Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Obstacles to Implementation of Sustainable Development at Higher Education Institutions

  • Yirgalem Eshete
  • Ahmed Mohammed
  • Denbel Bedo
  • Belay Simane
  • Abate MekuriawEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_224-1


There is now a wider consensus that education is the single most important panacea to solve the complex problems that human beings are facing. It is also an important ingredient in making use of the opportunities we have. Education indeed is reported to shape the world of tomorrow. As stipulated in the document prepared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO 1997), the multidimensional role of education is stated as follows:

The goal of education is to make people wiser, more knowledgeable, better informed, ethical, responsible, critical and capable of continuing to learn. Education also served society by providing a critical reflection on the world, especially its failings and injustices, and by promoting greater consciousness and awareness, exploring new visions and concepts, and inventing new techniques and tools. Education is also the means for disseminating knowledge and developing skills, for bringing about desired changes in behaviors, values and lifestyles, and for promoting public support for the continuing and fundamental changes that will be required if humanity is to alter its course, leaving the familiar path that is leading towards growing difficulties, and starting the uphill climb towards sustainability. Education, in short, is humanity’s best hope and most effective means to the quest to achieve sustainable development.

As countries and communities struggle to cope with contemporary challenges accompanied by major life-changing events (e.g., drought induced by climate change or a rise in the sea level), the purpose and the relevance of education itself have been also questioned (UNESCO 2012). Now there is a wide consensus that higher education institutions (HEIs) do have an irreplaceable and pivotal role in ensuring sustainable development. Yet only few HEIs of the world are implementing sustainable development projects. Even in these few universities, sustainable development is narrowly defined and equated as combating climate change induced problems alone. It is certain that HEIs face several obstacles that retard implementation of sustainable development. This piece of work is intended to identify the major obstacles that hinder implementation of sustainable development in HEIs.

Link Between Sustainable Development and Higher Education

Education in environmental studies (environmental education) have preceded the wider concept of education for sustainable development (SD). In the past several decades, environmental education becomes more holistic and embraces the notion of development. Thus, education for SD at HEIs has a wider horizon than environmental education as it also includes other important dimensions including economy, society, and culture.

The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) calls for cooperation among all stakeholders involved in sustainable development. The irreplaceable role of HEIs in sustainable development was realized and paid the highest emphasis on the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (Agenda 21 of Earth Summit 1992). For many centuries passed, HEIs have been the places where students acquire the necessary skill, knowledge, and attitude in various fields of study. However, recently, most higher education institutions (HEIs) embarked upon new roles and responsibilities and become agents of social change. HEIs are assuming responsibilities of fighting global warming and ensuring sustainable development. Not only does education contribute to sustainable development and the transformation of society, but the reverse is also true. Sustainable development also improves education and has the potential to transform education (Fernandez-Sanchez et al. 2014; Zilahy and Huisingh 2009).

Major Obstacles to Implementation of SD at Higher Education Institutions

Socioeconomic Obstacles: The issue of SD has been viewed as something natural that is not related to the human being. This piece of work tries to review the human-related challenges that hinder the implementation of SD at HEIs. Some of the most important obstacles faced by HEIs in the implementation of SD are presented below.

Economic Benefit Orientation: Governments in many countries have been calling for privatization and extreme deregulation of HEIs. Thus, these HEIs are supposed to meet their budgetary requirements by their own than state allocations from the central treasury. This would in turn compel HEIs to become highly profit oriented and less environmentally sensitive. Though there are clear and remarkable differences between HEIs and private business organizations, HEI leaders at all levels are adopting private managerial leadership styles. This actually makes most university leaders to resemble chief executive officers of a business firm than academic administrators. Hence profit maximization and reducing costs are at the apex of their short-term objectives. This motivation actually is reported as an important disincentive and the single most important obstacle that hinders the implementation of sustainable development at higher education institutions (Tom and Will 2014; Luis et al. 2005). As to Barnes and Jerman (2002), HEI leaders are more likely to support an initiative if it allows them to save money. Some environmentally sound initiatives like composting, carpooling, and green product purchasing are unable to accomplish these goals, at least not in the short term. However, they offer other academic benefits that are intangible, often not considered, and that do not fit into cost-benefit equations. In fact, even in industry settings, pollution prevention practices need time to show cost-saving benefits.

