Integrating Sustainability in Your Study Programme

Many of the contemporary social challenges such as climate change and the growing social inequality are ‘wicked issues’. This means that there is not only scientific debate about facts, knowledge and the nature of the problem, but also debate in society. In the latter case, the questions that play are: In what world do we want to live? In what kinds of system do we want to function? Both discussions are not value free. Prejudice plays an important part, often subconsciously, in the framing of the problem, as well as in the choice of the most desirable solution. 

Therefore, the integration of sustainability issues in your study programme poses challenges from a teaching perspective. Students must learn how to deal with uncertain knowledge and opinion, they must be familiarised with the complexity of sustainability issues and must be introduced to multiple perspectives on change. At the same time, study programmes should avoid lapsing into a paralysing relativism: the far-reaching consequences of challenges of sustainability require commitment and scientifically-based solutions. This is also something which students must learn to develop. 

This education tip will teach you how to design sustainability competencies at programme and course unit level, how students acquire these competencies with appropriate teaching and learning activities and how these competencies can be assessed adequately. 

What is the Relevance of Sustainability for Your Programme? 

Climate change, globalisation, increasing social inequality, loss of biodiversity, economic and health crises, etc.: the current societal issues are complex and their causes are linked to ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust structures, cultures and practices. Internationally, the solutions are increasingly sought in a strife for a more sustainable world

Education in general, and higher education in particular, play a role in this. “Sustainable development begins with education”, UNESCO states. Ghent University commits itself to an ambitious vision of sustainability and aims to integrate sustainability in its education, research, services to society and its corporate management. Moreover, sustainability is one of the six university-wide policy choices (in Dutch: universiteitsbrede beleidskeuzes or UBKs) that Ghent University's current policy team has put forward.  

For Ghent University, high-quality education always entails a focus on societal tendencies, which is why a number of operational objectives regarding such topics are included in our study programme monitoring. For sustainability, these objectives are the following: 

  • The study programme stimulates multi-, inter- and transdisciplinarity. It encourages (service) teaching, both from other faculties and from other study fields from the same faculty. In doing so, the programme pays attention to the integration of challenges of sustainability . (DS-0024)
  • The programme offers students maximal opportunities for growth in the university’s topics of ‘sustainability, entrepreneurship and social engagement’. (DS-0031)

What Does Sustainability Mean for Ghent University? 

The term ‘sustainable development’ appeared on many agendas because of the Brundtland-report published in 1987 and the UN-conference on Environment and Development in 1992, also known as the Rio-Conference or the Earth Summit. As the term became increasingly popular, it started to mean many different things. In essence, sustainability is about the relationship between ecological boundaries, social justice and a (sustainable) economy, which means that it is an indicative concept which can be used to evaluate societal choices on the basis of (the combination of) social and ecological consequences. 

The concept of sustainability can have a weaker or a stronger interpretation: 

  • the weak interpretation is represented in the so-called Triple P Model (left), which visualises sustainability as the strive for a balance between three dimensions of sustainable development: people, the planet and profit. In practice, the economic pillar dominates the model too often: in other words, economics becomes an objective in itself and the relationship between economic growth, planetary boundaries and an increasing inequality is ignored. 
  • the strong interpretation is represented in a nested model (right) which is closely linked to the domain of ecological economics and the donut economy of Raworth. This hierarchical representation starts from the idea that the economy must serve a socially just society and that the planet’s capacity must not be exceeded. In this way, a sustainable society is a society that uses the economic system (prosperity) for a just society (people) that is limited by the ecological capacity of the earth (planet). The interpretation of ‘ecologically sustainable boundaries’ and ‘an acceptable distribution of means among the populations’ is repeatedly the object of both academic and societal debate. Ghent University radically opts for the nested model


From weak (left) to strong (right) substainability  

Every study programme can define the concept of sustainability in its own way. Inspiration for this can be found in a number of educational innovation projects. The expertise gained through these projects is now being used within those faculties who have defined an operational objective under the university-wide policy choice ‘sustainability’. The faculties are supported in this by a special commissioner and by the renewed support offer for study programmes developed by DOWA. More specifically, the following educational innovation projects are involved: 

How to Translate Sustainability into Programme-specific and Final Competencies? 

Sustainability and Ghent University’s Competency Model 

Ghent University takes sustainability seriously. Ghent University’s competency model contains various explicit and implicit references to the importance of social impact. 

