24 May 2022

Demanding a sustainable curriculum


There is a need for sustainability courses to be a part of every study program at the VU as soon as possible – be it in computer science, dentistry, or social science, finds Jelske van der Burg.

Bas_zonne energie

In 2015, 193 countries created the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The SDGs are objectives and targets for the world to end poverty, protect the planet by 2030. On 28 February 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that our efforts are not enough, and time is running out to avoid climate disasters. Global climate action policies state that education plays a pivotal role in the climate crisis and other SDGs such as global poverty or gender inequality. However, educational institutions like the VU are not yet aligned to this call. There is a need for sustainability courses to be a part of every study program at the VU as soon as possible – be it in computer science, dentistry, or social science.

In 2017, VU Professor Environmental Economics Pieter van Beukering stated: ‘our students, the sustainability leaders of the future, should be engaged in Science for Sustainability already in the introductory courses of their studies to highlight the relevance of sustainability within their own discipline’. Laura Mausolf, Education Officer of the Green Office VU, also emphasized this: ‘school or university is the place where you develop (new) habits and norms. Education therefore plays a crucial role in raising awareness about sustainability and gaining insights in the impact of our current lifestyle on the future.’.

In the past years the VU developed a vision and a clear set of ambitions when it comes to sustainability: responsible, open, and personally engaged. In terms of teaching, the VU currently offers 319 courses focused on and related to the SDGs. However, not all faculties offer a broad range of courses related to the SDGs and some faculties do not include SDG courses in their curricula. For example, ACTA, VUmc, the Faculty of Humanities and the Faculty of Behavioral and Movement Sciences have incorporated relatively few courses on SDGs in their curricula.

How to move forward?

Several actions are needed to incorporate sustainability within all study programs of the VU. Firstly, we need leadership from faculties to evaluate their current education programs and propose changes to include more sustainability courses. Secondly, teachers need to be assisted in how to include sustainability in their courses. Thirdly, students need to be able to push for a sustainable change in their curriculum through, for example, surveys measuring their preferences or ideas about how to incorporate more sustainable courses in their study programs. As students serve as drivers for the change needed, they can also be involved in redesigning the curriculum. All mentioned actions will be instrumental in attracting students and providing them with the necessary sustainability skills the job market is looking for.      

The VU could take inspiration from the leading sustainable universities in the Netherlands, such as the Radboud University Nijmegen, who made sustainability a mandatory subject for all students, and  Wageningen University & Research (WUR), which is ranked the most sustainable university in the world for the fifth consecutive time. For the VU to be a worthy successor, it needs to show leadership and take action, and the time to act is now.  

Jelske van der Burg, Assistant Professor Amsterdam Institute for Life and Environment and MBA student International Business, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

This opinion has been prepared in collaboration with Pieter van Beukering, Professor Environmental Economics and Ivar Maas, Lead Sustainable VU.

IMAGE: Bas van der Schot


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