Paris, August 1998

Original English




Thematic Debate



Preparing for a Sutainable Future: Higher Education and Sustainable Human Development "


Leader: The United Nations University (UNU)


Drafted by: Prof. Hans van Ginkel

Rector, UNU




in collaboration with:






The draft document was submitted for comments to a large number of Organizations. Comments were received from:



  1. International Council of Nurses (ICN)
  2. World Federation for Medical Education (WFME)
  3. World Business Council for Sustainable Development
  4. UNEP – "State of the Environment Reporting Programme
  5. UNESCO – Transdisciplinary Project (EPD)
  6. UNDP – Bureau for Development Policy
  7. Inter-university Conference on Agricultural and Related Science in Europe (ICA)
  8. Soroptimist International
  9. International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI)
  10. Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research
  11. Association of Universities of Asia and the Pacific (AUAP)
  12. Association of European Universities (CRE)
  13. Association of University Departments of Environmental Sciences in Europe (auDes)
  14. Global Organization of Students for Environmental Action (GOSEA)




The World Conference on Higher Education seeks to ensure that higher education will be capable of responding to the needs of society in the 21st Century. As a part of the World Conference, the Thematic Debate on " Preparing for a Sustainable Future: Higher Education and Sustainable Human Development " will help to focus on the role of higher education in preparing new generations for a sustainable future. The paper preparing the ground for the Thematic Debate is based on the arguments and outcomes of debates held in and among universities in various settings over the past decade, as well as work done by the United Nations subsequent to the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992.


The paper reviews the emerging concepts of " sustainable human development " noting that sustainable development is not a fixed notion, but rather a process of change in the relationships between social, economic and natural systems and processes. These interrelationships present a challenge to us in reconciling economic and social progress with safeguarding the global life support systems. This challenge relates then to the role of universities, and all institutions of higher education, in increasing our understanding of the issues at stake and calls for them to lead and develop consistent future scenarios and to increase awareness of problems and solutions in their educational programmes. It also draws attention to the need for universities to take the lead in setting good examples themselves at the local and regional levels.


The focus of the paper is on " higher " education and sustainable human development, not education in general. It asks a number of specific questions on how inter-disciplinary and collaborative research and education programmes can best be encouraged, how networks of interdisciplinary discourse can be promoted and how staff and students can be encouraged to have an " environmental " perspective in whatever field of study they are engaged. The paper describes the emerging role of universities in refining the concept and key messages of education for sustainable development, integrating environmental, demographic, economic, social and a range of other concerns inherent in the complex notion of sustainability. Key to the success of universities to re-orient their research programmes and curricula is their capacity for flexible interdisciplinary cooperation and to collaborate with institutions outside the university. Changing the way people operate, strengthening their " inner drive " to contribute to sustainable development is seen as more important than changes in higher education at the system level.


In addition to setting out the key issues to be discussed during the thematic debate, the paper elaborates a strategy for future action with six key actions to be undertaken to close the gap between theory and practice, ideals and reality in preparing coming generations for a sustainable future.


Table of Contents


 1. Introduction................................................................................................................................... 3


2. Sustainable Human Development................................................................................................. 4


3. Universities: Intellectual Powerhouses.......................................................................................... 6


4. Higher Education and the Sustainable Development Debate........................................................ 8


5. Unruly Reality: Core of the Thematic Debate...............................................................................11


6. Re-orienting Higher Education.................................................................................................... 13


7. Strategy for Future Action............................................................................................................ 15



Annex 1: Background Documents............................................................................................….... 17


Annex 2: Commission on Sustainable Development, Sixth Session

20 April to May 1998, Final Document.........................................................................… 18






"the key to sustainable, self-reliant development is education – education that reaches out to all members of society, through new modalities and new technologies in order to provide life-long learning opportunities for all. …. We must be ready, in all countries, to reshape education so as to promote attitudes and behaviour conducive to a culture of sustainability." (Federico Mayor, Director-General of UNESCO, June 1997 



1. Introduction


The World Conference on Higher Education aims high. Re-"thinking", even the re-"creation" of higher education, to ensure that it will be capable of responding to the needs of society in the 21st century, is the ultimate aim. Not what "is", but what "should be" will be the core of the discussions. Not only the directions to go should be indicated, aims, hopes and recommendations should be expressed, but also clear action plans should be formulated.

Such a system of higher education, one that fits the needs of society in the 21st century we will be entering soon, must be much broader than the concept of the traditional research university allows. The differentiation of the system of higher education is already an important trend in many countries, if not even a fact in some. But it will become universal. Universal, because higher education around the world will have to cater for increasingly heterogeneous groups of students. Heterogeneous in cultural backgrounds, motivation, age and experience, aims, job perspectives, etc.


Higher education institutions will – as a consequence – have to differ in the ways and degrees in which they combine teaching, training and research, transfer innovations and innovative thoughts into applications and to society as well as in the ways in which they stimulate their students to study, to search for knowledge. Therefore, they will differ in the content and structure of their programmes and the ways in which these are delivered, as well as the preparation and the profile of their teaching staff: their educators and tutors. Together these institutions, in whatever form and combination, often explicable only by culturally diverse historical processes, will have to provide the broad spectre of study facilities that can cater for an increasingly differentiated demand.


What, however, will not change is the necessity that these institutions will have to prepare new generations for the future. A future that, nowadays, is quickly and vastly changing like never before. Such a perspective should, however, not be seen as frightening, but as a challenge instead. It is a time for change to enter a new stage of humankind in which many of the ambitions on peace and progress of people around the world as these were laid down in the Charter of the United Nations, could be realized, if the opportunities are taken well. To prepare new generations for such a challenge, to empower them to make a difference, is an exciting task for all who are directly involved in or concerned with higher education today.


