5th International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education
Higher Education's Commitment to Sustainability: from Understanding to Action
Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC)
23 - 25 November 2010

Thematic lines


Sustainability means a progressive social evolution by which modern individualist perspectives cede to a more conscious acceptance of the interconnectedness of human beings and eco-living systems. The educational challenge of this process is vast since it implies a lifelong learning framework whose major aim lies in transforming at the same time our inner world and our way to deal with others. Here, the relation is the first step because the mind is focused on the balance between all beings.

The text of our social knowledge was written in a paradigm in which man has ordained himself as a specially-designated inhabitant of the Earth, righteously conquering nature and everything else in his path. Abstraction has been faster way to arrive at the top, but in the blazed path of this human activity, geological, animal and atmospheric bonds have been steadily eroded. We have built incredible cities and highly technical machines, but we still don't know how to survive without petroleum, or in an overpopulated planet.

In order to orient higher education to a committed contribution of knowledge towards a sustainable world, most of the aspects of the current educational system, including its values and its norms, must be reconsidered. The educational context teaches through the structures, methodologies, and assumptions underlying the curricula. Higher education can provide graduates with the attitudes, knowledge and abilities required to undertake this process; and it can develop and provide knowledge that contributes to research and practice into sustainability. There is also an upcoming major role for higher education related to the renewal of thought, by making knowledge accessible and useful in the broader sense of engagement with society. 

Several universities have included sustainability courses in their curriculum, dedicated resources to sustainability research and centre development, while others also have bolstered their connection to the community by participating in local problem-solving, becoming a laboratory of ideas including a  responsible management of material and human resources.  

A sustainability perspective however, must be part of the teaching-learning processes in all global educational projects. We need to share how to integrate the fragmented areas of knowledge and to find proper methodologies to connect thinking and action.  The main challenge at this moment is how to embody action in Higher Education (HE), and it's also our first aim in this conference.

It is time to ask: How can we teach a holistic vision of reality? How can we learn to work in a transversal manner? What new competencies are needed for future citizens? What do we research and how do we research it? How can the collective consciousness, democratic processes and the citizenry be reinforced? How to foment cooperation and working in group networks? All these aspects form part of the challenge of sustainability and it is necessary to clarify them in order to have a clear vision about the direction of where we are headed as a planetary society. 

Therefore, GUNI looks for examples of good practices in the following areas:

1.         Curricula Innovation and Learning Processes


Sustainability education requires taking as reference of knowledge the interdependence between human beings, nature and societies. Curricula offer a great opportunity to overcome most of the challenges faced by Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

Higher education should incorporate new, cross-disciplinary curriculum contents that equip people with new tools that are more suited to the context in which they will carry out their professions. One key learning need is the ability to make connections between many types of knowledge, giving equal value on the quality of our relationships with the world at large.

New approaches for learning based on dialogical, participatory and problem-oriented methods are also required, making connections with real-world and real-time challenges to support useful learning in the future. A meaningful advance towards sustainability requires a change in thinking in all disciplines, and even a change in awareness.

This thematic line includes issues such as:

  • Teaching in complexity and uncertainty
  • Transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches
  • Integration of knowledge from different sources
  • Connecting curriculum content with one's own life
  • Lifelong learning
  • Social learning and service learning programs
  • Dialogical process to design curricula
  • Field-based programs
  • Educating citizens with civic awareness
  • Participatory and problem oriented pedagogical methods
  • Educating for global and local contexts: democracy, citizenship and inter-culturality
  • Linking higher education with previous levels of education, including Education for All

2.         Research

Research is a vital part of the role of HEIs. However, there is a growing need to question the paradigms of knowledge and innovation that inform the research carried out in various contexts.

Universities can restore their role in defining and collectively resolving global challenges. Research should seek solutions to society's problems and contribute to analyze and improve the emerging world. This can include linking research agendas to collective sustainability challenges; making connections between academic activity and societal needs, and general transdisciplinary work.

To put research at the service of society requires a reorientation towards the challenges of sustainability.  This includes the prioritization of science and technology´s ethical commitment with its objectives, experimental procedures, and its implications.  Transparency and the public good should be the basis of any carried out research project.

This thematic line includes issues such as:

  • Participatory action research
  • Research linked to global and local needs
  • Transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research approaches
  • Sustainable livelihoods promotion
  • Sustainable Sciences
  • Ethics implications of research
  • Values and ethics of knowledge
  • New models for research experimentation
  • Cooperation and co-creation of knowledge

3.         Social and Community Engagement

Knowledge is a common good. The knowledge produced by HEIs should be a result of feedback with social human needs and daily worries and it must return as a tool able to deal with them. 

Universities can contribute to a proactive criticism of the world of ideas, discerning between knowledge, information and ideology, and facilitating the plurality of positions, on the basis of the available knowledge. It is desirable that HEIs make their relationships with civic associations more permeable, in order to democratize access to knowledge and to provide plural expert advice for institutions and civil society in general.

Universities can connect citizens with local knowledge. They have also an important role to play in linking technology to citizenship and in bringing about a democratization of science and technology. Another major role is to build bridges between reflection and action in political decision-making.

This thematic line includes issues such as:

  • Democratization of knowledge for society
  • Contribution to balance knowledge asymmetries
  • HEIs as centres for renewing thought of society
  • HEIs as meeting places of transcultural dialogue and mutual understanding
  • Linking with the civil society
  • Network for solving global and local challenges
  • Linking technology to citizenship
  • Contribute in participatory processes by putting knowledge at the service of social change

4.         Institutional Management and Operations

Governance, the leadership, the organizational culture, and HEIs management should take into account the social and environmental values necessary for the contribution of articulation of the sustainability paradigm with their community.

In this process, HEIs can transform its internal structures towards working in network groups, including the aspects that define sustainable communities, which can range from the making of decisions, to the management of human, material, and economic resources.  Maintain an adequate scale process where management permits the renovation of production and life cycles, s along with the rhythms of work and learning, which represent a challenge for all institutions.  

HEIs can become sustainable communities amongst themselves, developing into agents of social transformation that provides a laboratory of ideas which brings into practice the dynamics of change, thus inspiring and clarifying the roads towards sustainability in each appropriate context.

This thematic line includes issues such as:

  • Participative and democratic processes
  • HEIs as a learning organization
  • HEIs as a laboratory of ideas
  • Students' implication and role
  • Green building, energy and climate change
  • Water management
  • Sustainable mobility
  • Material cycles and waste management
  • Purchasing
  • Reporting and assessment

GUNI's founding members: Sponsored by:
Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya Unesco United Nations University
Supported by:
Ministerio de Educación Generalitat de Catalunya Ajuntament de Barcelona