In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sustainability in Higher Education

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals and Other Serial Publications
  • Historical Context
  • Sustainability in Higher Education Institutions
  • Disciplinary Approaches
  • Global Developments

Education Sustainability in Higher Education
Matthias Barth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0277


Since sustainable development has emerged as a normative guiding idea at the global level, it has been perceived as a “moving target” that requires deliberation and social learning processes. Consequently, the notion of learning for sustainability figures prominently in both academia and policy, and learning and education are increasingly considered important features in this regard. Education for sustainable development was first introduced in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development and has since developed into a well-established educational field. Additional momentum has been gained through the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014). This is even more so with the ongoing follow-up program “ESD for 2030” in which a direct link to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been made. While the implementation of this vision is supported in all educational sectors, it is higher education that has a key role to play in the overall process of striving for sustainable development. Universities generate and transfer relevant knowledge, as well as enable future change agents to contribute to a sustainable future. In addition, they act in their own organizational practice as a role model and contribute through societal outreach and service. This bibliography contains a selection of papers and volumes on themes discussed in the area of sustainability in higher education. It covers the Historical Context, various areas of universities activities and different disciplinary and regional approaches. Emphasis is given on educational activities and thus the research and practice of teaching and learning on the micro- level (courses) and the macro-level (programs).

General Overviews

The following publications provide introductions and overviews of the emergence and formalization of sustainability in higher education. The ambiguous nature of sustainability in higher education being a challenge and a potential leverage for innovation at the same time was a concept introduced early in the 2000s in Corcoran and Wals 2004. This was followed by Stephen Sterling and colleagues at Plymouth University in the UK being influential in our understanding of the role of sustainability in universities’ teaching and learning (Jones, et al. 2010) as well as our conceptualization of a “sustainable university” with its various areas of activity (Sterling, et al. 2013). Shephard 2015 raised important questions on the role and the legacy of education for sustainable development in higher education. Barth 2015 used various case studies to structure and systematize higher education for sustainable development and argue for multiple roles that universities can and should play. Finally, research in higher education for sustainable development is the focus in Barth, et al. 2016, a handbook aiming for a systematic and comprehensive overview of existing and upcoming research approaches.

  • Barth, M. 2015. Implementing sustainability in higher education: Learning in an age of transformation. Routledge Studies in Sustainable Development. London: Routledge.

    This book examines in-depth case studies of innovative approaches and curriculum changes at multiple levels of the education sector and elaborates on key principles of higher education for sustainable development. By identifying drivers and barriers to implementing sustainability in the curriculum, the book provides a comprehensive overview of how change can be effected.

  • Barth, M., G. Michelsen, M. Rieckmann, and I. Thomas, eds. 2016. Routledge handbook of higher education for sustainable development. London: Routledge.

    This handbook provides a systematic and comprehensive overview of existing and upcoming research approaches for higher education for sustainable development by connecting theoretical aspects of the range of relevant methodologies, showing the interdisciplinary aspects of the research field, and illustrating the breadth of research directions.

  • Corcoran, P. B., and A. E. J. Wals, eds. 2004. Higher education and the challenge of sustainability: Problematics, promise, and practice. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.

    This book provides one of the first systematic overviews of sustainability as both an outcome and a process of learning as well as a catalyst for educational change and institutional innovation in higher education.

  • Jones, P., D. Selby, and S. R. Sterling, eds. 2010. Sustainability education: Perspectives and practice across higher education. London: Earthscan.

    Based on the results of the Higher Education Academy’s Education for Sustainable Development Project and the experience gained at the Centre for Sustainable Futures (CSF) at the University of Plymouth, this edited book reports how universities can support curriculum contributions from a wide range of disciplinary areas aimed at sustainability.

  • Shephard, Kerry. 2015. Higher education for sustainable development. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137548412

    In this monograph Shephard asks how higher education should approach the task of educating for sustainability and elaborates how higher education can contribute to enable students to become critical thinkers.

  • Sterling, S., L. Maxey, and H. Luna, eds. 2013. The sustainable university: Progress and prospects. Routledge Studies in Sustainable Development. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    This edited book outlines progress in the realization of a “sustainable university” based on the experience of some of the leading higher education institutions in the UK. The notion of the sustainable university is explored and pathways through which its potential can be realized are illustrated.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.