This paper serves to introduce the thematic debate on the role of higher education in preparing new generations for a sustainable future. It is based on the arguments and outcomes of debates held in and among universities in various settings over the last decade, as well as work done by the United Nations, its organizations and agencies since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In particular, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and UNESCO’s Transdisciplinary Project "Educating for a Sustainable Future" acting as the CSD’s task manager for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 on "Education, Public Awareness and Training" have contributed importantly to a clear and focused approach to our topic. This paper sets out the issues at stake and the focus of the debate.




  1. Sustainable Human Development

    Recently, the Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan (1998), introduced the challenges of the New Global Era, with the following words:

    "At both the international and national levels, fundamental forces are reshaping patterns of social organization, structures of opportunities and constraints, objects of aspiration, and sources of fear. Globalization envelops the world even as fragmentation and the assertion of differences are on the rise. Zones of peace expand while outbursts of horrific violence intensify; unprecedented wealth is being created but large pockets of poverty remain endemic; the will of the people and their integral rights are increasingly both celebrated and violated; science and technology enhance human life at the same time as their by-products threaten planetary life-support systems."…..

    The United Nations University may have been early, when it appointed in 1976 the first Vice-Rector for "Human and Social Development" and included global life support-systems as one of the major topics in its research programmes, soon after. The concept of human development and the related concept of human security have, however, gained widespread interest and acclaim since UNDP's trail-blazing Human Development Report was first published in 1993. Indeed, important changes have taken place in the period of time in between. In particular the end of the era of super-power rivalry and military confrontation has unleashed an unprecedented number and variety of international transformation processes of economic and political, but also of social and cultural nature. Globalization, introduced as an economic concept, has now become understood in a much broader sense as a forceful, overarching process that, indeed, penetrates into all different aspects of life and society. It offers great opportunities for sustained welfare and well being, but poses also numerous policy challenges. Those are related to the inherent risks created by financial markets lacking critical regulatory safeguards, as well as by a lack of or inadequate understanding of long-term development and interests of humans/people. Both, in developing as well as developed countries, it has become fully clear that the state, although not a creator of wealth itself, has critical roles to play in providing an enabling environment for sustainable development. The 1997 World Development Report of the World Bank shows clearly how crucial an effective "State" is in this regard. It is becoming, however, an ever more complex task to find an appropriate balance, in particular, where civil society is weak and transnational forces overpowering.


    One of the crucial roles the "State" has to play is to ensure human security on the local, national and - in cooperation - within regional associations and the United Nations on the regional and global levels. To ensure human security without which sustainable human development will not be possible. Our sustainable future will depend strongly on the ways in which we successfully can link up the spheres of daily (social) life at the individual and local level and that of economic life on the regional and global level. This is particularly true in a time in which a remarkable revolution in information and communication technology permits high volume and high quality real-time voice and data transmissions. Under such circumstances:


    "the adjective global refers less to a place than to a space defined

    by electronic flows and a state of mind" ….. (Kofi Annan 1998)


    Sustainable human development, however, is not only based on economy, organization and communication. Fundamental to a sustainable future is to ensure the proper use and stewardship of the heritage that was given to humankind in the form of the earth. This earth does not only provide us with the firm ground we live on and the natural resources we use in a great variety of production and consumption processes, but also the air we breathe and the water we drink. More than anything else our common earth represents a public interest and shared responsibility. Shared not only here or at a specific place, as water and air move freely - shared also, not only now or in a specific time period, as what we use now - in particular of depletable resources - will not be available for future generations.


    UNESCO in its background paper for the International Conference on "Environment and Society: Education and Public Awareness for Sustainability" (Thessaloniki, 1997) identified some important and interrelated factors contributing to the rising concerns over "sustainability" among people around the world. These range from the rapid growth and changing distribution of the world’s population, via the persistence of widespread poverty and environmental degradation to the very notion of "development" itself: what it has come to mean and how it is measured.


    As a consequence of its multi-dimensional character, sustainable development has been variously defined and described. The concept was for the first time indicated in Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment:


    ….."Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment of present and future generations."


    The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in the Principles 1 and 3 stated in the same line, stressing more the right to development:


    ……"Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature."

    ……"The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations."


    These formulations link clearly human rights and environmental protection recognizing human rights as a fundamental goal and environmental protection as an essential means to achieve the "adequate conditions" for a "life of dignity and well-being" that are guaranteed. The links between human rights and the environment may be viewed deriving from the fact that human health and existence, legally protected as the right to health and the right to life, are dependent upon environmental conditions.


    The concept of sustainable development was launched in l987 by the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the "Brundtland Report"). There it was defined as:

    "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" and as "a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations."



    Sustainable development is not a fixed notion, but rather a process of change in the relationships between social, economic and natural systems and processes. UNESCO continues in the publication mentioned above as follows (page 13):


    ….."Perhaps the most widely used definitions focus on the relationship between social development and economic opportunity, on the one hand, and the requirements of the environment on the other: i.e., on improving the quality of life for all, especially of the poor and deprived, within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems. This does not necessarily set fixed limits on "development," but rather recognizes that the prevailing notions and definitions of development must themselves evolve in relation to changing requirements and possibilities.


    …..sustainability calls for a dynamic balance among many factors, including the social, cultural and economic requirements of humankind and the imperative need to safeguard the natural environment of which humanity is a part. What is sought is the condition of "human security" for all people."…..


    The transformation processes indicated in the foregoing paragraphs, have intensified the global environmental interdependencies. Hence, the importance of the Agenda 21 process, officially started at the UNCED in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. There the international community endorsed the concept of sustainable development as the key to reconcile economic and social progress, while safeguarding the planet's ecosystems. The intense public interest in the recent Kyoto Conference (1997) of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change provided a good illustration of the widespread support for sustainable development. The progress since Rio, however, has been disappointing so far; with a few exceptions like the initiatives to implement the Local Agenda 21. The discussions in Kyoto also illustrated that there exists still much uncertainty as to what actions exactly will have to be taken, to which levels we will have to rise to meet the challenges posed to us and also how to share common responsibilities in a just manner.


