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Higher education (HE) has a key role in supporting sustainable development (Walsh, 2022). Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) enables individuals to act and make informed decisions that support a just society, environmental integrity and economic viability, for current and future generations. ESD is needed, globally, to enable HE students and staff to contribute to a more sustainable future, with calls for action for over a decade.

Despite the calls for action, there is inertia related to the sustainability agenda in HE. This is attributed to a ‘dislocation between decisions in the “here and now” and outcomes in a relatively distant future’ (Baughan et al., 2021, p. 14). At its heart, sustainability is a complex issue and is understood to require interdisciplinary approaches (Freeth & Caniglia, 2020). Higher education institutions are urged to create meaning for sustainability; a narrative that resonates across disciplines and connects with university functions to inform vision and planning.

We undertook a study at a university in Scotland involving 15 students and members of staff. Participants worked in interdisciplinary groups to envision the future of ESD in HE in 20 to 30 years. We used a workshop method, informed by the Manoa approach (Curry & Schultz, 2009), which supports small groups to vision future scenarios. Participants initially generated potential scenarios for ESD using ‘futures wheels’ (see figure 1). They then used the scenarios to identify the implications of changes in social, technological, environmental, economic and/or political spheres. The data from the ‘futures wheels’ was thematically analysed.

Figure 1: A Futures Wheel, a photograph of one of the group’s output from the Manoa event

Three themes emerged from the workshop data. The first centred around what universities are for, foregrounding social purpose and responsibilities, as well as the need for adaptability in the complex HE system. Linked to this, a second theme of communities (global and local) came through, which captured the diversity of perspectives and future needs of communities and learners. For example, one vision was for the campus as a hub for hybrid teaching, integrating community and business interactions. Finally, there was a third theme of personal growth that applied to staff and students, and was concerned not just with personalised and lifelong learning but also with wellbeing.

The workshop highlighted the enthusiasm and desire of the participants to engage in discussions about ESD and potentially act to catalyse change, though there seemed to be challenges in envisioning long-term futures. The themes that emerged captured concepts and ideas which are already established in the literature and in current HE practices – for example, learning in green spaces, and introducing students to global health challenges. As we reflected on these emergent themes, we were struck by the proximity to current practices rather than to those of 20 to 30 years in the future. This suggests that participants are perhaps more invested in the ‘here and now’ and find it a challenge to be ambitious and ‘out there’ in terms of their thinking when considering ESD.

‘Higher education may struggle to invest in a vision that genuinely addresses emerging environmental issues.’

ESD requires all those involved to develop skills in visualising what the future might look like, to be able to imagine regenerative ways in which HE can adapt, become resilient and solve emerging complex issues. Much of the focus of the impacts stated by participants related to hybrid/online learning environments that would not have featured so strongly had we not learned new ways of thinking and practising through the pandemic in 2020–22. The need to adapt and become resilient was evident in the data. However, when participants were challenged to envision a future curriculum that is impacted by global drivers this seemed to be much more difficult. This suggested that HE may struggle to invest in a vision that genuinely addresses emerging environmental issues.

We ask then, do we need to consider enhancing student and staff capabilities related to anticipatory, foresight/futures thinking? Considering the challenge of pre-empting the distant future, are we preparing students, staff and, more broadly, our institution for future sustainability? On a more positive note, these relatable, literature-connected, medium-term visions of HE, identified in the workshop, have value in supporting planning, decision-making and cross-disciplinary meaning making, associated with ESD in HE. However, we propose that HE needs to rise to the challenge of formulating visions of the long-term, to support effective decision-making and planning. This could be done by introducing staff and students to futures thinking methodologies, to encourage innovative visioning.


We would like to thank and acknowledge the support of research assistants: Vanessa Cliff-Ekubo, Tanya MacDonald and Susan Nakanwagi.


Baughan, P., Parkin, D., & Brown, G. (2021). Sustainability for everyone: Perspectives from Higher education leaders. Advance HE. 

Curry, A., & Schultz, W. (2009). Roads less travelled: Different methods, different futures. Journal of Futures Studies, 13(4), 35–60.

Freeth, R., & Caniglia, G. (2020). Learning to collaborate while collaborating: Advancing interdisciplinary sustainability research. Sustainability Science, 15, 247–261.

Walsh, P. P. (2022). Education is the enabler for sustainable development. SDG Action.

More content by Marie Beresford-Dey, Stella Howden, Linda Martindale, Ana Elizabeth Bastida and Jackie Malcolm