Integration of Sustainable Development in Higher Education's Curricula of Applied Economics: Large-Scale Assessments, Integration Strategies and Barriers

Article excerpt


The attention for sustainable development (SD) is ever growing (Van Poeck, Vandenabeele, & Bruyninckx, 2009). Although the importance of SD integration in higher education (HE), both on strategic and operational level, is often stressed, actual measurements of this integration are less frequent. Therefore, a large scale assessment was set up to assess SD integration within 33 professionally and academically oriented programs of applied economics in a total of 22 Flemish HE institutions. The integration of SD in applied economics programs is crucial for society, among others because business students are our future managers (Ceulemans & De Prins, 2010). The interrelations between different SD integration strategies and the barriers to them were also studied in this research, leading us to a new concept, where two different dimensions of SD integration are combined. From the research we can conclude that an SD integration approach that combines horizontal and vertical integration with bottom-up and top-down seems to be the most beneficial for sustained SD integration efforts.

Keywords: sustainability assessment, sustainability integration strategies, higher education, applied economics


During recent decades the level of attention to the concept of sustainable development (SD) has been growing significantly (Van Poeck, Vandenabeele, & Bruyninckx, 2009). In addition to this trend, a number of policy frameworks and instruments on sustainability integration have been developed on different (geographical) levels (e.g., international, national, regional and local). Among these instruments is Agenda 21 (one of the proceedings of the United Nations (UN) Rio Summit in 1992), in which the role of education in the process of moving towards SD was clearly stressed (i.e., in Chapter 36). The UN later officially announced the period 2005- 2014 as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD). UNESCO (2005), the lead agency of UN DESD, stated that:

UN DESD seeks to integrate the principles, values, and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning, in order to address the social, economic, cultural and environmental problems we face in the 21st century.

These goals of UN DESD clearly directed attention to the integration of SD into all educational settings (Calder & Clugston, 2005) - higher education included - and stressed different aspects or pillars of SD, namely social, economic, cultural and environmental aspects. This article focuses on the integration of SD into higher education, and more specifically on SD integration into curricula, as one of the roles of higher education, besides research, university operations and the external community (Cortese, 2003; Lidgren, Rodhe, & Huisingh, 2006; Velazquez, Munguia, Platt, & Taddei, 2006).

The importance of SD integration in curricula of economics and management cannot be underrated. As Ceulemans and De Prins (2010) stated, SD integration in university programs for business students is crucial, considering the fact that they will be our future managers. It is important that these students know about SD and corporate social responsibility (CSR) concepts and are able to integrate them into, for example, business strategy, corporate finance or marketing (Stubbs & Cocklin, 2008). Business managers are already facing different sustainability- related concerns, as Pesonen (2003, p. 159) has pointed out:

Consumers are asking for green products, public authorities place growing demand on companies' environmental performance, employees and neighborhood residents are concerned about the health and safety aspects of production, and nongovernmental organizations are running campaigns for the environment and sustainability. In addition, when environmental issues are successfully incorporated into corporate strategy, they can be transformed into competitive advantage. …