    It is here that there is a major responsibility for universities, indeed all the institutions of higher education, preparing new generations for a sustainable future. There is a need to increase our understanding of the issues at stake. Through their reflection and fundamental research they should not only warn or even alarm, but also work out sound solutions. They should also take the lead and show possible ways to go by developing consistent future scenarios. They should also increase awareness of problems and solutions in their educational programmes and set good examples themselves. 



  3. Universities: Intellectual Powerhouses



This debate will focus on Higher Education and Sustainable Human Development; not on education in general. What, then, has sustainable development to do with higher education, in particular the universities? The answer of David L. Johnston, then Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University in Canada and Member of the IAU Administrative Board at the IAU 9th Roundtable, Kyoto, Japan (19 November 1993) was extremely clear:



….."Everything, I would agree, because universities are uniquely equipped to lead the way. By their special mission in teaching and training the leaders of tomorrow; by their rich and increasingly extensive experience in conducting transdisciplinary research and thereby overcoming traditional boundaries between discipline-based departments, and by their fundamental nature as engines of knowledge, universities have a major role to play in a world whose national boundaries are dissolving daily into ever-smaller regional entities. In fact, "major role" is understanding. The universities have an indispensable role."…..


The university leaders present at this Roundtable concluded that universities have a unique contribution to make, a contribution implicit and utterly in keeping with their mission of advancing learning through research and teaching. At the heart of any effort to understand and promote sustainable development are four key elements:



This unique contribution, however, is not self-evident. Specific action plans will be required, when universities are prepared to play this leading role. The Draft Action Plan for Individual Universities of IAU (Kyoto, 1993) e.g., states that to this end each university, in its own action plan, should strive:


  1. to make an institutional commitment to the principle and practice of sustainable development within the academic milieu and to communicate the commitment to its students, its employees and to the public at large;
  2. to promote sustainable consumption practices in its own operations;
  3. to develop the capacities of its academic staff to teach environmental literacy;
  4. to encourage among both staff and students an environmental perspective, whatever the field of study;
  5. to utilize the intellectual resources of the university to build strong environmental education programmes;
  6. to encourage interdisciplinary and collaborative research programmes related to sustainable development as part of the institution's central mission and to overcome traditional barriers between disciplines and departments;
  7. to emphasize the ethical obligations of the immediate university community - current students, faculty and staff - to understand and defeat the forces that lead to environmental degradation, North-South disparities, and inter-generational
  8. inequities; to work at ways that will help its academic community, and the graduates, friends and governments that support it, to accept these ethical obligations;

  9. to promote interdisciplinary networks of environmental experts at the local, national and international level in order to disseminate knowledge and to collaborate on common environmental projects in both research and education;
  10. to promote the mobility of staff and students as essential to the free trade of knowledge;
  11. to forge partnerships with other sectors of society in transferring innovative and appropriate technologies that can benefit and enhance sustainable development practices.


To become really successful and become true intellectual powerhouses in this field, universities will have to pay specific attention to the internal drive in university life of students and staff; of teachers, tutors and researchers. Universities are in the first place centres of knowledge – not training schools, but places of critical thinking and scientific development. That is what justifies their teaching offer. And science is not motionless, a kind of pool of accepted ideas academics can draw from to provide a consensual lesson for the world to act on environmental matters. There is no consensus – neither in scientific nor in political terms. This is not due to a lack of debates but, more so to the inner drive of science development that cannot be planned and organized. Hence, the ups and downs of the climate debate, for instance.


However, the facts are firmly on the table and sufficiently clear to choose for a cautious course. Conviction is needed here. Conviction needed to move on from the stages of knowing (savoir) and being able (pouvoir) to the stages of wanting (vouloir) and daring (oser)….to act.


True leadership is wanted here to move in the direction of active participation in bringing about the desired changes:


  1. to encourage inter-disciplinary and collaborative research and education programmes;
  2. to promote inter-disciplinary networks of environmental experts at the local, national and international level;
  3. to encourage among both staff and students an environmental perspective whatever the field of study;
  4. to emphasize the ethical obligations.




  1. Higher Education and the Sustainable Development Debate


Universities, indeed all institutions of higher education, have become increasingly aware of the role they do have to play in preparing new generations for a sustainable future. Since the late 1980s, (the "Brundtland Report, 1987") and increasingly after Rio’s Earth Summit, they tried to define and also to implement their roles in education for a sustainable future. To this end, they have at different times and places drafted and adopted ambitious declarations in which they have formulated the major principles and aims for the reform process into which they are prepared to engage themselves. A few early examples are the:



(For an overview of these declarations: see background document 2).


Indeed, universities are increasingly called upon to play a leading role in developing an inter-/trans-/disciplinary and ethically-oriented form of education in order to devise solutions for the problems linked with sustainable development. They must, therefore, commit themselves to an on-going process of informing, educating, and mobilizing all the relevant parts of society concerning the consequences of ecological degradation, including its impact on global development and the conditions needed to ensure a sustainable and just world.


Among all institutions of higher education there exists a strong feeling of responsibility with regard to their role in preparing new generations for a sustainable future. More than 200 universities from 42 countries are now members of the Talloires Group; almost 250 signed the CRE-Copernicus Charter. Of course, their arguments for this are also very pragmatic: at no time in history has there been a greater need for a well-educated, skilled and motivated work force, community and citizens. This is true for two reasons: (1) the highly competitive nature of today's global economy, and most importantly, (2) the growing realization that economic progress, both in developed and developing countries, must be based on the principles of sustainable development.

