As we face the ecological emergency, how can we transform higher-education?

The challenge is not so much to integrate sustainable development into engineering or management education as to teach engineering and management for sustainable development.

For several years, in France and elsewhere, higher education has been questioned about its role and responsibilities in the current socio-environmental crises. In response, numerous research projects and initiatives have emerged to better integrate the principles and goals of sustainable development into the various curricula.

However, despite the growing awareness of these issues through specific courses or sessions on ethics or sustainable development, awareness-raising activities such as the Climate Fresk or assessment tests such as the Sulitest, pressure is mounting on higher education institutions, particularly in engineering and management.

The Student Manifesto for an ecological awakening launched in 2018, or the very recent calls to branch out or rebel show that, despite certain efforts, young people feel that the curricula continue to perpetuate the dominant model that has led to the current and future complex crises.

It must be recognized that this integrative approach – adding a course or a session when the already full curriculum allows it – remains contradictory and creates confusion by disseminating paradoxical injunctions between unchanged courses and new pedagogical activities, without training the students in how to manage these contradictions.

The changes should therefore go beyond this, by engaging the curricula in a transformative approach. No longer integrate sustainable development into engineering or management education, but rather teach engineering and management for sustainable development. It is by transforming the programs in depth that each student will have the knowledge and skills necessary to be responsible and committed actors in the transitions to come, both personally and professionally.

Which skills to integrate?

Through research and institutional activities, 13 competencies have been identified. They represent a pathway structured in three progressively overlapping blocks:

  • Knowing oneself and others ;
  • Understanding the world ;
  • Transforming the world.


This framework is not discipline-specific and is intended to support students, faculty, programme managers, higher education institution governors and policy makers in their efforts to transform the curriculum.

The transition will take time

While the identification of these competencies over the past few years has not been easy, the hardest part may be yet to come. Their respective definitions are still unclear, and their operationalization is even more so.

What exactly do these competencies mean for engineering and management? What degree of autonomy should students achieve in each of them? How can they be translated into specific learning objectives? What should be the learning situations to achieve them ? What are the assessment situations for this learning?

Competitive pressures, particularly in France, limit the capacity of institutions to fully engage in this evolution. Above all, this pressure limits collective thinking, whereas it is through collaboration, within and between disciplines, that new models of higher education can be developed and deployed.

In addition to institutional collaborations, these reflections must not remain only a process of experts and policy makers. In particular, it is essential that students, and young people in general, are fully part of these transitions.

To meet up with the challenges of integrating the youth, the Higher Education for Good has launched, in October 2022, its first massive collective intelligence consultation: Youth Talks ; with the ambition of gathering young people’s opinions about the future. It is not just a questionnaire, nor a survey of opinions, or a one- time initiative. It is a collective reflection on the expectations and ambitions of the youth as well as their place in the common well-being. By sharing their dreams, concerns and ideas about tomorrow, young people will nourish the Foundation’s efforts to transform Higher Education..

Supported by a set of more than 30 international partnerships with higher education institutions and youth groups, the objective of this international initiative is to reach more than 200 million young people between 15 and 29 years old around the world in order to collect the aspirations of at least 150,000 of them.

The necessary transition of higher education models requires a real paradigm shift, based not only on new skills, but also on a profound transformation of the narratives, values, metaphors and symbols that explicitly or implicitly structure the current models.

It is only through these changes that we will finally be able to develop new common horizons and move towards so-called humanistic models of education in management or engineering that would privilege human dignity and collective well-being, rather than wealth, power or status.

This article was first published on The Conversation (article in French). 

Authors : 

  • Yoann Guntzburger, Professor of management, SKEMA Business School
  • Marine Hadengue, Excetutive Director of Youth Talks and Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship, SKEMA Business School