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Blog post Part of special issue: Embedding sustainability education in practice

The role of sustainability-focused degrees: Embodying interdisciplinarity & the development of generalism as specialism?

Zoe Robinson, Professor of Sustainability in Higher Education at Keele University

It feels like I’m about to be controversial: I’m going to make the case for educating generalists. At least this seems controversial in a world where traditional disciplines and specialism are at the heart of our university structures. I’m not saying that specialists aren’t important; but I am suggesting that we also need to create space for people to become ‘specialists in being generalists’, particularly when it comes to tackling the multidimensional problems generated by the sustainability challenges our society faces.

Although there is ever-increasing discussion of the need for interdisciplinarity in higher education within both education and research, this is beset with challenges – from conflict between discipline-based cost centres, to the difficulties of communicating between the different ‘languages’ within disciplines. It has already been a long haul from the burgeoning environmental movement in the 1970s to the 2015 ratification of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but there is still a long way to go for interdisciplinary working to become integrated into existing systems. We also have a long way to go when it comes to finding a pathway to a more sustainable future.

The SDGs encompass 17 wide-ranging goals, from ‘no poverty’ to ‘climate action’. The SDGs aren’t without criticism: critiques, for instance, focus on the oxymoronic implicit assumption that continual economic growth can be sustainable; or the anthropogenic conception of development and sustainability (Adelman, 2018); or the difficulty in quantifying achievement against the goals; and their non-binding nature (Swain, 2018). However, they are probably the best blueprint we have for a sustainable future, as they at least highlight the breadth of interconnected issues required to achieve sustainability. There are several initiatives promoting the adoption of the SDGs in education. Approaches to embedding the SDGs often centre on encouraging students or staff to identify links between their discipline and the SDGs, or ‘map’ the coverage of SDGs in the curriculum. Yet the real power of the SDGs lies in how they relate to each other, reflecting the complex interdependencies of these issues. Environmental issues are largely socioeconomic issues, while our economy and society rely on the functioning of our natural systems. If we don’t make these connections our existing environmental challenges and societal injustices will only get worse.

‘The real power of the SDGs lies in how they relate to each other, reflecting the complex interdependencies of these issues … If we don’t make these connections our existing environmental challenges and societal injustices will only get worse.’

Acknowledgement of the central role of education in building a sustainable future has led to the emergence of the field of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). A significant part of ESD focuses on the essential process of embedding sustainability in all subject areas. We need all our students to graduate with a sustainability lens that they can apply to both their personal and professional lives. We also need to ensure that for all disciplines there is a holistic coverage of sustainability: that natural science students see links to social issues, and that social science students see the relevance of environmental issues. We need to ensure that we are not just educating about sustainability but that we are educating for sustainability, and that includes development of a wide range of attributes, referred to as ‘sustainability competencies’.

Alongside embedding sustainability in all disciplines, I argue that we also need to develop specialists in sustainability. There are a small number of undergraduate degrees in the UK which focus on sustainability as a field of study in its own right, mirroring the emergence of sustainability science as a research field (Kates et al., 2001) and bringing together different disciplinary perspectives on sustainability challenges. Over 12 years ago I was involved in designing a sustainability-focused degree, which aims to develop students so they are able to cross the traditional divide between the social and natural sciences. This degree brings together core discipline specialist modules in, amongst others, geology, biology, politics and business, combined with modules that focus on the emerging field of sustainability itself, and provide an opportunity to reflect on the connections between the different disciplines.

In my experience, students on these sustainability-focused undergraduate degrees tend to form quite distinctive cohorts. I have spoken to a number of these students who would not have chosen to study at university if they had not found such a course targeted at tackling these big challenges, rather than traditional discipline-focused courses. In addition, these cohorts tend to be extremely engaged in university life, catalysing new sustainable change initiatives within the university and inspiring change towards sustainability in other students.

Tackling the complex, intertwined problems of sustainability, requires changes in education. We need all students to learn about the sustainability connections with their discipline, but we also need students who are ‘specialists in being generalists’, that embody interdisciplinarity within themselves, whose field of study focuses between other disciplines, allowing them to be the ‘glue’ that enables different specialisms to work together to address our sustainability challenges. So, let us not just value interdisciplinarity through discipline specialists working together; let us also value those who are specialists in being generalists, and let us make sure that our education system has space for their development. A sustainable future needs them.


Adelman, S. (2018). The sustainable development goals, anthropocentrism and neoliberalism. In D. French & L. Kotzé (eds.) Sustainable Development Goals: Law, theory and implementation. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Kates, R. W., Clarke, W., Corell, R., Hall, J. M., Jaeger, C. C., Lowe, I., McCarthy, J. J., Schellnhuber, H. J., Bolin, B., Dickson, N. M., Faucheux, S., Gallopin, G. C., Grübler, A., Huntley, B., Jäger, J., Jodha, N. S., Kasperson, R. E., Mabogunje, A., Matson, P., Mooney, H., III, B. M., O’Riordan, T., & Svedin, U. (2001). Sustainability science. Science, 292(5517), 641–642.

Swain, R. B. (2018). A critical analysis of the sustainable development goals. In W. Leal Filho (ed.) Handbook of sustainability science and research (pp. 341–355).  Springer International Publishing.