Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Students’ Perspectives on Sustainability

  • Aida GuerraEmail author
  • Carla K. Smink
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_32-1



According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of perspective is “a particular attitude towards or way of regarding something; a point of view.” Furthermore, studies on perspectives on sustainability focus on what students know about sustainability. As a result, we define perspectives on sustainability as the perceptions, points of view, attitudes, and/or knowledge someone has about sustainability. Perspectives can act as drivers for change by triggering reflections on the status quo and on how to further develop Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).


Education plays a central role in sustainable development. Even though a lot of research has been carried out regarding Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in higher education, many universities are still behind in terms of what is needed. Literature regarding strategies for integrating sustainability in higher education is abundant. It is frequently put forward that ESD calls for a systemic change and paradigm shift, both at institutional and student level. Divergent perspectives on sustainability can act as barriers to integrate sustainability in higher education by perpetuating the traditional ways of thinking and being. Perspectives can act as drivers for change by triggering reflections on the status quo and on how to further develop ESD.

This chapter discusses three main perspectives on sustainability: the relativistic perspective, the environmental perspective, and the technocratic perspective. These three perspectives emerge from the literature and relate to different aspects of ESD integration. The relativistic perspective relates to how sustainability is conceptualized and understood. The environmental perspective refers to the dominant pillar of sustainability seen as its synonym. The technocratic perspective connects with the dominant teaching paradigm and, consequently, how knowledge is perceived and used to solve problems. Other perspectives might exist, but we have decided to focus on these three perspectives because students and educators share these, which present a barrier to integration of ESD in higher education.

The following three sections discuss each one of the perspectives mentioned above. The chapter closes with two other sections: recommendations and suggestions for ESD and conclusions.

Relativistic Perspective on Sustainability

Commonly, sustainability is defined as “meet[ing] the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, p. 43), but other definitions exist. The Centre for Sustainable Futures (CSF) at the University of Plymouth takes a holistic concept of sustainability that embraces the “complementary notions of environmental security, intra-generational and inter-generational equity, economic betterment, and social and environmental justice” (Kagawa 2007, p. 319). Even though there has been a “universal” definition of sustainable development since 1987, many academics agree that there is no single framework, conceptualization, and understanding of sustainability (Kagawa 2007, p. 319). This presents a challenge for the conceptualization of sustainability among students and academic staff.

In a report for the Higher Education Academy on Sustainability in Higher Education: Current Practice and Future Developments, Dawe et al. (2005) state: “substantial work in progress, a range of good practice, but overall a patchy picture with sustainable development being marginal or non-existent in some influential disciplines but increasingly higher profile in others” (Dawe et al. 2005, p. 4). This indicates a fragmented and unbalanced integration of sustainability in higher education.

In addition, many teachers and lecturers feel alone and unsure about the meaning of the words “sustainable development” (Parkin et al. 2004). Parkin et al. (2004, p. 10) mention some typical responses by teachers:
  • It is vague and meaningless; my job is difficult enough without any more confusion.

  • It is the environment, isn’t it? – and we are addressing that.

  • It is a political thing, an ideology and therefore not a legitimate thing to put into my course.

  • It is hugely complex, a vast body of knowledge that goes across many subjects and disciplines, therefore too much to put on my course, or expect my staff (or me) to know about.

In another study, Guerra et al. (2016) analyze students’ and academic staff’s perspectives on sustainability, indicating that the existing flexibility in defining sustainability leads to a multitude of definitions, where “everything can be sustainable development.” Furthermore, the authors claim that “if a multitude of definitions […] are to coexist, staff and students are faced with the challenge not only to understand different definitions of sustainability but also to adopt or even develop their own definition(s) of sustainability.” In sum, a fragmented integration, the sense of insecurity, the lack of understanding, and the multitude of definitions have contributed to a relativistic perspective on sustainability. This makes it difficult for academic staff and students to take the need for education for sustainability seriously.

