Higher Education for Sustainable Development: adding the philosophical perspective of John Dewey and Martha Nussbaum

Mission accomplished. Two years and 9 months after I officially started working on my PhD, I defended my work successfully at the Department of Philosophy, University of Antwerp, Belgium. The work included in my PhD started of course a lot earlier, as I carried personal research and educational experiences over the years and incorporated these in my PhD. Working on a PhD outside my regular job was a challenge, and I must say it is a pleasure to be able to say “I did it”, with a sigh of relief, and also already with a bit of reminiscence about the time I was working towards the big moment of the defense.


Lambrechts, W. (2016). Higher Education for Sustainable Development. Interlinking Sustainability Competences and Research Competences in an Organisational Change Context. PhD Dissertation, University of Antwerp, Belgium.

My PhD is entitled “Higher Education for Sustainable Development. Interlinking Sustainability Competences and Research Competences in an Organisational Change Context”. It has been focusing on two specific topics in the field of Higher Education for Sustainable Development (HESD): competences for sustainability on the one hand, and organisational change processes on the other. The introduction of new approaches (e.g. competence-based education) is often combined with old conservative systems, which are hard to change. However, systematic change is exactly what is needed when it comes to HESD, and it appears to be very difficult to foster this change.

Both topics and the wider field of HESD have been framed within a philosophical perspective, more specifically educational philosophy. This philosophical framing has resulted in a better theoretical grounding, and offers further steps to develop the field. The writings of John Dewey provide a theoretical framework on the role of education in democracy. Martha Nussbaum reconnects to Dewey’s legacy, and adds a contemporary voice to the debate, framing education for democratic citizenship in current global issues, especially economic influences.

Both Dewey and Nussbaum point towards the need for more critical capabilities oriented towards initiative, inventiveness and imagination. Again, in the context of sustainability, the interlinking with research competences and information literacy is essential, however poorly operationalized. It is oriented towards an instrumental approach of being critical, but only within a given framework, while the systemic context is not part of the critical analysis. The importance of information literacy, and the flaws in its integration, is linked to Dewey’s call that complex problems in society require more intelligence of its citizens.

Dewey foresaw an important role for science and technology in society, oriented towards improvement. He reflects on the question how much science and technology have contributed to the ability to cope with ‘the problems of men and women today’. This question can be posed in a contemporary sustainability context as well: however technological processes have led to a better monitoring and handling of environmental resources, the question still remains if citizens are truly able to cope with the complexity and uncertainty of wicked problems. Dewey pointed towards the importance of cooperative and collective intelligence, in a contemporary context we might add the importance of systemic and future-oriented intelligence.

The full text of my PhD will be available soon. It consists of 6 chapters:

  • Chapter 1. A philosophical perspective on higher education for sustainable development.
  • Chapter 2. The integration of competences for sustainable development in higher education: an empirical analysis of bachelor programs in management.
  • Chapter 3. Sustainability assessment in higher education: evaluating the use of the auditing instrument for sustainability in higher education (AISHE) in Belgium.
  • Chapter 4. Fostering the incorporation of sustainable development in higher education. Lessons learned from a change management perspective.
  • Chapter 5. The interrelations between competences for sustainable development and research competences.
  • Chapter 6. Conclusion.

My gratitude goes out to my supervisors Prof. dr. Luc Van Liedekerke (University of Antwerp) and Prof. dr. Peter Van Petegem (University of Antwerp), as well as the members of my doctoral commission, Prof. dr. Luc Braeckmans (University of Antwerp), Prof. dr. Hendrik Opdebeeck (University of Antwerp), Prof. dr. Sandra Caeiro (Universidade Aberta, Portugal), Prof. dr. Vincent Blok (Wageningen University, The Netherlands) and Prof. dr. Walter Leal Filho (Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Germany).


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