Competency field 5 ‘societal competence’ in particular offers explicit starting points for sustainability goals at Bachelor's (5.5 Durable development research) and at Master's level (5.5 systematic attention to sustainable development in academic work). Elaborated examples of Ghent University’s ‘societal competency' can be found in Ghent University's illustrated competency model

Competencies that are linked to sustainability competencies, or that are relevant when studying the sustainability challenges can also be found in a number of other competency fields. A few examples are: 

  • Show creativity to discover new links and viewpoints. (competency 2.5 (BA))
  • Approach problems systematically from different viewpoints (multiperspectivism). (competency 3.6 (MA))
  • Collaborate in an academic context. (competence 4.4 (BA))
  • Collaborate in an (academic) multidisciplinary environment. (competence 4.4 (MA))

What are the Advantages of Sustainability Competencies? 

Every study programme must translate ghent University's sustainability competencies into programme-specific competencies (at the level of the programme) or final competencies (at the level of the course unit). The central question is: what knowledge, skills and characteristics must graduates have or master to be able to play a role in a more sustainable society?  

At programme level

  • research sustainable development from a long-term perspective (Bachelor of Arts in History)
  • present innovative and sustainable solutions for the analysis of business challenges. (Master of Science in Business Administration)
  • awareness of the societal responsibility of the legal expert, also when it comes to solutions to sustainability challenges. (Master of Laws in Laws)


Course Units with Sustainability as Central Theme 

  • the university-wide course unit ‘Sustainability Thinking’ (K001339) is an elective course of 5 credits. Every student can take the course: no prior knowledge is required. The course offers students the opportunity to collaborate with students from other study programmes on a specific annual topic. After a number of broad introductory classes that focus on basic terminology and methodology, students set to work in small groups to focus on a specific sustainability issue, using different methods and techniques: 
  • the learning outcomes are the following: 
    • correct use of core terminology regarding sustainable development, sustainability and transition frames; a critical and well-founded inter- and transdisciplinary formulation of the main issue which surrounds the topic selected for the year;
    • sketch the contours of sustainability challenges while taking into account multiple perspectives;
    • develop and substantiate a personal normative position about the selected annual topic.
    • report and present well about a sustainability issue (form and content); 
  • clarify and analyse the political implications of possible solutions for sustainability challenges (Politics of Sustainability (K001013))

Course Units with Sustainability as a Subtopic

  • Analyse environmental issues and sustainability challenges and develop an independent vision on topics and challenges of international and European environmental law. (learning competence in the Master of Law, course unit: International and European Environmental Law (B001699))

Want to Know More about Sustainability Competencies? 

Over the past few years, much research has been carried out into sustainability competencies in the context of higher education. Find inspiration for your own programme and final competenciesin the following publications : 

How to Work on Sustainability during Teaching and Learning Activities? 

If you wish to integrate more sustainability into your programme, a thorough discussion about the programme's vision and organisation  is necessary. Much can be accomplished through easily accessible teaching methods that require less effort. Teaching methods that lend themselves well to work on sustainability, preferably integrated in a sustainability learning path, often demand more time and staff engagement. Sometimes, it is necessary to limit the number of students per group. The study programme committee can play an important role in this. 

In order to decide how your programme can optimally integrate sustainability in its teaching and learning activities, the following steps can be taken: 

Make an Inventory

  • Which course units already have (aspects of) sustainability education? Often, there are many more than you expected at first glance. 
  • Use the framework for self-analysis that was used for the pilot trajectories as a source of inspiration.

Determine the outcome of your study programme in terms of sustainability

  • In what ways does the expertise of graduates contribute to a sustainable society? 
  • Which knowledge, skills and attitudes must graduates acquire in order to deal with sustainable challenges in a nuanced and creative manner? 
  • In other words: determine which sustainability competencies must be included in the programme.

Analyse shortcomings  

  • Which sustainability competencies are still underrepresented?
  • Where can they be included in the programme? 
  • In which course units can these competencies occur and what is the range of work forms suitable for this? 

Next, decide which work forms are feasible for your study programme. 

Easily accessible work forms 

For many study programmes, starting points in terms of content related to sustainability topics are easy to find. Accessible work forms that are easy to include in one course unit are for example: 

  • Place an example or a case explicitly in a sustainability perspective by also highlighting ecological and social consequences of a proposed solution. 
  • Pay attention to the complexity of a sustainability challenge by making the thinking process more explicit. Ask important questions out loud: which stakeholders are involved in a sustainability challenge, which elements play a role in this, which steps can be made towards possible solutions? 
  • Organise a number of classes about sustainability in a course unit. 
  • Organise project work around a sustainability challenge (role play, student-led education, community service learning, ...).

Practical examples of easily accessible work forms are: 

Processing a sustainability case in a course unit (2nd Bachelor of Law, Environmental Law (B001319))

“In the previous classes, explanations are given about the integration of the concept of sustainable development in law. 