Fund and Other Resources Shortage: Lack of finance is another key limiting factor in the implementation of SD in HEIs. This obstacle to SD is so grave at HEIs based in least developing nations where capital is so meager. In addition, the benefit that can be enjoyed from investment in SD takes longer time. However, there is an urgent cash demand in least developing countries’ HEIs that actually jeopardizes investment in long-term SD endeavors (Kanyimba and Coetzer 2011). Also Velazquez and Munguia (1999) reported that the slowing economy has affected HEIs, and they have had to cut budgets by reducing expenditures among university units. Money has been reallocated to priority goals, and sustainability is not a first priority for many universities. Time is another important resource limiting implementation of SD at HEIs. Most officials involved in the implementation of SD at HEIs do have other primary responsibilities in the university. Staffs of the HEIs are heavily occupied with busy schedules that they devote only small proportion of their time to promote sustainability (Orr 2000). HEIs heavily rely on volunteer students and academicians to implement SD. Yet, though these volunteers are useful to support the implementation of SD, they are also heavily occupied with other duties such as attending regular classes, taking exams, doing assignments, and fulfilling other personal duties. Consequently, no one can be accountable and fully responsible for any SD project slowdown. In addition, most volunteers are students who often lack the necessary leadership requirement to efficiently implement SD (UNESCO 2012; Luis et al. 2005).

The dearth in skilled manpower is also reported as one of the major obstacles to the implementation of SD in HEIs. Those who are involved in the implementation of SD in the academic institutes received little education in the field of environmental issues. In a certain way, professors are learning and teaching about sustainability at the same time. In fact, few educators are being taught how to teach about sustainability, most of them are learning in the field, but in the process mistakes are made. In addition, the duration of the benefits of student training is short because turnover of students is considerably high (Mcnamara 2008). Also for Luis et al. (2005), the major challenges for implementation of SD are related to the need for leadership, incentives, knowledge, and resources for the successful implementation of sustainability in universities.

Weak Linkages and Integrations: According to Luis et al. (2005), stimulating the interdisciplinary research activities has been one of the most difficult tasks in universities. Thus, if projects being implemented by universities tend to be environmentally sound, they still would remain socially disruptive and economically unrewarding or vice versa. This insufficient linkage among the different sections of the academia is considered as a key problem that deters implementation of SD at HEIs (Capdevila et al. 2002). The other important obstacle in this regard is the apparent weak linkage that exists between the core function of teaching, research, and extension. The education being offered in HEIs is rarely backed by researches and hence remained abstract and theoretical. What is more, few empirical findings obtained from rigorous research about sustainable development have remained decorations of library shelves. Researches made in HEIs are not pragmatic and problem solving as they are rarely communicated to the public through appropriate extension system (Capdevila et al. 2002).

A research made by Kanyimba et al. (2014) at Namibia’s higher education institutions has identified dispositional, situational, and institutional obstacles as major hindrances to the implementation of sustainable development. Nonetheless, the dispositional barriers were identified as the main barriers to the integration and implementation of SD in Namibia’s HEIs. This result seems to suggest that the lecturers did not incorporate SD education because they did not have an understanding of what SD was all about. Also, implementation of SD at HEIs was hampered by situational barriers which pertain to a lack of ability and skill to infuse topics and contents related to SD (Kanyimba and Coetzer 2011). Similarly, Walter et al. (2017) stated that though there are promising successes registered by HEIs in implementing SD efforts, there are still numerous challenges to be overcome. Among these challenges is the need for HEIs to improve the integration of sustainability in the curriculum and in research and, most importantly, to integrate it holistically in their systems. If researchers and academicians of HEIs are convinced to carry out sustainable development projects, resistance is so high from the administrative wing to allocate the right amount of budget and other resources (UNESCO 2006; Velazquez et al. 2004).

