Paula Schönach, Aalto University

Key questions:  
  • Why is sustainability an important theme in higher education?   
  • How is sustainability addressed in higher education in Finland?  
The importance of sustainability education
Sustainability concerns securing an equitable social foundation for human well-being without transgressing ecological planetary boundaries that define the limits of Earth’s ecosystems and earth-system processes to support humankind’s existence – into an indefinite future. The global sustainability crisis that humankind is experiencing requires us to focus on a habitable planet, while at the same time providing fair and equal opportunities for every person. Finland has set its own targets, for instance on becoming carbon neutral by 2035, and is committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). This essential and indispensable systemic transformation towards a sustainable future also places challenges on higher education, and universities in Finland have taken this challenge seriously.   
Sustainability education at Finnish universities  
One key task of universities is to educate future experts for professions that contribute to tackling the sustainability crisis. Growing demands to provide graduates with adequate competencies to respond to the sustainability crisis at hand are heard not only from industry and governmental organizations but also from faculty staff and students themselves.   
In collaboration with all Finnish university leaders (Council of University Rectors UNIFI) and the Finnish National Union of University Students (SYL), the Finnish education sector has agreed on 12 theses on sustainability development and responsibility that summarize the commitment of higher education institutions (HEIs) to respond to the sustainability challenge. They range from institution-wide sustainability actions and increasing sustainability awareness to research agendas, campus operations, outreach activities, and curriculum development.  
Finnish universities have incorporated sustainability into their study offering in different ways, and sustainability-relevant studies are widely available in Finnish universities. Moreover, an educational network, Climate University, forms an umbrella of bachelor and master’s level courses offered at Finnish universities in various areas, including climate science, climate communication, and the circular economy. In addition, several universities offer designated sustainability courses for all students and also for broader audiences (see, e.g., the Planetary Well-being courses offered by the University of Jyväskylä).  
Sustainability education at Aalto University 
Aalto University has declared its purpose to be ‘shaping a sustainable future’. Aalto University aims to offer sustainability education as a unifying theme throughout its study programmes and as part of its international (e.g., the SDG Accord) and national commitments. This is especially supported through three themes that crosscut all activities at the university: 1) creating solutions for sustainability through 2) radical creativity and 3) an entrepreneurial mindset. Sustainability education at Aalto includes field specific, topical system knowledge on the root causes and mechanisms underlying sustainability challenges, the relevant skills to contribute to sustainability solutions, and a mindset that supports students’ ability to become active and courageous agents working towards sustainability.   
Aalto University’s approach is to integrate sustainability into its programmes through on-going curriculum development work. In addition to study programmes with an explicit focus on sustainability (e.g., the master’s programmes Creative Sustainability, Water and Environmental Engineering, Sustainable Communities, or Advanced Energy Solutions), other programmes also encourage students learn to find connections between their specific field of study and sustainability challenges and solutions.   
Sustainability integration in teaching 
Figure 1 below illustrates the way sustainability can be integrated to studies by bringing together field specific competencies and sustainability related competencies and how they relate to generic academic knowledge and skills. Besides relevant knowledge and skills, also the motivation and courage to act as a professional to contribute to solving sustainability challenges is highlighted. Here, self-awareness is a key sustainability competence, as it supports the individual in understanding and reflecting on their own role as an agent of change for a sustainable future, both personally and professionally.   
Fig 1. Schematic presentation of the relationship between sustainability and field specific competencies in higher education for meaningful sustainability integration. Credit: Noora Jaakkola, Meeri Karvinen & Paula Schönach   
Sustainability challenges essentially include so-called ‘wicked problems’, characterized by complexity and a wide range of variables, the lack of straight-forward, replicable solutions, and the involvement of value-based, potentially conflicting interests. As the complexity of sustainability challenges requires a combination of approaches, concepts, and methods from different disciplines, a mix of different types of knowledge is required. The role of universities and higher education is to contribute to generating descriptive and explanatory systems knowledge for increased understanding of socio-ecological systems and structures. Target knowledge is required for clarifying the desired target states, which is particularly essential for decision making. Finally, solution-oriented transformative knowledge critically addresses the status quo and contributes to change towards sustainability. The very nature of wicked problems requires the engagement of various societal stakeholders in the process of problem definition and the co-creation of solutions. Thus, emphasizing multidisciplinary (involving several disciplines) and transdisciplinary (involving stakeholders beyond academia) approaches and collaboration (skills) is essential. The learning is reflexive, and emphasis is placed on the learning process instead of solely on the end result.   
Aalto ways of enhancing sustainability education 
At Aalto University, learning for sustainability is realized through close connections with problem-based learning, real life cases, and project courses. Courses that engage student groups with various backgrounds and fields of study enable the breaking of silos and the enhancement of multidisciplinary and multicultural communication and collaboration – both necessary elements of sustainability education. The Otaniemi campus in Espoo is often used as a platform for learning activities with real life cases connected to enhancing sustainability on campus. The campus Test Site is open for student-led initiatives for experimental learning on sustainability. In addition, entrepreneurship education at Aalto University operates within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals. All supported ventures must be tied to sustainability targets and demonstrate their contribution to achieving them.   
Through sustainable development goal sub-target 4.7, we are committed to:  
ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.  
Work towards this goal is an on-going process that requires active input both from HEIs and students. Thus, sustainability in teaching and learning is a joint effort.   

Further reading: 
Aalto University strategy: Shaping a sustainable future: 
Climate University:   
Sustainability through entrepreneurship at Aalto: 

Last modified: Tuesday, 12 September 2023, 11:04 AM