The universities involved share the conviction that economic progress and environmental protection are irrevocably linked. The one cannot be had without the other. One way to assure that this relationship is understood could be by incorporating environmental issues into the general education system - both in formal education and in corporate training programmes. In this context, it is unhelpful to think of environmental education as a separate category - the true world need is for better basic education. In fact the need for general environmental scientists is limited. The conferences of the Association of University Departments of Environmental Studies (auDes) have made quite clear that we will probably need more the different environmental specialists in, among others, environmental law, resource economics, environmental chemistry, environmental medicine, toxicology and engineering. A good illustration here is the need to prepare future medical doctors to inform and teach the public on questions of environmental consequences. Probably, the most important contribution of environmental scientists could be in the "greening" of curricula, by which in disciplinary curricula due attention is given to related environmental aspects. The most urgent need is to set good examples in ongoing activities. Starting with "greening the campus" and particularly focussing also on setting good examples in the practicals and research laboratories as well as paying due attention to choosing research topics and methods.


In line with their growing conviction that economic progress and environmental protection are irrevocably linked, the universities gradually shifted their focus from the environment to sustainable (human) development. They paid, among others, specific attention to the need of direct transfer of knowledge to developing countries. This is also the orientation that has been chosen by the World Commission on Sustainable Development, while preparing a work programme, which has to "refine the concept and key messages of education for sustainable development" and in so doing to integrate environmental, demographic, economic, social and a range of other concerns inherent in the complex notion of sustainability. This work programme (Table 1) outlines the priorities for action by the United Nations system, and by UNESCO in particular as the specialized agency in the UN system for education and science and as a "task manager" for Principle 36 of Agenda 21, as well as by governments, NGOs, including organizations in higher education, major groups and the private sector.


Since the Rio Earth Summit (1992), a new international consensus has emerged concerning the critical role of education in achieving sustainable development. Principle 36, one of the forty Principles in Agenda 21, concerns "promoting education, public awareness and training", while in Rio there was unanimous agreement among developed and developing countries alike that education is "critical for promoting sustainable development and increasing the capacity of the people to address environment and development issues."


The scope of Principle 36 is extremely broad, ranging from formal education systems at all levels, vocational training and development of the workforce to education in agriculture and health care, adult education and communication about environment and development. Principle 36 also emphasizes that basic education is a prerequisite to environmental and development education, and remains a priority for many countries of the world, linked to the overall effort to combat poverty.


Principle 36 is divided into three "programme" areas:

- Reorienting education towards sustainable development;

- Increasing public awareness; and


It is a "cross sectoral" principle and therefore seen as linked to virtually all other areas of Agenda 21.





Table 1: Work Programme of the Commission on Sustainable Development: Education, Public Awareness and Training




Priorities Agreed Upon by the CSD

Key Actors Cited by the CSD


Develop a broad international alliance,

Taking into account past experience and

Promoting networks

UNESCO as task manager, in

partnership with UNEP, IUCN

and other key institutions


Integrate implementation of recommendations concerning education, public awareness and training in the action plans of the major UN conferences and conventions

UN system, Governments,

major groups


Advise on how education and training can be integrated into national educational policies

UNESCO, in co-operation with

other governmental and non-

governmental organizations


Refine the concept and key messages of education for sustainable development



Advance education and training at national level

Governments, with assistance from the UN system and others


Provide financial and technical support

Developed countries, international organizations, private sector


Develop new partnership arrangements among different sectors of society. Exploit the new communications technologies. Take into account cultural diversity

Educators, scientists, Governments, NGOs, business and industry, youth, the media, other major groups


Work in partnership with youth

Governments and all relevant stakeholders


Analyze current investments in education

Bretton Woods institutions


Take the preliminary results of the work programme on Chapter 36 into account in the 1997 review

Secretary-General of the United Nations


Make relevant linkages with the CSD programme of work on changing production and consumption patterns

UN system, Governments, NGOs


(CSD, 1996)

At the heart of the new international consensus is a new vision of education and public awareness as the essential underpinning for sustainable development, a linchpin to support advances in other spheres, such as science, technology, legislation and production. Education is being redesigned in terms of how to prepare people for life: job security and employability, the demands of a rapidly changing society, technological changes that now directly or indirectly affect every part of life; and, ultimately, the quest for happiness, well-being and quality of life. Education is therefore being redefined as a lifelong process that needs to be not merely readjusted, but restructured and reformed according to new requirements. The World Conference on Higher Education is designed to develop the "Vision and Actions" needed to support this process. One of the requirements is the goal of sustainable development, an overarching concept that has broad implications for curricula at all levels of education. The thematic debate "Preparing for a Sustainable Future: Higher Education and Sustainable Human Development" tries to identify the visions and actions needed to ensure improved performance of Higher Education in this field. In doing this, it should contribute to the work programme of the Commission on Sustainable Development (See Table 1, para.6, and Annex 2).




  1. Unruly Reality: Core of the Thematic Debate


The evaluation five years after the Rio Earth Summit in the United Nations (1997) of accomplishments in the field of Agenda 21 was not favourable. Certainly, the universities have not done better. Good intentions and elaborated visions may not have been lacking, but the implementation in an unruly reality has proved to be difficult. Two years after almost 250 universities signed the University Charter for Sustainable Development, few European universities could show real progress in the implementation (Leal Filho, et al., 1996). In his contribution to the IAU 4th Mid-term Conference (Bangkok 1997) Carl Einar Stålvant, CRE-Copernicus co-ordinator, titled "Universities as actors in sustainable development" comes also to the conclusion that many universities seem not to have lived up to the levels of their ambitions. The "inner drive" to contribute among staff and students in daily university life seems not yet strong enough. From the student side, however, this might already be changing. The establishment of the Global Organization of Students for Environmental Action (GOSEA) is an encouraging sign.


Stålvant is disregarding the limited success thus far, convinced that the Charter provides a focal point for university activities in the midst of a large amount of other activities and that it is this what makes the charter useful. To support his view, he listed a series of institutional mechanisms that have been put in place in recent years and hold the promise of more effective actions in the near future in the field of environmental care and housekeeping. In Barcelona University, e.g. a vice-rector has been assigned to perform this wide-ranging task.


