You Have a Part to Play: Higher Education for Sustainability


Dr Edwin van Meerkerk

Time frame

September 2022 – August 2025

Project description

Time is running out: the United Nations have set a deadline to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Article 12 of the Paris Agreement attributes an important role to (higher) education, stressing the need “to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information”. The Save Our Future-campaign, supported by a host of companies and NGOs, among which UNESCO, stresses that while the COVID19-pandemic has deepened the divide in education worldwide, making the challenge greater, education is “the solution to the longer-term recovery”.

Not only are universities key players in reaching the SDGs, but our students will face these challenges in their careers, without currently being sufficiently equipped to deal with the great and complex challenges the SDGs present to all fields of work. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last September stated to an audience of Dutch students that he understands the frustration and activism their generation feels with the lack of a sense of urgency in politics; he urged them to take up the cause and to “challenge your leaders, your professors [!]” as their moral duty. We will work with our students to answer that call.

Sustainable Development (SD) is, first of all, a “super-wicked problem” (Yearworth 2015; Cross & Congreve 2020): multifaceted, dynamic, and complex. Wicked problems present us with a reality that refuses to conform to the logic that underlies academic disciplines. Secondly, arts education, is centred on ambiguity and uses creative approaches to find new ways in dealing with such issues (Heijnen & Bremmer 2021). That is why we collaborate with ArtEZ University of the Arts to design and create a new, university-wide approach to Higher Education for Sustainable Development (HESD), making use of “the ability of the arts to render contexts of complexity more legible, generate terrains of action open to seldom-heard voices” (Kuoni et al. 2020).

Thirdly, universities are struggling to deal with the challenges of the SDGs. Whenever one or more of the 17 SDGs feature in a university course it is generally through close connection with the course content. It is no surprise to find a course on diversity  in a BA Development Studies or one on ‘Water, Health and Development’ in a Bio Sciences bachelor’s. However, the SDGs are strongly interconnected: environmental problems (SDG 13) often have economic causes (SDG 8) and social consequences (SDG 5 and 10), while it takes education (SDGF 4), strong institutions (SDG 16), and cooperation (SDG 17) to solve them.

The interconnection of the SDGs calls for an interdisciplinary, whole-institutional approach to HESD (Tejedor, Segalas & Rosas-Casals 2018). This is no easy task, as a recent survey of Application Form Comenius programme Leadership Fellows 2022 4 professionals in the field has shown (Van Meerkerk, Neele & Van Korven 2021). The layered and many-faced nature of the subject calls for a didactic approach that stays clear of lecturing the ‘right’ message, but instead prompts students to take up the challenges of SD from their personal beliefs. Addressing the SDGs also requires a broad approach that acknowledges their interconnection. The UN has named four pillars for achieving the SDGs: social, economic, environmental, and cultural (Yildrim et al. 2019). Research has shown that many attempts at implementing HESD have failed in combining these aspects (Scarff Seatter & Ceulemans 2017). UNESCO for that reason stresses that (H)ESD should focus more on learning than on teaching. And that is precisely what we will do.

The future


Sustainable Development, Interdiscplinarity, Higher Education


Comenius Programme NRO




Dr Edwin van Meerkerk,