Sustainable Development and Universities: Combining the New and the Old

By | February 7, 2015

In this series of four articles written  for the Social Economy in Higher Education project by Sorina Antonescu , the concept of sustainability in relation to higher education institutions is discussed.

In this first article, she starts by discussing the notion of sustainability and sustainable development (SD) from a historical perspective and then breaks it down into more specific information; in the second half of the article she narrows the area of SD further to HEIs and provides a number of reasons as to why they are such an optimal starting point for imbuing a sustainable ethos in their curricula, operations, outreach and research.

In the second article (forthcoming), she outlines and develops on the number of setbacks that universities face in institutionalising sustainability into the aforementioned areas both from the perspective of finance, resources, and the prevalent conservative nature of HEIs in maintaining a traditional modularity and specialisation of subjects that somehow clashes with the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability.

In the third article (forthcoming) she outlines the advantages that HEIs have relative to other institutions in society to take the lead and take the first step towards creating a sustainable mindset that is then mirrored in universities’ policies and practices and explains why they are able to do that.

And in the fourth and final article (forthcoming), she outlines a number of successful attempts based on various case studies and attempts to identify the key factors that would enable HEIs to implement sustainability into their curricula, operations, research and outreach.

Sustainable Development and Universities: Combining the New and the Old

1.      History and overview of sustainability/ sustainable development

One of the most well-known attempts at defining the concept of sustainable development is found in the Bruntland Report (WCED, 1987). The report, which captures the deliberations of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), a United Nations formal group, aims to find ways to systematically pursue the conservation of the environment at an international scale in light of economic, social and political considerations. (Filho, 200o, p.9)

According to the report,

 Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (WCED, 1987, p.16)

The concept of sustainable development is thus a concerted effort to bring together growing concerns on the increasing environmental degradation and interrelated socio-political and economic factors, in order to lay the foundation for a process that links these apparently stand-alone factors to human equity (Hopwood et al., 2005, p.2).

Yet, despite the fact that sustainability or the concept of sustainable development (henceforth SD) permeates the scientific field as a whole (with particular relevance in the earth sciences) the tracing of the concept’s origins remains a challenging task, more so as its wide appeal and applicability to a wide range of societal issues has left it subject to political discourse and rhetoric (Filho, 2000, p.9).

According to Filho (2000, p.9) the use of the concept of sustainability can be traced back to the 1970s to refer to the management of the forestry sector. Sustainability has been synonymous for expressions such as ‘long term’, ‘durable’, ‘sound’ or ‘systematic’ (ibid). However, as Blewitt and Cullingford (2004, p.17) point out,

The problem with the notion of sustainability is that is has become a cliché. Read more >>


Sorina Antonescu is a graduate in English Language and Linguistics from the University of York, with a pervasive and sustained, long-term interest in areas of sustainability and sustainable development, particularly in the context of Higher Education Institutions. Sorina currently works as an independent researcher for the Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists and Engineers (NESSE) where she studies the incorporation of sustainability into science and engineering curricula in UK universities. Sorina is also a former intern at Envirocrew CIC and a past contributing writer for Chemistry Review and NOUSE