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Position paper on sustainable universities

1. Introduction

The history of the concept of sustainable development goes not far back in time. In 1987 sustainable development is defined by the Brundtland Comission as follows: Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs[1].

The need for sustainable development was recognised by political leaders in 1992 during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The Agenda 21 was adopted during the conference. This document stated that action was needed towards a more sustainable developed world[2]. The Agenda 21 is not fully implemented yet, and due to economic challenges the attention of world leaders towards sustainable development has decreased in the recent years. This does not mean that the need for sustainable development has disappeared. With the ongoing exploitation of the Earth, the visibility of the limits of our resources and the tangible effects of climate change, the need for sustainable development is more urgent than ever.

As young people are the present and the future and have the ability to make a change for the better, the university has an immediate impact on the present and the future. A university is a state or private owned knowledge centre where young people are educated. A sustainable university is defined as a higher educational institution, as a whole or as a part, that addresses, involves and promotes, on a regional or a global level, the minimization of negative environmental, economic, societal, and health effects generated in the use of their resources in order to fulfil its functions of teaching, research, outreach and partnership, and stewardship in ways to help society make the transition to sustainable lifestyles[3]. In this position paper the focus lays on the environmental impact a university has.

”Sustainability means to me making sure future generations will still be able to enjoy the nature of our planet”[4].

2. Position of AEGEE-Europe

The start of the shift to a sustainable society starts with educating people[5], and practicing a sustainable lifecycle as a university has to complement any inclusion of sustainability in the curricula. AEGEE-Europe considers that universities, as innovative knowledge and education centres, have the duty towards society to educate young people in a way that makes them conscious of their lifestyles and give them the knowledge and the opportunity to make their lifestyles more sustainable. This must be done not only by educating students in a formal and informal way, but also by being an example to the whole society. Students are the present and give shape to the future. The shift to a more sustainable lifestyle becomes more realistic by educating students and showing them what a sustainable lifestyle is.

3. Sustainable Universities in Europe

Sustainability of universities and the value given to sustainability differ very much among countries in Europe. When the country itself values sustainability, this is reflected in its universities, which are more sustainable than average. It seems that the combination of the knowledge on sustainability, the power to change and interest in sustainability is what forms the three pillars for a sustainable transition[6]. Not all the universities have an awaiting approach. There are several universities, mainly in Western and Northern Europe that are taking responsibility for putting an emphasis on sustainability.

”I didn’t even learn what sustainability is at my University[7].”

4. Recommendations

4.1 Recommendations for NGOs

There are several organisations that are working towards more sustainable universities. The exchange of knowledge between them and cooperation among them would strengthen the message and actions that are taken.

Furthermore, the bottom up approach which ensures change driven by the activation of students of that specific university has proven successful in the cases where it has been implemented. The university usually listens to students if they raise their voice. In case the university does not, students are inventive enough to make sure that the university will listen.

Next to this, the bottom up approach in combination with including the value of sustainable lifecycles within the university and sustainable education in the policy of the university is the most successful combination. In this way the students are the driving force behind the change and the implementation of sustainability in the policy of the university ensures permanence of the values.

4.2 Recommendations for students

Students are important stakeholders in the university. Students are more powerful than they believe, especially if they form a group together and stand behind a common idea. Students can take care of education on sustainability in a formal or non-formal way or make the university more sustainable at own initiative. The education towards other students can occur if the university sees no need in taking the responsibility, or as a replenishment to the existing education. In this way students can teach others and create support and acknowledgement in the university as well.

4.3 Recommendations for awarding of sustainable universities and including sustainability in rankings

There are prizes and rankings for the most sustainable universities. It would be an opportunity to spread the importance of sustainable universities and to create more willingness in the universities itself to become more sustainable if these sustainability rankings where more known and the prizes where more prestigious.

However, sustainability is not included in the overall ranking of universities. There are several rankings of universities available, to name a few: U-Multirank, Shanghai Ranking and the Times higher education ranking. Rankings of universities should not only consist of the level of teaching and the facilities the university has, also the sustainability of a university should be taken into account. The sustainability of a university could be measured out of the average hours of education on sustainability at each study every year, the sustainability of the building and the catering, the existence of a committee on sustainability and the inclusion of sustainability on the policy of the university.

About AEGEE

AEGEE/ European Students’ Forum is a European Student organisation striving for a better Europe, including a more sustainable Europe, and believes in the power of young people. AEGEE was born in 1986 with the vision of creating a unified Europe, based on democracy and respect for human rights, bringing together students with different cultural backgrounds. Today, AEGEE is Europe’s largest interdisciplinary youth organisation: 40 countries, 200 cities, 13.000 friends.

This network provides the ideal platform for young volunteers to work together on cross-border activities such as international conferences, seminars, exchanges, training courses, and case study trips. In line with the challenges young people are currently facing in Europe, AEGEE’s work is focused on three main areas: promotion of youth participation, development of European relations with its neighbours, and inclusion of minorities.

AEGEE’s work on environment and sustainability is relatively new. Its diverse membership however, provides a great potential for the development of cross-disciplinary efforts in this field — a role taken up with increasing success since the creation of its Environmental Working Group in 2007, the Sustaining our Future project in 2008-2009, and since 2012 its Policy Officer on Sustainability.


[1] Brundtland Report, 1987. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.

[2] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development in the 21st Century (SD21) Review of implementation of Agenda 21 and the Rio Principles Detailed review of implementation of Agenda 21. January 2012.

[3] Velazquez, L., Munguia, N., Platt, A., & Taddei, J. (2006). Sustainable university: what can be the matter?. Journal of Cleaner Production, 14(9), 810-819.

[4] Survey on Sustainable Universities, AEGEE 2014.

[5] See the position paper: AEGEE Position on Education for Sustainability.

[6] Csurgó, B., Kovách, I., & Kučerová, E. (2008). Knowledge, power and sustainability in contemporary rural Europe. Sociologia Ruralis, 48(3), 292-312.

[7] Survey on Sustainable Universities, AEGEE 2014.