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A systems approach to education for sustainability in higher education

Michael Littledyke (School of Education, University of New England, Armidale, Australia)
Evangelos Manolas (Department of Forestry and Management of the Environment and Natural Resources, Democritus University of Thrace, Orestiada, Greece)
Ros Ann Littledyke (School of Education, University of New England, Armidale, Australia)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 13 September 2013




The purpose of the research is to investigate education for sustainability (EfS) practice and perceptions in three university contexts in England, Australia and Greece with a view to identify a suitable systems model for effective EfS across the university.


Research tools involved interviews of key people engaged in EfS (n=25) supported by observations plus appropriate documentary analysis as a basis to establish perceived good practice, barriers and ways to improve EfS.


Clear vision, leadership and support for EfS were considered vital, while agreed understanding about the importance, purpose and nature of EfS was necessary to achieve effective EfS across the university. Wide consultation, consensual agreement and collaborative practice were viewed as important to achieve collective views and coordinated action. A distributed model of leadership in which individuals are responsible and collectively empowered to action is relevant to a systems model for EfS. A systems model for coordination of EfS integrates approaches to governance, curriculum and infrastructure management. Details of examples of good practice and ways to improve practice are discussed.

Research limitations/implications

As the research was qualitative in design and focussed on three universities, the sample size is restricted and there are limitations in the generalisability of specific results outside of their contexts. However, the overall results have some broadly significant implications and trends that have relevance for the university sector.

Practical implications

The structure and processes for an approach to systems organisation and identified good practice, barriers and perceived ways to improve practice have relevance for coordination of EfS across the university sector.

Social implications

The findings have significant social implications, as EfS has urgent and important international priority, while universities have important functions in educating the next generation of professionals across a wide range of contexts.


The paper is an original contribution to establishing an effective systems model for EfS coordination; hence it is of significant educational and social value.



Littledyke, M., Manolas, E. and Littledyke, R.A. (2013), "A systems approach to education for sustainability in higher education", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 14 No. 4, pp. 367-383.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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