Sustainability: Students Spur Universities

It is a chicken-and-egg problem: did academics begin introducing sustainability into their curricula, and then students became interested in it? Or were students the driving force, and academics simply followed their demand? Personally, I am convinced that the latter is the case. In 2016, the initiative Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), which is supported by the United Nations, surveyed almost 2000 students across the planet. The results showed that recent student intakes were, in comparison to previous ones, more willing to sacrifice part of their future (theoretical) income if their employer was active in ecological matters. Students understood that a professional career would be useless if the world were breaking apart due to hurricanes, thunderstorms, or other catastrophes induced by climate change and its impacts. Indeed, students not only spur universities to pursue further sustainability action, but they also take strong stances on other societal topics.

For the past number of years, universities and other higher educational institutions have increasingly been placing sustainability on their agendas. They developcourses and specific programs around sustainability and try to operate in an eco-friendly fashion. By now, accreditation bodies, as well as league tables, are specifically questioning universities on their green activities. Sustainability has become a key driver for a university’s reputation and appeal. At my institution, our two master’s programs entirely dedicated to sustainability are systematically attracting more students than we have available seats. Also, our ESCP SDG conference, annually organized in the heart of Berlin next to the Brandenburg Gate (cf. image above),brings together management, entrepreneurship, and sustainability and has continuously performed with one of the best student satisfaction rates.

Sustainability has become aspirational and sexy among an increasingly large portion of students. How can higher education support students in this endeavor, apart from teaching and promoting it in their courses? To give some examples from my own domain, business and management, we first encourage students to follow their dream job, i.e., to overcome peer pressure or expectations from their parents and/or society. Our best students do not necessarily need to pursue a career in investment banking or strategy consulting – as was maybe the case in the past. They can also work for an NGO or create their own start-up in the sustainabilityindustry without getting the impression that they are failing in their professional lives. Sometimes, however,we need to work in the opposite direction. Students who only want to work in a job 100% dedicated to sustainability may need to be reminded that their environmental impact could be higher if they work in a job that is not positioned in the area of sustainability – places where there is more room for improvement. Finally, we also remind corporations that students are increasingly wanting to work for eco-friendly employers, explicitly asking them to offer internshipsand jobs, at least partly, that deal with green topics.

By the way, once you start going green, the great thing is that it will be impossible to go back, since students will continuously challenge you on this journey. If you include sustainability into your existing teachingregimen, they will ask for an entire class dedicated to the topic. If you introduce an elective course on sustainability in your program, they will demand the course become mandatory for all students. In the end, they will require an entire program dealing withsustainability. But students will not only challenge you in academic matters. They will carefully observe whether their university is walking the talk, i.e., whether your operations are sustainable, if you recycle your trash, if you offer environmentally-friendly lunch options, and so on. And in the end, students will spur on not only universities but also their presidents, vice-chancellors, deans, and rectors. As such, I can proudly say that my lifestyle has become more sustainable over the last couple of years (with lots of room for improvement, of course) thanks to students.


Andreas Kaplan is Rector of ESCP Business School in Berlin. Previously, he was Provost and Dean for Academic Affairs for the school’s approximately 6000 students. With more than ten years of leadership experience in higher education, Professor Kaplan is particularly interested in the future of universities impacted by digital transformation, increased competition, and reduced public funding. He regularly acts as a keynote speaker and presenter at academic and non-academic conferences, seminars, and workshops. His work is featured in various national and international press and media outlets such as the California Management Review, Financial Times, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Les Echos, La Tribune, La Repubblica, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

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