Weak Leading Role of HEIs: HEIs were hoped to take the leading role in sustainable development implementation. Yet, these same institutions have become a threat to sustainable development. Many HEIs themselves are reported to have inefficient and environmentally harmful energy use systems and bad waste management systems. Moreover, only few HEIs of the world are reported to have waste recycling schemes. The use of renewable energy sources was also found so poor in HEIs. While development and business activities operated by private companies are being involved in some environmentally friendly activities, most of the HEIs failed to have an environmental clearance for the projects they are implementing. In least developing nations, HEIs have to work hard as source of innovation that will support the sustainable development efforts (Mowery 2007; Kanyimba and Coetzer 2011).

Lack of Supportive Policies: Most countries of the world don’t have a binding policy framework to support implementation of SD in HEIs. As to Whitmer et al. (2010), there is lack of policies that make HEIs responsible and accountable for their social impacts by implementing SD schemes. The opportunity of allocating competitive budget based on impacts to the wider economy and to the implementation of SD can easily be addressed through state policies and strategies. Moreover, lack of policies that value engagement in SD as desirable is a key obstacle to implementation of SD.

Wrong Perception and Lack of Awareness: Sustainable development is often seen as a subject of study only in some natural sciences alone. Thus, there is no inclination to incorporate issues related to sustainable development in most fields of study. The perceived irrelevancy of SD across the several fields of study is reported to hamper the effective implementation of SD at HEIs. What is more, there is lack of awareness about the causes, consequences, and implications of designing and implementing SD projects in HEIs (Walter et al. 2017; Dawe et al. 2005).

Institutional Obstacles: The institutional constraints refer to the rules, schedules, and systems. Generally mixes of different institutional obstacles were identified including lack of support from management, lack of research and development, lack of government legislation and guideline, lack of environmental committee, and lack of infrastructure and technology (Walter et al. 2017; Kanyimba and Coetzer 2011; Ferrer-Balas et al. 2008).

Final Remarks

The discussions presented above made clear that administrators and leaders of the HEIs view sustainable development as an extracurricular activity that they don’t allocate sufficient time and resources to it. Thus it is highly recommended that HEIs shall incorporate sustainable development in their strategic plans. Moreover, to encourage implementation of sustainable development, incentive mechanisms should be put in place. In addition, HEIs shall revise their curriculum so that issues related to sustainable development will be inculcated into their routine teaching and learning business. HEIs should play a leading role in the implementation of SD by designing their own waste resource recycling schemes and by establishing efficient alternative energy use initiatives. Also, the reviews made above seem to suggest that the strategy to address education for sustainable development HEIs should first address the knowledge, skill, and attitude gaps of individual lecturers and also provide teaching resources. Administrative and other officials should be convinced about the need to provide funding for implementation of sustainable development. There should be sufficient and timely budget and resource allocation to carry out sustainable development projects in HEIs. What is more, HEIs should inspire and motivate the idea of sustainability and environmental awareness and actively seek the transformation of society within and beyond their own campuses. Besides, to make HEIs responsible and accountable to the implementation of SD, a university appraisal system must be put in place that has the highest potential to persuade the HEIs in a desired direction.



