Sustainable Development in Higher Education From the Student Perspective

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It is universally recognised that the world is faced with countless and alarming problems and that there are insufficient responses which find new global solutions that could lead in the short term to integral human development (IHD) and a more humanistic vision of development based on the dignity of the person both individually and collectively, on an ethical/moral foundation supporting rights and that respects responsibilities towards nature, present and future generations, regardless of religious conviction. The role of education for sustainable development (ESD) is well known in the search for global solutions enabling IHD, and it is suggested here as a starting point for that pursuit, namely through training its students to be drivers of new attitudes towards a more sustainable and humanistic world.  In view of the above, it is imperative to know what students think about sustainable development (SD) in the context of higher education.

A survey[1] of Portuguese public higher education students (sample of 1257 students) reveals that most of them agree that Portuguese public higher education institutions (polytechnics and universities) should incorporate and promote SD, especially within their training offer. Most students feel that institutions can do more towards ESD, through workshops, practical actions on campus or volunteering; however, the introduction of a compulsory course unit is their least chosen option.

Only half of the students know what the sustainable development goals (SDGs) are but, when it comes to the social and environmental responsibility of potential future employers, the study shows that most students are willing to accept a lower salary and work for a company that takes this issue seriously. In relation to climate change, most students are worried that it will have a negative impact on their lives and say that governments should do more to address this problem. When asked about the frequency of students’ sustainable behaviours, it was found that reusing and reducing material consumption and separating waste for recycling are among the most common. The results of the study are determined by the student profile, and vary according to:

  • gender (women participate more, have a clearer perception of or are more sensitive to the issue);
  • age (while the 27+ age group has more sustainable behaviours, 17- to 19-year-olds participate more in different actions);
  • scientific area (natural and environmental science students have a better perception, adopt practices, are familiar with the SDGs, feel that their studies can help them foster change, and are more concerned about climate change).

A cluster analysis also found that the students can be grouped into four clusters, in line with the perceptions, practices and behaviours.

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study in the Portuguese context to identify how higher education students feel about their institutions’ commitment to SD. The results confirm that students’ education and life experiences condition their knowledge and adoption of more sustainable behaviours and habits.

By unsplash

By unsplash

In general, higher education institutions have not yet understood their responsibility in the field of SD, meeting the SGDs and Laudato Si’ goals, notably goal 5 – Ecological Education “re-thinking and re-designing curricular and institutional reform in the spirit of integral ecology in order to foster ecological awareness and transformative action”[2], as a response to the ecological crisis by redefining and rebuilding our relationships with each other and with our common home (considering the planetary limits of all socio-economic systems and the human roots of the ecology crisis). Given the countless challenges, ESD should be understood as the foundation stone for SD for IHD and a new humanism.

List of Acronyms:

ESD – Education for sustainable development

IHD – Integral human development

SD – Sustainable development

SDGs – Sustainable development goals


* Cover Image Creative Commons License Type:


[1] Aleixo, A. M., Leal, S., & Azeiteiro, U. M. (2021). Higher education students’ perceptions of sustainable development in Portugal. Journal of Cleaner Production, 327.

[2]  Laudato Si’ Platform for Action, Laudato Si’ Goals, available at Laudato Si’ Goals – Laudato Si’ Platform for Action (, consulted 22 April 2022.



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