Environmental Perspective on Sustainability

The second perspective on sustainability, we will focus on is the environmental perspective. Very often environment is used as a synonym for sustainability. It is actually one of the typical teachers’ responses when it comes to defining sustainability (Parkin et al. 2004, p. 10). Also, when measuring “what students know about sustainability,” there is an emphasis on environmental sustainability (see, for example, Clark and Zeegers 2015; Hopwood et al. 2005; Jollands and Parthasarathy 2013; Miller and Brumbelow 2017; Tuncer and Sahin 2016; Zeegers and Francis Clark 2014). As a result, economic prosperity and social equity, the two other pillars of sustainability, are neglected. Clark and Zeegers (2015), for example, refer to a study by Oxford University (see Summers et al. 2004) of postgraduate teacher education students and found that 87% of the students cited the centrality of the environment, 69% cited economic examples, and 49% mentioned social sustainability.

At Aalborg University (AAU), all engineering curricula are problem based and project organized (PBL), where groups of students solve real problems through projects from day 1. Furthermore, one of the defining principles of the Aalborg PBL model is participant-directed learning, which means that students have a certain degree of freedom to define topics and learning outcomes beyond the ones formally stated in the curriculum (Aalborg University 2015; Graaff and Kolmos 2003). Problem-based project modules constitute 50% of the semester, providing the opportunity for students and supervisors to work with sustainability without realizing it (Hansen et al. 2014, pp. 39, 75). Following this assumption, engineering students’ project reports written in the period 2012–2016 have been analyzed (2018) using the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) as indicators. A total of 17,610 engineering projects from the Aalborg Project Library (Aalborg University Bibliotect 2018) have been listed and screened, and showed that 1590 projects relate to sustainability. These results show an increase in students’ interest in sustainability over the years (Fig. 1) and a predominant focus on environmental sustainability (Table 1). Within the environmental quality category, all GRI indicators are addressed in all reports.
Fig. 1

Distribution of AAU faculty of engineering student reports (AAU Eng.) and AAU faculty of engineering student reports on sustainability (AAU Eng. SUS) between 2012 and 2016 (n = 17,610)

Table 1

Overview of frequencies of GRI indicators per category of analysis


School of architecture, design, and planning

School of information and communication technology

School of engineering science

Economic prosperity




Environmental quality




Social equity




Total of GRI indicators




Each category clusters subcategories and indicators providing 34 keywords used in the projects’ content analysis. The frequency for each category is calculated summing the frequencies of the subcategories and indicators. The category sustainability is the exception where sustainability constitutes a keyword by itself together with the word “sustainable”

Technocratic Perspective on Sustainability

While the above two sections relate to the concept/definition of sustainability (i.e., the relativist perspective on sustainability) and the narrow focus of sustainability (i.e., the environmental perspective on sustainability), this section addresses the technocratic perspective on sustainability. The technocratic perspective on sustainability is mainly related to the dominating teaching paradigm, i.e., the ways we perceive knowledge and address problems (Gough and Scott 2006; Guerra 2014; Orr 2011; Williams 2008). The dominant teaching paradigm is characterized as mechanistic and reductionist, promoting a simplistic view of knowledge and silo thinking (Guerra 2014; Orr 2011; Williams 2008).

Williams (2008, p. 41) says that “the traditional forms of schooling have exacerbated the problems of isolationist and silo thinking.” Gough and Scott (2006) examine the perspectives involving politics, education, and sustainability. According to these authors, the technocratic perspective “depends upon a reductionist, mechanistic view of the natural world, and exhibits confidence in the ability of human beings to develop scientific and technological solutions to environmental problems as they emerge” (Gough and Scott 2006, p. 277). This means that sustainable problems are always simplified – by removing, for example, their contextual elements – and “solved” with the proper technical and disciplinary expertise (Guerra 2017). Consequently, the current teaching paradigm is to train students and equip them with the technical and disciplinary knowledge and competencies to solve them, thereby perpetuating the silo thinking. Therefore, educating for sustainability within this silo thinking would also mean that different areas solve the problems within their discipline and are linked to a specific pillar of sustainability. For example, social scientists should solve social sustainability problems, economists should solve economic sustainable problems, and biophysical experts should solve environmental sustainability problems (Gough and Scott 2006). This silo thinking is also visible, for example, in engineering and science where sustainability mainly focuses on environmental problems and technical solutions. More multidisciplinary collaboration is needed, not only within a knowledge domain but also across different areas of expertise (Guerra 2017).