Sincere engagement of the university leadership is essential. In many cases, however, true commitment and continuity and consistency in actions on the part of the students have also proved to be effective. Often, however, the increasingly larger numbers of students, the teaching "load", financial problems, lack of time and adequate facilities are given as arguments why actions were postponed. Others blame the lack of strong competition between universities, the governance structure of universities, the overly strong disciplinary character and ill-fated academic reward-system for the lack of action.


Against the aforementioned background it seems appropriate to focus the thematic debate not so much on visions: these do already exist, even quite elaborate ones. There is much more need to focus on the reality, the difficulties in implementing all the beautiful ideas. One of the difficulties being that research has not yet produced all the required technical, economic and social solutions for the implementation of ideas and ideals. The discussion could therefore focus on:


  1. how to bring environmental concerns and hopes in a more sound relation
  2. with the concerns and hopes regarding human development?

  3. what are the most important reasons for the slow and often lacking implementation of the well-developed visions in this area?
  4. in which ways and with what kind of instruments could the process of implementation be energized and the "inner drive" strengthened?
  5. in particular: how could the interaction between higher education institutions and society-at-large be strengthened to promote more forcefully the desired sustainable human development? And to start with: in their own "local" environment?


The first question focusses on a balanced integration of ecological, technological, economic and socio-cultural components of sustainable development. To develop the argument and to see how this could be implemented in curricula and research, a world conference is particularly appropriate as it will ask for contributions from, among others, developed and developing countries as well as from countries in the transition phase.


The second and third questions are strongly related and are based upon the underlying questions:


  1. How can we stimulate universities to re-design their education and research "to deliver green graduates" in the same way we asked the private and public sectors to improve their products and policy some two decades ago?
  2. How can we stimulate the private and public sectors as employers to require certain knowledge and skills of graduates to green their products and services, what will challenge students and universities?
  3. How can we stimulate that "green universities" will more and more directly profit from their investments?


Having answered these questions, universities should address topics like:


The last question focusses on the relations of higher education institutions with the outside world. In the different university declarations mentioned, three aspects are stressed:


  1. Re-orienting Higher Education


Since the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) adopted the Work Programme on Education, Public Awareness and Training (Table 1), much work has been done to "refine the concept and key messages of education for sustainable development." In particular, UNESCO has contributed as task manager for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 through its Transdisciplinary Project "Educating for a Sustainable Future." The development of ideas resulted eventually in the preparatory document "Educating for a Sustainable Future – A Transdisciplinary Vision for Concerted Action." This document was written in preparation of the International Conference on "Environment and Society: Education and Public Awareness for Sustainability" (Thessaloniki, 8-12 December 1997). These ideas served as input for the discussions on Chapter 36 in the Sixth Session of CSD from 20 April to 1 May this year. Annex 2 comprises the final texts of this session on Chapter 3 (Education, Public Awareness and Training) and Chapter 4 (Science for Sustainable Development). In these texts, the CSD explicitly calls upon the World Conference on Higher Education:



The CSD in its Sixth Session also, among others:


Many of the recommendations are clearly focussing on cooperation, creating synergy and exchanging information. These can be implemented in a balanced and pragmatic action plan. (See section 7, below.) The challenge of how to promote and strengthen an interdisciplinary approach in university curricula and research agendas for a sustainable future, however, is of a different nature. So is the need to improve the processes of generating, sharing and utilizing science for sustainable development and for more action-oriented interdisciplinary research with greater focus on prevention and early identification of emerging problems and opportunities, as well as the necessity to carefully redesign effective processes of knowledge-sharing between universities, schools, NGOs, public institutions and enterprises in developed and developing countries.


"Reorienting education to sustainability requires recognizing that traditional compartments and categories can no longer remain in isolation from each other and that we must work increasingly at the interface of disciplines in order to address the complex problems of today’s world. This is true both within education where interdisciplinarity is slowly and with difficulty gaining ground, and between the spheres of education, work and leisure as life-long learning emerges as a key concept for planning and developing educational systems. It is also true as concerns the most important boundary of all: that separating those included in education systems from those who are excluded from them…


Ultimately, sustainable development will require an education that not only continues throughout life, but is also as broad as life itself, an education that serves all people, draws upon all domains of knowledge and seeks to integrate learning into all of life’s major activities….


As concerns sustainable development specifically, it is impossible to predict with reliability what will be the key issues on which people will need information in five, ten, twenty or fifty years. It is predictable, however, that such developments will not fit neatly into the existing and artificial sub-divisions of knowledge, which have been in place for more than a century. Hence, understanding and solving complex problems is likely to require intensified cooperation among scientific fields as well as between the pure sciences and the social sciences. Re-orienting education to sustainable development will, in short, require important, even dramatic changes, in nearly all areas."…. (UNESCO: Educating for a Sustainable Future, p. 21).


The changes in nearly all areas will be dramatic indeed. The crucial question, however, will be whether an adaptation or even reform of higher education systems will be necessary to support sustainable development, to accommodate these dramatic changes. This is questionable for two reasons:


  1. Higher education systems are quite different from country to country and have changed over time in the last century quite a lot. It is often the great differences from country to country and institution to institution that make international cooperation at the university-level so difficult.
  2. We do not know what questions and problems we will have to solve even in the near future and which combinations of expertise will prove to be the most fruitful. Besides, aspects of sustainable development will be important in all different fields of knowledge, as "sustainable development will require education as broad as life itself."


The problem is not in the systems or structures, but in the way people operate. The change has to come from the minds of the people, their inner drive. They have to be ready to cooperate in very flexible ways over disciplinary and institutional boundaries. We must realize the slow evolution of the idea of specialization: a true specialist is often someone whose mind, because of the precision and richness of its knowledge can constantly open out onto other fields and know-how to put his own scholarship to work in training and to link it to all forms of knowledge.


This does not mean that no changes at the system-level will occur. These will occur like before. These are, however, neither necessary nor in themselves sufficient to bring out the necessary dramatic changes. The action plan should instead aim more at actions that will not miss their impact on the inner drive of people. To stimulate them to rise to the occasion: to re-orient higher education in very flexible ways to sustainable development.