  1. Barnes P, Jerman P (2002) Developing an environmental management system for a multiple-university consortium. J Clean Prod 10(1):34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Capdevila I, Bruno J, Jofre L (2002) Curriculum greening and environmental research co-ordination at the Technical University of Catalonia, Barcelona. J Clean Prod 10(1):29–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Dawe G, Jucker R, Martin S (2005) Sustainable development in higher education: current practice and future developments: a report for the Higher Education Academy. Higher Education Academy, HeslingtonGoogle Scholar
  4. Fernandez-Sanchez G, Bernaldo MO, Castillejo A, Manzanero AM (2014) Education for sustainable development in higher education: state-of-the-art, barriers, and challenges. High Learn Res Commun 4(3):3–11.  https://doi.org/10.18870/hlrc.v4i3.157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Ferrer-Balas D, Adachi J, Banas S, Davidson C, Hoshikoshi A, Mishra A, Motodoa Y, Onga M, Ostwald (2008) An international comparative analysis of sustainability transformation across seven universities. Int J Sustain High Educ 9(3):295–316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Kanyimba AT, Coetzer IA (2011) The integration of sustainability education in Namibian colleges of education. Afr Educ Rev.  https://doi.org/10.1080/18146627.2011.586157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Kanyimba A, Hamunyela M, Kasanda CD (2014) Barriers to the implementation of education for sustainable development in Namibia’s higher education institutions. Creat Educ 5:242–252.  https://doi.org/10.4236/ce.2014.54033CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Luis V, Munguia N, Sanchez M (2005) Deterring sustainability in higher education institutions: an appraisal of the factors which influence sustainability in higher education institutions. Int J Sustain High Educ 6(4):383–391.  https://doi.org/10.1108/14676370510623865CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Mcnamara K (2008) Fostering sustainability in higher education: A Mixed-Methods Study of Transformative Leadership and Change Strategies. A Dissertation Submitted to the Ph.D. in Leadership & Change Program of Antioch University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Antioch University.Google Scholar
  10. Mowery D (2007) University-industry research collaboration and technology transfer in the United States. In: Yusuf S, Nabeshima K (eds) How universities promote economic growth. The World Bank, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  11. Orr D (2000) Transformation of academic planning for environmental education in the 21st century. In: Leal Filho W (ed) Sustainability and university life. Peter Lang, Frankfurt, p 221Google Scholar
  12. Tom M, Will O’B (2014) A strategic decision model for evaluating college and university sustainability investments. Manag Res Rev 37(1):2–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. UNESCO (1997) Educating for a Sustainable Future. A Trans disciplinary Vision for Concerted Action, International Conference, Thessaloniki 8-12 December 1997 Environment and Society: Education and Public Awareness for Sustainability, www.UNESCO.org.
  14. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) (2006) Draft of strategy of education for sustainable development in Sub-Saharan AfricaGoogle Scholar
  15. UNESCO (2012) The education for sustainable development sourcebook. Education for sustainable development in action. Learning and Training Tools, No. 4. Paris, UNESCO, http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0021/002163/216383e.pdf
  16. Velazquez L, Munguıa N (1999) Education for sustainable development: the engineer of the 21st century. Eur J Eng Educ 24(4):359–370CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Velazquez L, Munguia N, Taddei J (2004) A sustainable University: what can the matter be? Environmental Management Sustainable Universities, MonterreyGoogle Scholar
  18. Walter LF, Wu Y-CJ, Londero Brandli L, Veiga Avila L, Azeiteiro UM, Caeiro S, da Rosa Gama Madruga LR (2017) Identifying and overcoming obstacles to the implementation of sustainable development at universities. J Integr Environ Sci 14(1):93–108.  https://doi.org/10.1080/1943815X.2017.1362007CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Whitmer A, Ogden L, Lawton J, Sturner P, Groffman PM, Schneider L, Hart D, Halpern B, Schlesinger W, Raciti S (2010) The engaged university: providing a platform for research that transforms society. Front Ecol Environ 8:314–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. World Commission on Environment and Development, (1987) Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford: New York.Google Scholar
  21. Zilahy G, Huisingh D (2009): The roles of academia in regional sustainability initiatives. J Clean Prod 17(12):1057–1066.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yirgalem Eshete
    • 1
  • Ahmed Mohammed
    • 2
  • Denbel Bedo
    • 3
  • Belay Simane
    • 4
  • Abate Mekuriaw
    • 4
    Email author
  1. 1.Debre Markos UniversityDebre MarkosEthiopia
  2. 2.Selale UniversityFicheEthiopia
  3. 3.St. Mary’s UniversityAddis AbabaEthiopia
  4. 4.College of Development StudiesAddis Ababa UniversityAddis AbabaEthiopia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Ingrid Molderez
    • 1
  1. 1.KU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium