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Higher education for sustainability challenges in seeking an inclusive learning environment

In agreeing to consider education as an indispensable aspect of generating cultural change towards sustainable development and in promoting an education for sustainable development (ESD) into transdisciplinary subjects, McGill University adheres to UNESCO’s (2020) call and acknowledges the urgency to act upon the enormous challenges the planet faces. This awareness of the “growing global consensus that inequality is making sustainable development goals unattainable” (Mukherjee, 2017) is an adherence to UNESCO’s ESD for 2030 initiative, which aims to induce the personal and societal change necessary to shift course. Yet, longing to convey the hope embodied into the sustainable development goals (SDG) throughout teaching activities and interactions with students, and the operational redesigning of course outlines within the sustainability perspective, proved to be a challenging task.

On one hand, and despite universities’ key role in integrating ESD in curricula and textbooks, challenging environmental and socio-cultural realities make a contextual grounding of ESD essential. On the other hand, studies have been done to ascertain barrier indicators and improvement strategies even though institutions have their local and national context that could potentially affect the ESD endeavor. Littledyke et al. (2013) summarize in three broad vectors carrying at the same time the obstacles than the ways of addressing them: governance (structures, processes and decision-making), curriculum (learning about and experiencing sustainability) and infrastructure (sustainable practice). At the curriculum level, McGill’s experience, especially the one mainly focusing on incorporating a sustainable development vision into education and outreach activities, has parallels with the sustainability adoption by the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in its official institutional policy. Ceulemans and Severijns (2019) have studied the KU Leuven case related to the educational benefits and challenges of introducing natural science students to on-campus and off-campus sustainability research projects. The course “Science and Sustainability” as a stand-alone course was running for two years at the time the study was conducted. Several tools, including dedicated questionnaires offered to all participating students, were used to monitor the impact of the course on students’ mindset about sustainability. The data analysis highlights a positive impact on students’ attitude towards sustainability, but also indicates that exact science background students relate with difficulty their scientific-analytical and goal-oriented approach to sustainability as a value-driven aspiration. Multiple feedback and discussion sessions were necessary to help students rely on other than technical and environmental aspects of sustainability.

In light of initiatives for responsible management education and in response to a demand to form business leaders concerned with sustainability issues, Singh and Segatto (2020) analyzed the most important challenges faced by business schools and higher education institutions when implementing ESD. The authors state that for an effective ESD implementation, “institutional strategies, curricular changes, teaching and learning practices, professional associations are needed, as well as considering the campus as a teaching laboratory” (p. 265). They also recognize the importance of dealing with challenges, such as cultural differences, the training of change agents, the institutional and curricular structure, methodologies and teaching approaches, resource allocation, and measurement of ESD impact. Lack of teaching paths other than the top-down paths and difficulties to strengthen relationships with stakeholders are also pointed out as major obstacles in achieving an effective implementation of ESD in business schools.

In the wake of the anthropogenic environmental change, medical educators also need to prepare doctors to deal with the struggles they and their patients will confront in the coming decades. Nonetheless, a study conducted recently by Bevan et al. (2023) suggests that a substantial variation exists in medical education and in the depth of coverage of the planetary health and sustainability issues. All the programs in which a complete course had been taught by the end of 2021 in medical schools registered under the General Medical Council were eligible to participate in the study. However, only data collected from undergraduate courses was analyzed due to other programs’ insufficient evidence. The results show that medical students in the UK finish their studies with a disparate knowledge and sometimes with an out-of-date sense of the importance of sustainability topics. The authors, citing research by Omrani et al. (2020), bring up the findings of an international survey of medical students where only 11% of almost 3000 medical schools provide any formal planetary health education for sustainable healthcare.

Of all the challenges ESD has to overcome, exclusion of people because of their gender, race, indigenous identity, and sexual orientation is a plague and an impediment to social coherence. Sachs (2015) states that “sustainable development targets three broad goals for society: economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability” and thinks that “the goal of social inclusion is unfinished business in almost all parts of the world” (p. 219). In this vein, Mukherjee (2017) recommends a bottom-up model of education that “can organically emerge within specific contexts led by community needs, youth social action and supportive school leadership” (p.545). According to Mukherjee (2017), the conceptualization of the school’s distinct philosophy of involvement has to target the education of students’ “hearts and minds” in order to make them “active stakeholders in the education and empowerment of their less privileged peers for equality and sustainable development” (p. 536). To do so, the higher education contribution to SDG can target goals associated with inclusivity such as goal 3 “well-being,” goal 5 “gender equality,” and goal 10 “reducing inequalities.” In the meanwhile, in their attempt of preparing students for society and the work environment of the 21st century, higher education actors discerning the impact of inclusivity on their success, they look to answer the emerging questions in the field on how to track inclusivity and evaluate its impact and its evolution. Most of the measurements of inclusivity use questionnaires similar to the tools designed by organizations and recruitment firms focusing on top management and employees. Standing out is Jaegler’s (2022) inclusivity index adapted to higher education and developed in a broader view in terms of stakeholders and dimensions. Stakeholders are students, employees, alumni, and partners. Dimensions are based on a French legal framework that defines 25 discrimination criteria grouped into 4 main areas: social openness, identity, gender, and disability. Figure 1 represents the inclusivity model of stakeholders and dimensions within the overall context as a perimeter.

Figure 1: Jaegler’s inclusivity model

Note: Figure 2, Sustainability 2022, 14(14), 8278; https://doi.org/10.3390/su14148278. © 2022 Anicia Jaegler. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 4.0).

Finally, the deployment of UNESCO’s ESD for 2030 initiative does not necessarily involve going through the challenges aforementioned. It’s also not related to measuring whether the level of inclusion of the course is appropriate enough. It’s rather a path crossed by mixed feelings—sometimes of pride of accomplishing the shift and overcoming the difficulties; sometimes of guilt of not having been keen enough to detect the shortcomings in choosing the proper assessment tools or in applying the right measurement indicators. One thing is certain though. The commitment toward an ESD leaves no doubt about the continued hope of transforming the education system and reshaping the higher education role.


Bevan, J., Blyth, R., Russell, B., Holtgrewe, L., Cheung, A. H. C., Austin, I., Shah, V., Butler, M., & Fraser, S. (2023). Planetary health and sustainability teaching in UK medical education: A review of medical school curricula. Medical Teacher, 45(6), 623‑632.

Ceulemans, G., & Severijns, N. (2019). Challenges and benefits of student sustainability research projects in view of education for sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 20(3), 482‑499.

Jaegler, A. (2022). How to measure inclusion in higher education: An inclusive rating. Sustainability, 14(14), 8278.

Littledyke, M., Manolas, E., & Littledyke, R. A. (2013). A systems approach to education for sustainability in higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 14(4), 367‑383.

Mukherjee, M. (2017). Educating the heart and the mind: Conceptualizing inclusive pedagogy for sustainable development. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 49(5), 531‑549.

Sachs, J. D. (2015). The age of sustainable development. Columbia University Press.

Singh, A. S., & Segatto, A. P. (2020). Challenges for education for sustainability in business courses: A multicase study in Brazilian higher education institutions. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 21(2), 264‑280.

UNESCO. (2020). Education for sustainable development for 2030 toolbox. UNESCO.

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A sustainable supply chain professional with an experience in the manufacturing and service fiels, more specifically in the energy sector. A higher education teacher and researcher; responsibilities in curricula management, revision and development, as well as their implementation and evaluation.

A sustainable supply chain professional with an experience in the manufacturing and service fiels, more specifically in the energy sector. A higher education teacher and researcher; responsibilities in curricula management, revision and development, as well as their implementation and evaluation.

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