Gibbs et al. (1998), for example, identify a spectrum of perspectives organizations have when approaching sustainable development, ranging from a technocentric “very weak sustainability” position through to an ecocentric position of “very strong sustainability” (Gibbs et al. 1998, p. 1352). In a technocentric “very weak sustainability” perspective, the “emphasis will effectively be on raising environmental efficiency, that is, reducing the environmental impact of each unit of economic activity and addressing individual parts of the economy, such as firms or sectors, without a holistic approach to the environment” (Gibbs et al. 1998, p. 1352). Educating for sustainability needs not only to be problem oriented, but it also needs to consider the types of problems and contexts used for students to solve them. Therefore, the teaching paradigm needs to change to a more holistic one, where the curriculum is problem oriented and promotes multidisciplinary collaboration across programs, departments, and faculties (Guerra 2017).

In the specific case of engineering education, the technocratic perspective prevails. For example, all engineering education programs at Aalborg University (AAU), Denmark, are organized around problem-based projects (PBL). Even though PBL is a suitable pedagogy for integrating sustainability, studies carried out at AAU show that different types of problems present different relations to ESD. For example, the problem scenarios used in technical education programs, such as civil engineering, do not necessarily include environmental, social, and economic contextual elements, thereby limiting the understanding of the problem as a whole as well as the decision-making processes and impacts of the solutions developed (Guerra 2014, pp. 218–221). Recently, 36 reports on both B.Sc. and M.Sc. students were randomly selected from a pool of 1590 projects addressing sustainability. Most of the reports focus on a set of technical and disciplinary goals, enclosing a restricted number of sustainability indicators within the same sustainability sphere.

Recommendations and Suggestions for ESD

As argued above, sustainability is a complex concept, where divergent definitions and conceptualizations are a challenge for its integration in higher education. Therefore, an institutional definition of sustainability and a frame of action in relation to the different education programs/practices are of utmost importance in order to construct a comprehensive framework for sustainability (Guerra 2014). Figure 2 illustrates the different levels of integration and collaboration of ESD with the aim of developing a comprehensive framework to define sustainability. Students must be involved at all levels when it comes to defining sustainability and the development of a comprehensive framework for its conceptualization and implementation in higher education.
Fig. 2

Different levels of integration and collaboration for a comprehensive definition of sustainability. (Based on Guerra 2014)

Such a comprehensive perspective on sustainability would also imply communication and collaboration vertically and horizontally across institutional levels, involving educators, administrators, and students, as well as other stakeholders like companies, NGOs, etc. Furthermore, an institutional comprehensive framework for sustainability would align its integration at different levels, i.e., management, research, and educational. For example, an institution’s mission statement for sustainability would be wide and broad, whereas in the specific departments, programs, and courses it would be defined within its disciplinary contexts and be more action oriented (Guerra 2014; Sterling 1996).

Nevertheless, it is essential for students to understand the relationships between environmental, social, and economic dimensions of sustainable development in order to cope with the characteristics of postmodern society such as climate change, social inequality, resource depletion, and the interlinked nature of these challenges (Winter and Cotton 2012, p. 784). A focus on environmental sustainability only narrows the understanding of sustainability. Educating for sustainability means educating holistically, promoting systems thinking and critical reflection, involving the three pillars of sustainability. Greening higher education by adding courses on sustainability to the curriculum is not enough; it is necessary to integrate sustainability topics from all three pillars wherever it is appropriate and aligned/contextualized with course content.

Therefore, a PBL curriculum for ESD should create opportunities to equip students with competencies to tackle complex problems and deal with the uncertainties of technology in order to develop better and sustainable solutions for local communities. The types of problems and problem scenarios play a central role in developing not only students’ technical expertise, but also competencies for sustainability.

