustainability perspective, a lot of emphasis is put on systems-thinking competences and future-thinking competences, offering opportunities to learn students how to deal with complexity and uncertainty. Rather than focusing on (instrumental) skills which we might think that are needed today and in the future, it might be worthwhile to focus on capabilities to cope with uncertainty, complexity, change, innovation, and solving problems.

A second issue is the growth paradigm. In order to grow, companies need highly talented employees, with the “right” skills and competences. Universities should deliver the conditions in which students are prepared to contribute to this growth, which is typical market driven. Higher education institutions today are indeed aware of their role to contribute to societal development, and are happy to collaborate with business partners, helping them to grow. But this raises the question: which growth do we envision here? If it is solely a growth focused upon the economic bottom line, this growth paradigm might pose a threat to higher education, making it too instrumental. It also denies the reality in society, in which the complexity and uncertainty of sustainability issues requires a focus on the triple bottom line, and take ethical, social and environmental issues in account when operating. As universities have a broad societal role to play, it is recommended to also pay attention to the co-called “soft skills”. From a sustainability perspective in higher education, these soft skills can be found in competences for sustainable development, mainly the ones related to emotional intelligence (e.g. being aware of different perspective and values); interpersonal and collaborative skills (e.g. being accountable towards all stakeholders); and normative aspects (e.g. is what we are doing the right thing to do?).

The blurriness of the discussion is further complicated by the poor use of definitions, or the mixed use of different definitions and interpretations. This is especially the case when it comes to social entrepreneurship. Depending on the definition used on this concept, it might be interpreted differently. For some, social entrepreneurship is the base for a company delivering social products and services, but still with the goal to make profit, thus in essence only focusing on the bottom line. Others point to the typical embedding of social entrepreneurship within social and environmental surroundings, thus focusing on the triple (or multiple) bottom line, and without the goal to maximise profit. The mixed use of these interpretations does not facilitate a thorough dialogue between partners, especially when it comes to embedding (social) entrepreneurship in higher education curricula. Do we want all our students to become entrepreneurs? And if so, how do we want them to operate?

Using sustainable development as a regulatory idea could be a first step in aligning the different discourses, clarifying the blurry discussions and signposting expectations of different stakeholders. A regulatory idea is not a fixed purpose or goal, but rather a reflective notion, providing direction for discourse, discussion and development. It offers the possibility to frame development issues within the bigger picture of sustainability, the triple bottom line, and the ethical dimension connected to these issues, thus leading towards a paradigm shift: from a bottom line growth paradigm towards a sustainability paradigm. It calls upon higher education to keep an eye on societal challenges, listen to business concerns and needs, while ensuring their role as a “critical friend” to society and societal partners. What external stakeholders expect from universities might be plausible for development, but universities should be critical when it comes to which growth, which development and which society they contribute to.

About the author: Wim Lambrechts focuses on the integration of competences for sustainable development and institutional change in higher education. Sharing and referring to the text above is welcome, however please provide the correct reference: Lambrechts, W. (2015). The growth we want – Reflections on the 6th University Business Forum from a Sustainability perspective,, 6 March 2015.

Disclaimer: this blog post reflects the views only of the author, not of the European Commission.


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