Greener Curriculum

Education for Sustainable Development

What is Education for Sustainable Development?

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is given numerous definitions in use across the sector, but it can most simply be described as education that aims to give students the knowledge and skills to live and work sustainably. It might also be referred to as Education for Sustainability and Sustainability Education.

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Why is it important to us?

  • The UK continues to face spiralling unemployment levels , around 1m of which are young people (aged 16-24), (ONS figures) therefore we need to ensure graduates are fully equipped with the skills desired and valued by their future employers.
  • The green economy is seen as a solution to our current economic and environmental position meaning that Education for Sustainable Development is becoming increasing relevant both in policy and curriculum reform.  Over a third of UK growth in 2011-12 is likely to come from Green Business, according to a report by the Green Alliance. 
  • The changing landscape in funding in Higher Education is predicted to lead to changes in student expectations, coupled with the finding that the vast majority of recent graduates (96%) have an expectation that they be involved in sustainability in some way during their careers (Sky (2011)).


What is NUS doing about it?

NUS sees itself as an enabler for students’ unions and education institutions wanting to ‘green’ their curriculum and equip their students, the future generation of workers and leaders, with the skills to both adapt to and lead a changing economy.

Our behaviour change work already looks at creating a social norm of sustainability on campus and within the community. A greener curriculum will see sustainability issues being discussed in lecture theatres, as well as on campus, in student housing and within the community.

This is what NUS is currently doing on ESD:

Leading research

NUS has been working with the HEA since 2010 to assess student experiences of education for sustainable development (ESD) and understand the attitudes and skills developed as a result. First conducted in 2010-11, the research is now entering its third year (2012-13).

Key findings from the 2010 and 2011 research include:

  • Over two thirds of 2011 first and second-year respondents (66.6% and 70.3% respectively), as in 2010 (70%), believe that sustainability should be covered by their university;
  • There is a continued preference among students for a reframing of curriculum content rather than additional content or courses. 67.4% first years and 69% second years in 2011 agreed with this.
    • There is evidence to suggest that students become increasingly focused on employability throughout their time at university. Responses in 2011 show second-year students (49.7%) expressed a slight preference for employability over furthering their subject specific knowledge;
    • Two thirds of first and second year students responding to the 2011-12 study said they would willingly get paid £1,000 less a year if the company they worked for had a good environmental and ethical record.
  • Students believe employers value sustainability skills, according to the research, with almost 80% (79.6) of second year students in 2011-12 viewing universities as a key provider of these environmental, social and economic skills.

To what extent do you agree, or disagree, with the following statement:

Sustainable development is something universities should actively incorporate and promote.”

For further information please see our Greener Research page.

Find the reports here: 2010-11 report 2011-12 report.


Supporting students' unions to embed ESD through Green Impact Students’ Unions

Our top Green Impact Students' Unions have the option to run a project on Greening the Curriculum at their institution through the Green Impact Excellence programme.

Current projects include running awareness events, surveying the student body and presenting findings to senior management, and working with senior management on curriculum reviews.

For more information on Green Impact Excellence, please see our Green Impact Excellence webpage


Rewarding Success

Green Impact Students' Unions has a special award dedicated to Education for Sustainable Development sponsored by the HEA for the first time this year. The HEA Education for Sustainable Development Award will celebrate innovative work undertaken by Students’ Unions to embed Sustainability (or sustainable development) across the student experience.

More information on Green Impact Special Awards can be found here.


Further Reading

Future Fit Framework- an introductory guide to teaching and learning for Sustainability in HE (Higher Education Academy, Plymouth University)

Education for Sustainable Development and Holistic Curriculum Change- a review and guide (Higher Education Academy)

Education for Sustainable Development- an educators guide (University of Bristol)

Embedding Sustainable Development in the Curriculum- guidance for staff within learning institutions on how to embed sustainable development into how and what they teach (ESD consulting on behalf of the LSC and supported by the EAUC)

Post-crash Economics Society - an example of students coming together to question the content of their own curriculum. At the University of Manchester, economics students are demanding that their courses open up discussions around alternative economic models to neoliberalism, following the financial crash of 2008.

Contact Us

For more information on what NUS is doing to green the curriculum, or if you would like to embed ESD at your institution and would like support, get in touch.