  1. Strategy for Future Action



The Strategy for Future Action should aim at closing the gap between theory and practice, ideals and reality. To prepare future generations for a sustainable future young people should be made aware of the complex nature and the interrelatedness of environmental issues as well as the multifaceted relations between environment and sustainable human development. They should learn to think not only in terms of threats and problems, but also of challenges and solutions instead and act accordingly. They should learn to understand that such solutions demand close cooperation between experts from a great variety of disciplines, cooperation and mutual understanding as well as of practitioners, theoreticians and policy-makers, and of people from all different sectors of society and walks of life. They should also learn how to do this in practice and, in this way, to understand what the expression "think globally, act locally" really means.


Universities, indeed all institutions of higher education, should first and foremost set a good example in their own housekeeping. They should confront their students with issues of sustainable human development, not only when they attend specialized major or minor programmes focussing on those issues, but also while dealing with topics in disciplinary programmes with clear consequences in the field of sustainable human development. Environment should be part and parcel of specialized university education. Here we should align the educational process with the policy process. Universities should try to make, through their research, a major contribution to the understanding and solving of issues of sustainable human development, including ethical aspects. Universities should effectively interact with the society that supports them and share up-to-date and focussed knowledge with regard to sustainable development, without restrictions, with each other around the world and with all interested partners in society.



Six key-actions are recommended:


  1. Create a "University Platform for a Sustainable Future" to enhance synergy in knowledge, thought and actions of all organizations in higher education, including students and staff, prepared to work together on a more effective contribution of higher education to sustainable human development through teaching and research. Part and parcel of this effective contribution is an adequate preparation of graduates to function in the future world of work. Convene this platform every year in the framework of UNESCO’s NGO-consultation. Make this an inclusive, not an exclusive platform, inviting representations of the business community, public authorities, NGOs, etc. The UNU could be an obvious choice to play a facilitating role in the development of this platform and its activities.


  3. Create an Electronic Network by establishing a major website including electronic discussion lists to facilitate the active exchange of ideas and information as well as to share examples of good practice in university housekeeping, management, education and training, research and knowledge transfer with regard to sustainable human development. This network should be linked to the International Registry of Innovative Practices that currently is being developed by UNESCO. Universities experienced in the use of ICT to create and support learning environments could be invited to play a leadership role in establishing and developing such a network, based more on substance than solely on the means of delivery. UNU-Press could produce essential information in the form of CD-ROMs for those partners in the network for whom electronic communication still involves too much time and/or too high costs.

  5. Establish a "Sustainable Future" award scheme for initiators of excellent, innovative contributions to sustainable human development in all three areas: (1) university management/housekeeping, (2) teaching and training/dissemination, as well as (3) research and development. Special attention should be given to the best case studies that integrate environmental concerns in disciplinary problems. Separate competitions could be arranged for each discipline. Short-listed entries could be published in electronic and printed form. In this way, one could build up good teaching resources. Organize high-profile "Sustainable Future" award celebrations during the meetings of the "University Platform for a Sustainable Future". Pay due attention, while developing the criteria for awarding the prize, to aspects of cooperation and bridging gaps: between disciplines, between universities in different parts of the world, between universities and social partners, etc. Organizations like ICLEI and GOSEA, the university associations, as well as UNESCO's regional offices could play a role in identifying potential candidates.

  7. Develop a "Preparing for a Sustainable Future" Audit System on a voluntary basis. The audit would focus on the structures, strategies and mechanisms in universities that contribute to their performance in this respect. The audit should focus on support to the participating institutions in order to improve incrementally their performance in contributing directly and indirectly to the improvement of the environment. Associations like the Commonwealth Universities, the Talloires Group, CRE-Copernicus, the Association of African Universities (AAU), the Association of Universities in Asia and the Pacific (AUAP), and IAU could play a leading role here. Such audits should be based on self-assessments followed by assessments by peer groups. The audits should not be "stand alone" events, but part of a process which includes, among others, follow-up visits to support policies to improve the performance of individual universities. Universities (and/or faculties) should also have the possibility to obtain an ISO-certificate for a "green university." This certificate should be developed in cooperation between the ISO-organization and pro-active industries and NGOs.

  9. Start a Feasibility Study to identify in very practical terms the potential of universities in their different geographical, economic and socio-cultural settings to contribute on the university level and as major stakeholders to the further implementation of Agenda 21, to begin with the Local Agenda 21. This study should contain many good practice case studies that should help to illustrate possible ways and means for universities in the pursuance of the goals of sustainable development. One product of such a project could be a sort of "manual." The involvement of other stakeholders should be considered. This idea might fit into the proposed key-actions 2 and 4. Invite UNU and university associations active in this field to support such a study. The CRE-Copernicus Secretariat is prepared to play and active role in this key-action.


Establish a Special Fund for direct mutual transfer of knowledge between teachers and researchers from developed and developing countries, among others, by organizing workshops as well as common projects in research, education and extension activities. Such common projects should not only involve universities, but also NGOs, enterprises and public institutions.


Annex 1: Background documents




1. Agenda 21:

. Chapter 34 Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology,

Cooperation and Capacity-Building.

. Chapter 35 Science for Sustainable Development.

. Chapter 36 Promoting Education, Public Awareness and Training.

. Chapter 37 National Mechanisms and International Cooperation for

Capacity-Building in Developing Nations.


  1. Reports 1996, 1997 and 1998 of the Secretary General to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD)
  2. - Decision of the CSD to establish a work programme on education, public awareness and training (1996).

    - UNESCO has been appointed as task manager for chapter 36 of Agenda 21 and prepares as such the reports on "Promoting Education, Public Awareness and Training."

