| 5 minute read

The role of universities in the sustainability transition

Madeline Arkins

The European Commission has deemed green skills as “essential for achieving the European Union’s climate and energy goals”. But what part do universities play in the sustainability transition? From educating the future workforce to conducting research that can inform policy decisions and drive innovation, we explore the role and responsibility of Higher Education Institutions in tackling the climate crisis.

There is contention in social and climate policy literature on who bears the most responsibility in actioning policy, shifting from nation-state to local municipalities, to the individual. However, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), is not limited to the corporate world. Universities and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) should also be held accountable for the impact they have, not only on their students, but on society and their wider environment. The role of universities in accelerating the sustainability transition is of paramount importance, as they can significantly impact the development and implementation of sustainable practices on their campuses and beyond.

Training future talent

As the world shifts towards a more sustainable future, there is an increasing demand for workers with skills in areas such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, data science skills and sustainable transportation. According to a report by the European Commission (EU), “green skills are essential for achieving the EU’s climate and energy goals” (European Commission, 2016). Universities are key conduits in this effort, however, they will need to raise their current capabilities. They can do this by developing educational models that address these needs, and training their educators about the importance of CSR and sustainability in order for them to embrace the concept in their teaching and research.

Training and involving young people in these new, ‘green’ jobs are integral to the future renewable energy production” (EJNCP, 2022).

Student environmental activism is rampant in schools and HEI campuses around the globe, from the youth-led Fridays for Future to the popularity of Extinction Rebellion and campaigns to divest from fossil fuels. Universities can use this positive momentum to teach these green skills and promote a proactive institutional culture of social responsibility amongst their faculty and student body.

Research valorisation

A common complaint about universities is their failure to disseminate this crucial knowledge and research beyond the walls of the ’ivory tower’ of academia. Research activities are especially important in the context of climate change, as the world needs cutting edge research to address the complex environmental and societal challenges that it poses.

By conducting socially relevant research, universities can contribute to the development of new technologies, products, and services that promote sustainability”.

By valorising their research and working collaboratively with other stakeholders (e.g. businesses and governmental organisations) universities have the potential to drive knowledge and innovation across different dimensions in our societies (Meerman et al., 2018). In order to maximise the impact of research on our societies, it is necessary to support universities to endorse research excellence, by promoting the standards reliability, honesty, respect, and accountability.

On a cultural level, academics should be recognised for their research and valorisation efforts through incentivisation models”.

A collaborative approach to sustainability

Though universities can certainly improve their practices on their own campuses, their influence and “multiplier effect on catalysing wider society’s transitions” holds the greatest potential (Horan et al., 2019). Collaboration between universities, industry, government, civil society, and citizens utilising their respective knowledge and resources provides the most fertile ground for innovative and equitable sustainability solutions.

The proximity of universities to government and policy actors is vital in making research-informed policy decisions”.

Despite the recognised role of the sector in addressing the issues presented, European universities are lacking the tools, strategies and dedicated support systems to address them, and continue to lag behind in terms of external engagement. The individual and organisational capacity of Higher Education and Vocational Education and Training providers alike should be increased. This will enable wider engagement, garnering greater shared learnings and utilising the full extent of their sphere of influence.

The United Nations Department of Economic & Social Affairs (2017) described the relationship between climate change and social inequality as a “vicious cycle whereby initial inequality causes the disadvantaged groups to suffer disproportionately from the adverse effects of climate change, resulting in greater subsequent inequality.”

With the world facing increasing challenges related to climate change, environmental degradation, and radial social inequalities, the need for a sustainable future has never been greater”.

For universities, it is often the ideological conflicts of commitment to economic growth and loyalty to existing institutions (i.e., the giants of the fossil fuel industry) that creates a stalemate in advocating for this kind of institutional strategic reform.

However, as shown by the 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, the opportunity cost of universities not recognising their role in addressing these challenges at this late stage in the climate crisis would be enormous.


  • European Commission (2016). Green skills for the future of work. Retrieved from: https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/publication/green-skills-future-work
  • Meerman, A., Galan Muros, V., Davey, T. (2018). The state of university-business cooperation in Europe: final report. European Commission Publications Office.
  • Equitable and Just Climate Platform (2018) The vision for an inclusive and just climate agenda.
  • Horan, W., Shawe, R., Moles, R., & O’Regan, B. (2019). National Sustainability Transitions and the Role of University Campuses: Ireland as a Case Study. In Sustainability on University Campuses: Learning, Skills Building and Best Practices (pp. 255-270). Springer, Cham.
  • Islam, N., & Winkel, J. (2017). Climate change and social inequality. UN Department of Economic & Social Affairs

Ready for more?

For related information, listen to our podcast on measuring and capturing the engagement of universities.

Looking to deep dive into this topic? Join us at the 2023 UIIN Conference and learn from global industry experts, with several sessions dedicated to valorisation, the future of education and impact-driven research.

Madeline Arkins (author) is a Project Officer at UIIN. In her work she focuses on topics relating to social impact and innovation in regional ecosystems.

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