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What role does sustainability play at universities, in degree courses, and in research?

How important is sustainability at universities? What role does it play in degree courses and research? Where can you study sustainability? These questions are answered by Gerd Michelsen, professor of environmental and sustainable communication at the University of Lüneburg.

What role does sustainability play at universities – at national and international level?

Professor Michelsen: Ten years ago hardly any universities were addressing the topic of sustainability, but today clearly quite a number are considering integrating the notion of sustainability into their teaching. In research the picture is slightly different because there are promotional programmes that provide incentives for science to tackle issues concerning sustainable development. So the competition for funding is increasing. Only a few universities are taking sustainability so seriously that they are also changing the institution itself and its management to become more sustainable.

Where do problems still exist with integration into teaching or in launching degree courses?

Professor Michelsen: The Bologna Process actually harbours a huge opportunity to make innovations in degree courses. However, this opportunity has been passed up over the last ten years. Traditionally it has been very difficult for the universities, with their individual faculties, to integrate new content, new degree concepts or new teaching methods into existing courses. Each faculty regards its own subject as the most important one, and many of its members think it should be even more strongly represented in the respective degree course. This sort of attitude makes it hard to reform existing study programmes or to introduce new ones.

What has to improve?

Professor Michelsen: Initially, people have to realise that sustainability is a natural part of teaching and research. Furthermore, we need greater willingness to critically question the role and importance of one’s own subject area within the various degree courses. And finally, the staff members need to be more open-minded and curious, to enable innovation in the study programmes.

Which countries are leading the field in university study and sustainability?

Professor Michelsen: Within Europe, Sweden is well on the way. Swedish legislation even requires universities to address sustainability issues. For several years Austria has had a university competition on the subject of sustainability. For the universities it is a great incentive to become involved. More and more universities there are therefore tackling sustainability. Things are moving in Germany, too, not least due to the World Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. As part of its activities, the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) and the German Commission for UNESCO issued a joint declaration entitled ‘Universities for Sustainable Development’.

Which universities lead in Germany? And why?

Professor Michelsen: In this connection I would like to mention two universities: first, Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development, and second, the University of Lüneburg. They are very consistently integrating the principle of sustainability into research, teaching and continuing education. The University of Lüneburg offers degree courses on sustainability from bachelor level all the way to doctorates. In addition, all its students have to take the module ‘Responsibility in Science’ in their first semester, which covers issues concerning sustainable development. Other universities, such as Kiel, Bremen, Tübingen, Freiburg and Eichstätt, have also started doing this. Future students will find that it pays off to do some careful research before commencing their studies: which universities and colleges now offer courses in sustainability?

Why does the University of Lüneburg focus on sustainability?

Professor Michelsen: At the end of the 1980s, the University of Lüneburg already realised that universities have to contribute to the analysis and resolution of environmental issues and to include relevant material in their curricula. It introduced the first interdisciplinary course in environmental studies in Germany in 1996. The course covered issues in natural science and the social sciences in equal measure. Projects were promoted with support from the foundation Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU) and the Ministry for Science and Culture of Lower Saxony (MWK). Their aim was to examine the institution as a whole and to integrate sustainability not only into the degree courses but in all areas. The logical consequence was the foundation of the Faculty Sustainability in 2010. It now has around 30 academic staff from a range of disciplines involved in research and teaching.

What are the new approaches in Lüneburg?

Professor Michelsen: The course in ‘Sustainability and Journalism’ was launched in 2012 and is aimed at journalists. It offers them in-service training on various questions concerning sustainability. The course lasts for one year and the journalists who complete it successfully receive a certificate. It would be both useful and desirable to introduce more courses of this type. However, there are not always enough staff and resources available.

June 2013

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Salamat khandker
5 June 2013

The World Health Organization has a department entitled 'sustainable development' . Sustainable development encompasses the area of environmental degradation and climate change issue and concerning hazards. Sustainability is not a part of my degree course but I have been working on sustainable development sector since last 10 years.

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