Sustainability in Education

‘Every  student  must  encounter  sustainability,  regardless  of  their  field  of study’. This sentence is taken from Utrecht University’s Strategic Plan (2016-2020). The university wants to prepare students as much as possible for the many challenges and opportunities presented by the theme of sustainability. By integrating sustainability into education, new generations are trained to become sustainable thinkers. In this theme, attention is paid to the content of education, student awareness and available resources for distance learning. The business operations behind education is discussed in other chapters.

First batch of Global Sustainability Science graduates (2019)

In order to introduce students to sustainability the university carries out these activities, among others:

  • One of the university's four strategic themes is ‘Pathways to Sustainability’. Within this theme, researchers, students and external partners work together on research for a sustainable future and develop interdisciplinary sustainability education.
  • The Social Entrepreneurship Initiative (SEI) promotes education and research in the field of social entrepreneurship.  
  • The university offers education in the field of sustainability, for a small selection of courses see the list under indicator 1.1.
  • In Living Labs, students research sustainability issues from the university's business operations as part of a course. See chapter 3: Living Labs.

In addition, the university has various solutions in education to reduce the  CO2 impact of travel:

  • With the Virtual Exchange program, the university participates in an alliance of several international universities that all offer a selection of online courses.
  • Through the Life Long Learning platform, the university offers various interactive online courses (SPOCs: Small Private Online Courses) for a limited number of students.


The  indicators  below  show  how  many  students  came  into  direct  contact  with  the  theme  of  sustainability  in  their  studies  during  2019.  A  number  of  Bachelor’s  and  Master’s  programmes  focus  specifically  on  sustainability; the  first  indicator  shows  how  many  students  graduate  on  this  limited selection of programmes. In the current UU-wide curriculum, sustainability is interwoven in many more ways, but that is not visible in this indicator. The second indicator, the game ‘Utrecht 2040’, shows how many students started working on the theme of sustainability in the 2019 student orientation week.

KPIs for measuring sustainability in education

1.1 Number of graduates in sustainability-oriented programmes

In 2019, 481 students graduated with Bachelor and Master degrees specifically focused on sustainability. This is an increase of 104 compared to 2018. This is primarily due to the first graduates of the Bachelor ‘Global Sustainability Science’ (Faculty of Geo) in 2019.

In addition, 60 students completed the Young Innovators honours program in 2019. Every year, this program trains students with a passion for sustainability to be change-makers. The program gives them the tools to start creating a sustainable world themselves.

1.2 Number of players 'Utrecht 2040

Utrecht 2040’ is an interactive game in which students can play different sustainability challenges in the city of Utrecht. The game uses the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework. In 2019, 800 students from six study  programmes  within  the  Faculties  of  Geosciences  and  Humanities  played the game.

In  2018,  associate  professor  at  the  Copernicus  Institute  Karin  Rebel  started  the development of this game. The goal: to give substance to the strategic objective of bringing all students into contact with sustainability.

Activities 2019

Some of the activities in 2019 will focus on sustainability in education:

  • In 2019 Bert Weckhuysen, Professor of Catalysis, Energy and Sustainability, received a Teaching Fellow scholarship from the Comenius programme. He used this scholarship to set up an innovative interdisciplinary bachelor's programme together with colleagues Appy Sluijs and Brianne McGonigle: the Da Vinci Project. In this programme, students from different programmes work together on a sustainability issue from an external partner.
  • Since the end of 2019 it has been possible to teach and follow courses in a virtual classroom. The classroom is the first of its kind at a Dutch university and is used for synchronous (simultaneous) online education and for remote collaboration.
  • Lecturers on the strategic theme Pathways for Sustainability have developed a public online course (MOOC: Massive Online Open Course) in collaboration with Lund University and Durham University, available via the Coursera platform. The course "Urban Nature, Connecting Cities, Nature and Innovations" focuses on nature-oriented solutions for cities in Europe and worldwide.
  • The University Board is investing an additional €2.7 million in audiovisual resources that can be used for, among other things, high-quality conference calls and the facilitation of educational innovation, such as distance learning.

Outlook 2020

  • With a contribution from the Utrechts Stimuleringsfonds Onderwijs (“Utrecht Stimulation Fund for Education”) (USO) a team led by Karin Rebel will further develop the game 'Utrecht 2040'. The USO contribution is intended to for widespread use of the game for first-year students, and for the building of a sequel for second- and third-year students.
  • The university is working on a thematic classification of the courses on offer in 2020. In this way, students will soon be able to use the SDGs to look for education that suits their own sustainability interests.
  • In the Inter-University Sustainability Challenge course, students from the universities of Wageningen, Eindhoven and Utrecht receive virtual education about the SDGs. Students will collaborate on interdisciplinary questions from external partners, related to different SDGs.
  • A new CHARM-EU university will be developed in 2020, together with four other European universities. CHARM-EU stands for a 'Challenge-driven, Accessible, Research-based, Mobile European University'. The CHARM-EU curriculum is innovative, challenge-driven and based on the SDG issues that the EU and its Member States now face.
  • The university will support lecturers to integrate sustainability (based on the SDGs) into the education they provide. For example, by giving a workshop.
  • Development of an e-module Sustainable Education by Educate-it. This e-module provides resources and ways for instructors to shape the education they provide as sustainably as possible. For example, through the use of audio-visual resources and the provision of distance learning, as a result of which students need to travel less or not at all in order to follow their education.
  • In  the  strategic  theme  Pathways  to  Sustainability,  opportunities  are  currently  being  sought  for  setting  up  an  interdisciplinary  minor,  which  should  be  accessible  to  all  bachelor’s  students  at  the  university.  The  minor, which will be called Futuring for Sustainability, will not only focus on  fundamental  sustainability  issues,  but  also  on  social  issues  such  as  what the future for society looks like and what impact this will have on sustainability.