Sustainability in higher education requires a different way of thinking

Date of news: 16 June 2022

Radboud University wants all students to learn how they can contribute to sustainability issues as part of their study programme. If you want to seriously address this, you should not be content with a course or a project here and there — perhaps you should change the way students think and work. With his proposal to achieve this, cultural scientist Edwin van Meerkerk (Radboud University) received a Comenius Leadership Fellow grant of 500,000 euros for educational innovation.


If all United Nations member states are to reach, as agreed, the sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030, everyone has work to do. Today's students also need to learn what it takes to reach and maintain the 17 goals. Edwin van Meerkerk believes that, to start with, they must learn that the goals are complex and intrinsically bound to each other. “That is why, for example, it is not enough for a biology student to simply examine an issue such as how we ensure clean fresh water. At the very least, they need be aware that the necessary measures for this impact other development goals. And that to really make an impact you also need lawyers, economists, politicians, people who understand behavioural change, and so on.”

Thinking in a more divergent manner

Complex problems require an approach that uses that complexity as its basis — a different way of working and thinking, which starts with education. That is the core of the proposal “You have a part to play: Higher education for sustainability”, for which Van Meerkerk recently won a Comenius Leadership Fellow grant.
“I often notice that university students are great at ‘argument-structure thinking’. You start by defining the problem, then you come up with arguments and evidence, draw a conclusion, and you're done. Students often approach issues in this way, especially if they have a lot of papers to write in their study programme. However, this approach really only has one format and comes with limitations.”

He knows from an earlier project that creative minds can play a fruitful role in teaching academics to think differently. That is why ArtEZ University of the Arts is also a partner in this project. “Students and lecturers at an art academy approach problems differently from academics. They think in a much more divergent manner. They can sometimes lose themselves in that, but my experience is that their approach breaks open your own way of thinking, as it were. Together with people with knowledge of the subject matter, from different disciplines, you can come up with ideas that can help us even further.”

Real impact on higher education

From the new academic year, Van Meerkerk will start working on his project. He will take a bottom-up approach, in other words: “It starts with conversations with small groups of students and lecturers about topics such as: what are you on Earth for and how does that align with the sustainable development goals? Can you tackle this in your education? Do you see any gaps? Would you like it to be different?”

His two main goals are: to have a real impact on higher education and to develop instruments that other higher education institutions can use to embed sustainability goals into their teaching.
As far as the real impact on higher education is concerned, Van Meerkerk believes that sustainable development goals require a different basic attitude. “It goes beyond a course or a project here and there. You also want students to become aware of the role and responsibility they can have as a professional. You want them to realise where they reach a limit and need others. You want them to break through their own thinking.”

Photo by Joel Fulgencio on Unsplash