In this class: 

  • the concept of climate change is explained and its causes and effects are discussed.
  • instruments such as tradable emission rights are discussed that are applied in environmental policy in addition to the traditional command-and-control instruments.
  • the climate case is treated as an example of an environmental problem for which politicians have failed to take appropriate measures, as a result of which worried citizens go to court hoping that a judge will force the government to take strong environmental measures. 

The climate case is an example of a ‘positive action’ (citizens go to court so that the government takes stronger environmental measures), as opposed to the numerous ‘negative actions’ (civilians go to court in order to undo a government’s decision e.g. expropriation, an environmental permit, a spatial plan). In the case of ‘negative actions’, the NIMBY-syndrome often plays a role, whereas the ‘positive actions’ are quite new in the field of law and are oriented to rendering society as a whole more sustainable. These positive actions are also interesting from a judicial point of view as they raise questions about the separation of the executive and the judicial powers, about the boundaries of democracy, the role of science in judicial decisions, etc.

In developing this case, the lecturer demonstrates the role of a scientific mindset and a critical approach towards environmental law and its societal factors, while trying to get across a positive attitude towards sustainable development.” 

A Topical Sustainability Question in Several Course Units

In the Law Programme, the Sustainability Work Group used the current covid-19 crisis as an example: this paper (in Dutch) brings together reference points for the different legal areas.

The bigger picture: sustainability, societal engagement and entrepreneurship, a morning introduction session at the start of the academic year for all students of the first Bachelor in Business Administration about sustainability, societal engagement and entrepreneurship and about the way in which this is included in their study programme and field of work: 

“The purpose of this morning introduction session is to familiarise students from the start of the study programme with key points about sustainability, societal engagement and entrepreneurship. These key points are closely interconnected. In addition to a general introduction on sustainability and entrepreneurship, guest speakers are also invited to underscore the importance of sustainability and sustainable entrepreneurship. In the 2019 edition, Jeroen Vereecke spoke about Robinetto and Astrid Van Parys about the CSR-policy at Colruyt. Finally, a number of graduates talked about their experiences and discussed how they worked with sustainability, societal engagement and entrepreneurship. This morning introduction session is one of the many actions that are taken by the programme of Business Administration in order to fully integrate sustainability. These actions were realised as a result of a trajectory of change across the entire study programme in 2015 and 2016. The aim was to develop a vision on sustainability and create a path of transition towards a further integration of sustainability in the programme. Background information, lessons learned and results of this trajectory can be found in the publication Sustainable development as a common thread. Study programmes at Ghent University in transition.”

A course unit on sustainability

Another way to integrate sustainability in the study programme is by organising a complete course unit around the topic of sustainability. 

  • One advantage is that students receive information in an efficient and coherent manner. 
  • A disadvantage is that other lecturers get the impression that the topic of sustainability is already covered and that they think that they no longer need to include it in their course units: the fundamental complexity of sustainability issues is lost as result, which is very unfortunate. The best approach to a ‘wicked issue’ such as sustainability is interdisciplinary and/or transdisciplinary.  
  • In short: a sustainability course unit should be integrated in a shared vision or a coherent learning path. 

A learning path for sustainability

If you would like to integrate sustainability in a more structured manner in your study programme, then you can opt for a sustainability learning path. This way, students are given the opportunity to acquire the sustainability competencies gradually. You can also reorientate the entire programme.

A practical example of a sustainability learning path can be found in the programme Electromechanical Engineering – an objective of the action plan that was made after an educational innovation project: 

“Objective 1: a learning path in order to structurally anchor sustainability within the curriculum 

We have observed that sustainable development is currently already dealt with throughout the study programme. Yet, this is done is a somewhat fragmented and rather implicit manner and students do not always see a clear link between learning contents and sustainability. Moreover, it is not clear if all the aspects of sustainability which are relevant to the programme are sufficiently focused on. A first important objective is thereby to develop a learning path in order to include sustainability in the curriculum in a substantial, integrated and coherent manner. Read more in the publication Sustainable development as a common thread. Study programmes at Ghent University in transition .”

How to assess sustainability?

The assessment of sustainability competencies requires attention both at the level of the programme and the course unit. While the programme mainly focuses on the assessment of sustainability competencies as a whole, the course units assess (aspects of) the diversity competencies more specifically. 

How can a programme assess sustainability competencies specific to the programme?

  • Specify in the assessment vision of the programme how the sustainability competencies will be assessed. 
  • Make sure that there are sufficient moments within the curriculum of the study programme that are used to assess programme competencies (incl. sustainability competencies).  Every programme competence must be assessed at least two times within the programme (cfr. assessment principle 3). The competence matrix is a useful tool for this. It provides a clear overview of the teaching and learning activities and the aspects of specific programme competencies that occur in the teaching and learning activities. It also provides an assessment of the programme as a whole. After all, the programme competencies are translated more specifically into the learning outcomes of course units; the learning opportunities to acquire the programme competencies are offered in the teaching and learning activities of individual course units; and the assessment of the programme competencies is also done via the assessment of the learning outcomes of the course units.
  • Throughout the study programme, use an appropriate mix of evaluation forms to assess the wide range of sustainability competencies, from knowledge to sustainability and from skills such as the analysis of a complex problem to attitudes such as action-orientation. Monitor the variance of evaluation forms within the programme to cover the sustainability competencies well in the assessment. 
  • Mutually align the assessment of sustainability competencies within the study programme. Programmes with a sustainability learning path build those competencies gradually throughout the programme. The alignment of evaluations happens automatically. Doesn’t your programme have a learning path? In that case, the assessments can be aligned via a common set of evaluation criteria or a rubric in different projects or course units. 

How to assess sustainability learning outcomes in a course unit?

Attach enough importance to sustainability 

Clarify that sustainability or sustainability aspects of the classes form part of the subject matter to be studied. Practice shows that an announcement such as ‘this might be a question in the examination’ can work miracles. In case of a guest lecture on sustainability, also mention that it is part of the content to be covered. 

Look beyond the traditional written or oral examination  

Sustainability competencies are about knowledge, skills and attitudes. Combining different evaluation forms often proves to be a good idea. A traditional examination can definitely be used to assess specific aspects of durability competencies such as insight in complex systems or critical reflection skills. Yet, in the case of sustainability education, more advanced learning outcomes are often aimed for such as analysing, relating, creating, etc. Students may also be expected to develop specific attitudes. It is more difficult to assess these dimensions via classic evaluation forms. Rather, they require work and evaluation forms such as observations, papers, presentations, etc. In this way, a portfolio can be used to monitor degrees of reflection, an individual assignment to evaluate disciplinary knowledge and an interdisciplinary group assignment in the form of a report or a presentation to evaluate integration. Assessing collaborative skills via peer assessment allows lecturers to include students more in the assessment process. 

Use a rubric for complex skills and attitudes  

In the case of sustainability challenges, there is often no clear answer. If you would like to assess students nevertheless, broader assessment criteria can be used, based on your learning objectives, and complemented by levels or standards which show the degree to which individual criteria are met. Rubrics can be used to visualise the combination of assessment criteria and levels or standards. 

Assess product, process and/or reflection

When assessing skills and attitudes in e.g. project work, it is also important to think about what you would like to assess: the end result, the process of getting there, reflections on these, or a combination of these. The process can be assessed via a portfolio of the different steps of the process, linked (or not) to reflections on the process. Develop clear assessment criteria for each component (product, process, reflection, etc.)  If you are evaluating normative stances, explicitly state that students are not assessed on the basis of their opinion or viewpoint but on the way in which they substantiate their views. Clarify this in case of an assignment (e.g. “For the assessment of this final assignment, we mainly focus on the argumentation built around your viewpoint, position or opinion and not your choice of opinion or its radical nature.”

Use sustainability as a criterion in assessment forms of bachelor’s or master’s thesis or internship 

In the master’s thesis and internships, soon-to-become graduates show that they are able to apply the acquired knowledge en skills in an integrated manner. Therefore, both assessment forms form an excellent starting point to reflect on the links which students may discover between their research (or internship) and social and/or ecological aspects of sustainability. 

Want to Know More?

Contact Education Support:

Read the sources on which this Education Tip is based: 

  • Block, T., Van Poeck, K., Östman, L. (2019). Tackling wicked problems in teaching and learning. Sustainability issues as knowledge, ethical and political challenges. In: Van Poeck, K., Östman, L. & Öhman, J. (Ed.) Sustainable Development Teaching: Ethical and Political Challenges. London: Routledge, pp.28-39
  • Block T. en Paredis E. (2019) Het politieke karakter van duurzaamheidsvraagstukken. In: Coene J., Raeymaeckers P., Hubeau B., Marchal S., Remmen R. en Van Haarlem A. (red.) Armoede en Sociale Uitsluiting, Jaarboek 2019, Acco: Leuven/Den Haag, pp.47-66. 
  • Guide for support of faculties which formulated an operational objective under the university-wide policy choice ‘sustainability’ (internal document of Ghent University). 

UGent Practices

Last modified May 22, 2023, 1:31 p.m.