    - UNESCO’s Transdisciplinary Project: Educating for a Sustainable Future prepared, with the Government of Greece, the International Conference on "Environment and Society: Education and Public Awareness for Sustainability" (Thessaloniki, 8-12 December 1997); see Educating for a Sustainable Future – A Transdisciplinary Vision for Concerted Action (UNESCO: EPD-97/CONF.401/CLD.1, November 1997).

    - UNESCO’s Transdisciplinary Project organized together with the World Bank a Concurrent Meeting of the Fifth Annual World Bank Conference on Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development, "Partnerships for Global Ecosystem Management: Science, Economics and Law;" see Ismail Serageldin, Tariq Husain, Joan Martin-Brown, Gustavo López Ospina and Jeanne Damlamian (editors): Draft – Organizing Knowledge for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (Washington, World Bank, 1998).

  3. An overview of activities and declarations of various university associations has been prepared by Dr. Hilligje van’t Land and Prof. Dr. B. Mazurkiewicz of IAU. This overview can be consulted by visiting web-site http://www.unesco.org/iau/tfsd.
  4. Kofi A. Annan (1998), The Quiet Revolution. In Global Governance 1998, No.1.
  5. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987: Brundtland Report)
  6. Five years after Rio: UNU's Responses to Agenda 21, the United Nations University, Tokyo 1997.
  7. David L. Johnston (1995), Sustainable Development and University Cooperation. In: Global Civilization and Cultural Roots. Bridging the Gap – The Place of International University Cooperation. Report of the Tenth General Conference of IAU, JNU –New Delhi, pp. 141-157.
  8. Walter Leal Filho, Frances Dermott & Jenny Padgham (1996), Implementing Sustainable Development at University Level: A Manual of Good Practice. CRE-Copernicus/European Research and Training Centre on Environmental Education,

University of Bradford.


Annex 2: Commission on Sustainable Development, Sixth Session, 20 April

to 1 May 1998, Final Document



Chapter III: Education, public awareness and training


6. The Commission on Sustainable Development:

  1. Recognizes education, public awareness and training as underpinning all the cross-cultural themes of Agenda 21;
  2. Reiterates that a fundamental prerequisite for sustainable development is an adequately financed and effective educational system at all levels, that augments human capacity and well-being, and is relevant to the implementation of all chapters of Agenda 21. Education is a lifelong process and should be fully accessible to all;
  3. Recalls that education, public awareness and training includes, inter alia, non-formal and informal modes of teaching and learning, e.g. within the family and community, and maintains that education for sustainable development should take an interdisciplinary approach incorporating social, economic and environmental issues;
  4. Notes that public awareness is a prerequisite for public participation in decision making for sustainable development and is closely linked to access to information;
  5. Recognizes that educating women has a crucial impact on sustainable development and on changing the attitudes and behaviour of families, society and nations;
  6. Expresses its appreciation to the Government of Greece and UNESCO for organizing an intersessional conference on "Environment and Society: Education and Public Awareness for Sustainability" (Thessaloniki, 8-12 December 1997);
  7. Welcomes the contributions of major groups in sharing case studies of innovative practices in promoting, in particular, education, public awareness and training within their respective contexts, including youth-sponsored initiatives, encourages their continued action through such initiatives, and requests that the Commission continue to be informed of this work at future sessions;
  8. Recognizes the important role of schools and universities in the further implementation of Agenda 21, especially at the local level;
  9. Notes that the World Conference on Higher Education to be held in Paris in October 1998, provides a good opportunity to address the challenge of how to promote and strengthen an interdisciplinary approach in university curricula and research agendas for a sustainable future and to consider the further adaptation of higher education systems, as appropriate in this regard:
  10. Takes note of the International Registry of Innovative Practices Promoting Education, Public Awareness and Training for Sustainability being developed by UNESCO and encourages its further development;


7. Taking into account the work programme on education, public awareness and training initiatives at its Fourth Session (1996), the Commission:


A. Clarifying and Communicating the Concept and Key Messages of Education for Sustainable Development:

  1. Urges UNESCO and other United Nations organizations, governments and major groups to pursue the implementation of Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, and the Work Programme on Education approved by the Commission at its Fourth Session, as part of the integrated follow-up to the major UN conferences and conventions related to sustainable development, taking into account the work of ECOSOC in this regard;
  2. Calls on UNESCO to continue its efforts to clarify and communicate the concept and key messages of education for sustainable development, with emphasis on assisting in the interpretation and adaptation of these messages at regional and national levels;


B. Reviewing National Education Policies and Formal Educational Systems

  1. Calls on Governments at all levels, with the assistance and participation, as appropriate, of international organizations, the educational and scientific communities, NGOs and local authorities to develop policies and strategies for reorienting education towards sustainable development, including roles and responsibilities of actors at local, national and regional levels;
  2. In this context, Governments may wish to include the establishment of national centres of excellence in such strategies;
  3. Calls upon Governments at all levels to include sustainable development objectives into curricula or equivalent instruments corresponding to the level of education and encourages them, where appropriate, to consider the effectiveness of education for sustainable development;
  4. Invites UNESCO, working closely with relevant educational institutions and international organizations, to develop guidelines for the reorientation of teacher training towards sustainable development
  5. Calls on Governments to take appropriate steps, in consultation with international, national and sub-national representatives of teachers (including unions) as well as specialists in higher education and youth, to reorient teaching training in formal education systems towards sustainable development;;
  6. Urges institutions of higher education, with the support of governments and the academic community, to adapt their teaching and research to introducing an interdisciplinary approach conducive to addressing sustainable development issues;
  7. Invites the World Conference on Higher Education in 1998 to give due consideration to how the reform of higher education systems may support sustainable development;


  1. Incorporating Education Into National Strategies and Action Plans for Sustainable Development
  1. Urges Governments to make education and public awareness significant components in regional, national and local strategies and action plans for sustainable development;
  2. Invites UNESCO, working with UNDP, UN-DESA and other relevant organizations, to complete the survey of existing regional and national strategies and action plans for sustainable development to determine recommendations resulting therefrom and to make such information available to the CSD;
  3. Encourages Governments at all levels to integrate education, as appropriate, into national and local strategies for sustainable development, and calls upon the international community and the United Nations system to assist developing countries as needed in this regard;
  4. Urges Governments to integrate the aspect of gender balance and the empowerment of women into national education strategies.


