Please login first
Embedding Sustainability Into the Higher Education Curriculum: Lessons From the UK's Green Academy Institutional Change Programme
* 1 , 2 , 3
1  Visiting Professor University of the West of England
2  Higher Education Academy Associate
3  University of the West of England, Bristol

Published: 31 October 2014 by MDPI in The 4th World Sustainability Forum session Sustainability Education and Approaches
Abstract: Universities are facing increasing pressures to change the educational programmes they offer in order to make graduates fit for future citizenship and employment in the 21st Century . These   demands come from a complex array of contemporary issues including societal, economic and environmental challenges as well as national and international policy. Recent UK policy pronouncements on the green economy are an important example of such policy change.  Curriculum reform and innovation are beginning to take place in many universities in the UK and elsewhere in the world in response to such pressures and policy developments. Examples include the universities of Aberdeen, Southampton and Keele in the UK, Melbourne in Australia and British Columbia in Canada This paper summarizes the outcomes and impact of an institutional-Green Academy- change programme initiated in 2011 by the UK's Higher Education Academy. It reports on progress in the first year from seven of the participating universities, and focuses on the impact of the change programme on whole institutional reform in the way universities approach education for sustainable development (ESD). It offers an overview of how the universities set about changing policy and practice in ESD in order to scale up existing activities, and how they have extended the reach of learning for sustainability into areas of the curriculum in which little or no development had hitherto taken place.
Keywords: Sustainability; curriculum reform; higher education
Comments on this paper
Sabina Lautensach
consequence of ESD
It was not clear from your paper how universities experience this 'pressure to change' their educational programmes/curricula. It would appear that at this point change only covers curriculum reform and innovation - has anybody challenged these 7 universities to follow through with their new vision of a green academy by addressing their investment choices? If they do a good job of educating for sustainability, surely they cannot expect their students to continue to overlook the fact that their university (most likely) invests in non-renewable resources. Do you have any knowledge of such policy decisions being made by any one of the 7 unis you researched?Are you aware of any debates going on at any UK university that address issues of ethical investments?

Thank you - SL
Stephen Martin
Thank you for your comment. All seven universities were evaluated against the criteria set out in table 1 in the paper. One of the driving forces for curriculum reform arises from a longitudinal study carried out by the National Union of students and the charity Change Agents UK which found that over the past 3 years over 80% of the 15,000 students who responded said they wanted their curriculum to address sustainability ( In all of the universities who participated the change process is a dynamic process with few clearly defined end points. Nevertheless all have pioneered different models and have different starting points-the individual case studies can be found at:

We did not address with the 7 universities whether their executive were considering disinvestment from fossil fuel companies, however the University of Glasgow in Scotland has very recently made a landmark decision to disinvest-others are said to be actively considering their example:

University of Glasgow first university in Europe to divest from fossil fuels

Glasgow, UK — The University of Glasgow is the first university in Europe to withdraw its funds from fossil fuel investments. After a year of student campaigning, the University Court voted today to divest its £128 million endowment and join the rapidly growing fossil fuel divestment movement. The University of Glasgow had assets of at least £19 million invested in fossil fuel companies. [1]

The divestment campaign led by Glasgow University Climate Action Society involved over 1,300 Glasgow students and academics who demanded that the university quit funding an industry that undermines the institutions’ values and threatens students’ future. David Newall, Secretary of the University of Glasgow Court, says: “The University recognises the devastating impact that climate change may have on our planet, and the need for the world to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Over the coming years we will steadily reduce our investment in the fossil fuel extraction industry, while also taking steps to reduce our carbon consumption.”

Since the beginning of the year, the global fossil fuel divestment movement has doubled in size, as more and more universities, cities, religious, medical and other institutions decide to stop funding an industry that has five times more carbon in its reserves than can be burned to stay below two degrees global warming. What started with campaigns at a few US campuses in 2011, has led institutions with a combined asset size of more than $50 billion pledge to ditch their holdings in fossil fuel companies. [2] Among these institutions are the heirs to the Rockefeller family, which made its fortune from oil, the World Council of Churches representing over half a billion Christians, the British Medical Association and Stanford University. [3]

Glasgow students started their campaign just over a year ago with freedom of information requests, and quickly moved on to banner drops, fake oil spills, flash mobs and rallies. In June, the Investment Advisement Committee that the University Court set up in response recommended full divestment from fossil fuels and re-investments in green industries where possible. In the week leading up to the decision, the University received hundreds of messages from students and the public urging them to divest, including award-winning journalist and bestselling author Naomi Klein and the leader of the Green Party in England and Wales Natalie Bennett.

Sophie Baumert of Glasgow University Climate Action Society says, “We are delighted that the University of Glasgow has decided to take a committed stance against climate change and cut its financial ties with the fossil fuel industry. This is huge step for the Fossil Free campaign in the UK and we hope that our university will serve as a role model for other universities.”
Similar campaigns are underway at universities in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Norway. In the US, thirteen universities and colleges have already committed to divest from fossil fuels. In the UK, over 50 Fossil Free university campaigns involving more than 15,000 students have been launched since October 2013. Divestment decisions are imminent from the University of Edinburgh and SOAS, University of London. SOAS already put a temporary freeze to fossil fuel investments in late July while exploring the possibilities for full divestment. UK universities invest an estimated £5.2 billion in the fossil fuel industry annually, the equivalent of £2,083 per student. [4]

“Divestment now has a firm foothold in the UK. Student and academic pressure to get out of fossil fuels is building across the sector. It’s time to stop profiting from wrecking the climate, whether you’re an institution with lots of money like Oxford or Edinburgh, or a world leader in climate research such as the University of East Anglia. Glasgow has helped make the moral case crystal clear and we expect more universities to very soon put their money where their research is,” says Andrew Taylor, Fossil Free UK campaign manager at student campaigning organisation People & Planet.

CONTACT: Interviews and photos available from: Miriam Wilson or Andrew Taylor, Fossil Free UK campaign manager on +44 1865 264 180 or
Melanie Mattauch, Europe Communications Coordinator,, +49 151 5812 0184

People & Planet, Britain’s largest student campaigning organisation coordinates the Fossil Free UK campus campaigns. For more information about the international Fossil Free campaign, visit
University of Glasgow: ‘Glasgow becomes first UK university to divest from fossil fuel industry’
[1] as of July 31, 2012
[2] Arabella Advisors, ‘Measuring the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement’ (September 2014)

[3] Full list of institutions that have committed to divest from fossil fuels:

[4] People & Planet report: Knowledge and Power, 2013