Jonassen (2011) identifies five main characteristics of problem scenarios: structuredness, context, complexity, dynamicity, and domain specificity. These characteristics are interconnected and present a continuum, from well-structured to ill-structured, abstract to contextual problems, simple to complex, static to dynamic, domain-specific to general/multiple domains. Both ends of the spectrum relate to different perspectives on teaching. For example, well-structured, abstract, static, and domain-specific problems align with technocratic perspectives whereas ill-structured, contextual, and multidisciplinary problems align with a more holistic perspective. The latter types of problems are also referred to in literature as sustainability wicked problems. See, for example, Mulder et al. (2015), Waddock (2013) and Seager et al. (2012). Figure 3 illustrates the landscape of problems based on their characteristics and their relations with the paradigm and type of education for sustainability.
Fig. 3

Landscape of problem characteristics and their relation to teaching paradigm for ESD. (Based on Jonassen 2011; Sterling 2001)

On the other hand, the PBL curriculum should not throw students into the “deep end of the pool” when they enter higher education. Learning through problems for ESD should rather be progressive by developing the right competencies in order to be able to navigate in the complexity that sustainable wicked problems require.


Inserted into the Encyclopaedia on Sustainability series, this chapter addresses the topic “Students” (future) perspectives on sustainability’ through three perspectives: the relativistic, the environmental, and the technocratic perspectives on sustainability. These perspectives are mainly drawn from different studies investigating sustainability in higher education. Note that literature refers mainly to the current perspectives on sustainability and not to future ones. In fact, studies focused specifically on students’ future perspectives on sustainability are scarce, if nonexistent.

The three perspectives discussed in this chapter allow us to identify where the integration of sustainability in higher education finds its weaknesses in educating and preparing our students for the future. Investigating and understanding students’ perspectives on sustainability should be one of the first steps any ESD integration strategy should have. Students’ perspectives on sustainability provide an early diagnosis and understanding of where education for sustainability is “failing.” To some extent, the above three perspectives show this. For example, in the relativistic perspective, students struggle with a multitude of sustainability concepts not only at institutional level but also at course level. Sustainability should be seen as an integrative and contextual concept, where the institutional mission provides the guidelines and the different educational programs contextualize and operationalize it within the disciplinary area. Therefore, ESD should promote a comprehensive perspective on sustainability. While the relativistic perspective emphasizes the challenges in conceptualizing sustainability as a whole, the environmental perspective refers to where the emphasis is. The environmental perspective reduces sustainability to environmental issues: waste management, climate change, etc. Focus on the environment only narrows and limits the understanding of sustainability and the interrelations between social and economic systems. Therefore, ESD should develop a systems thinking perspective on sustainability. Finally, but importantly, the technocratic perspective relates to the dominant teaching paradigm, how knowledge is perceived and used to solve problems, i.e., mechanistic and reductionist. ESD advocates a change of paradigm, where students should learn through active learning pedagogies and solve real problems. The sustainability content can be put in the curriculum through courses (known as the greening approach), but if students do not actively engage in their learning process, they learn about sustainability and not necessarily for sustainability. Therefore, the ESD teaching paradigm should be holistic and problem oriented.

Figure 4 summarizes the students’ perspectives discussed in this chapter and refers to what future perspectives students should have. To change students’ current perspectives on sustainability, a transformative learning process is needed, where students’ world views, beliefs and values change and become aligned with sustainability principles and values.
Fig. 4

Students’ perspectives on sustainability: current and future

The transformation of higher education and perspectives on sustainability is a hard and long process that requires different resources and several stakeholders, and faces challenging barriers. However, literature presents good examples from all over the world (see, for example, Arizona State University 2019; Chalmers University 2019; Fenner et al. 2005; Leiden-Delft-ERASMUS 2019; Mulder et al. 2012; Sipos et al. 2008), showing the variety of initiatives, strategies, and activities of ESD integration.

Currently, a “new wave” of ESD is taking shape through the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Published by the United Nations in 2015, the SDGs constitute a framework for sustainable development actions toward 2030. The SDGs are based on previous declarations and what the eight Millennium Goals did not achieve for Sustainable Development (MGSDs) (2000–2015) (United Nations 2015). The SDGs provide higher education institutions with an opportunity to revise their role in educating for the future, and for sustainability, and to develop strategies and implement initiatives capable of fostering change. To support higher education institutions in this pursuit, more knowledge is needed on students’ perspectives on sustainability, how they change over time, how they affect students’ personal lives, professional identity, and practice, and what the impacts are of different learning and teaching strategies.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PlanningAalborg UniversityAalborgDenmark

Section editors and affiliations

  • Luciana Brandli
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Passo FundoPasso FundoBrazil