D. Educating to Promote Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns in All Countries

  1. Requests the Task Managers for Chapters 4 and 36 of Agenda 21 (UN-DESA and UNESCO), working together with other relevant organizations, including UNEP , the OECD and representatives of business and industry, trade unions and NGOs, to continue their efforts to raise awareness of the implications for sustainability of current patterns of consumption and production in particular in developed countries; making better use of educational tools and consumer feedback mechanisms to facilitate policy-making; and developing and promoting social instruments through education and training intended to change consumption and production patterns, with industrialized countries taking the lead, and in this context, to continue the work on indicators for sustainable consumption and production patterns;
  2. Calls upon the media as well as the business community including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the International Chamber of Commerce and other business institutions, trade unions, and civil society, to work with UNESCO, UNEP, UN-DESA, UNIDO and other key institutions, to collect best practices in media and advertising that address concerns related to promoting sustainable consumption and production patterns, particularly in the developed countries;
  3. Requests the Secretary-General, in cooperation with UNESCO, to report to the Commission on progress made and actions taken in this area including those identified by the Nineteenth Special Session of the General Assembly, at its seventh session, when Consumption and Production Patterns will be the cross-sectoral theme;


E. Promoting Investments for Education

Calls upon UNDP, the World Bank and other international financing institutions to consider the current levels of financing for education for sustainable development with a view to developing a strategy or policies for mobilizing new and additional resources from all sources for ensuring greater financial support for education for sustainable development;


F. Identifying and Sharing Innovative Practices

  1. Invites UNESCO to continue its work on the international electronic registry and knowledge management system for chapter 36 and requests that this information be made available in both electronic and conventional formats to all countries, in particular for the developing countries. Innovative programs and projects form all sources, such as various major groups including industries, women, youth and NGOs, should be encouraged and included in this inventory;
  2. Encourages the development and strengthening of international and regional alliances, associations and networks among universities and other educational and training institutions and professional bodies in all countries, in particular between those in developing and developed countries. These alliances should include distance learning, training for trainers, exchanges and mentoring;
  3. Calls on Governments to encourage and strengthen networks and partnerships for education for sustainable development which include, inter alia, schools, parents, private and public institutions and organizations as well as private firms;
  4. Encourages the recognition and use of traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous people, and local communities for the management of natural resources in education for sustainable development;


G. Raising public awareness

  1. Calls on Governments to facilitate the development of capacities for raising public awareness and access to information on sustainable development and on social, economic, environmental impacts of unsustainable production and consumption patterns at global, regional and national levels;
  2. Calls on Governments at all levels, the media and advertising agencies to undertaken information campaigns to communicate to the public the key messages of sustainable development;
  3. Calls on Governments to take fully into account the provisions of relevant international conventions when providing information in order to raise public awareness.


8. The Commission:


Calls upon UNESCO, as task manager, to further strengthen and accelerate the implementation of the work programme on education for sustainable development, in cooperation with, inter alia, UNEP, UNDP and NGOs. Requests the Secretary-General to include in his report to its seventh session information on progress made in implementing the work programme.




Chapter IV: Science for Sustainable Development



  1. The Commission on Sustainable Development:
  1. Recognizes the serious gaps in scientific capacities especially in developing countries and stresses the need for strong and concerted action at national and international levels to urgently build up and strengthen national scientific infrastructure and research management capabilities of these countries, to formulate national strategies, policies and plans for that purpose, as well as to strengthen their science education programmes at all levels;
  2. Stresses the need to improve the processes of generating, sharing and utilizing science for sustainable development and for more action-oriented interdisciplinary research with greater focus on prevention and early identification of emerging problems and opportunities;
  3. Notes that the World Science Conference co-organized by UNECO and ICSU to be held in Budapest, Hungary in June 199, in cooperation with other UN agencies and international scientific organizations provides a good opportunity to address key issues of science for sustainable development;
  4. Urges the scientific community to work with government authorities, the education community, major groups and international organizations, to strengthen science education at all levels and to overcome the communication gaps within the scientific community and between scientists, policy makers and the general public;
  5. Invites Governments, the UN system and major groups to provide information on best practices and other illustrative examples related to the future sectoral themes of the Commission where science has been effectively employed to support the development and implementation of policies in these sectors;
  6. Also invites relevant international scientific advisory bodies and programmes to contribute, as appropriate, to consideration of the sectoral themes of the CSD session in 1999, 2000 and 2001 on issues relevant to their interest;
  7. Calls on multilateral and bilateral donor agencies and Governments, as well as specific funding mechanisms, to continue to enhance their support to strengthen higher education and scientific research capacities related to sustainable development in developing countries, particularly in Africa and LDCs. Such efforts should aim at:
  1. strengthening research and teaching infrastructures in universities, and their proper re-equipping as a critical precondition for the development of capacity in science and technology;
  2. linking technical assistance programmes to education and research in the broad field of environment and sustainable development;
  3. fostering university-business-civil society partnerships within and among countries;
  4. promoting regional and sub-regional cooperative training and research programmes and networks; and
  5. acquiring modern information technologies so as to ensure easy access to information sources around the world, as well as to be part of existing global and regional scientific and technological information networks to address the scientific needs of developing countries;
  1. Encourages Governments of all countries to join forces with international organizations a and the scientific community to strengthen the global environmental observing systems;
  2. Invites UNESCO and ICSU in planning for the World Science Conference in 1999 to take fully into account the interdisciplinary nature of sustainable development issues with the view to strengthen the role of natural and social sciences in sustainable development and to mobilize increased investment in research and development of scientific themes of sustainable development.