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The orchestration of a sustainable development agenda in the European Higher Education Area

Iryna Kushnir (Nottingham Institute of Education, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)
Elizabeth Agbor Eta (Department of Education, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland)
Marcellus Forh Mbah (Manchester Institute of Education, The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)
Charlotte-Rose Kennedy (Nottingham Institute of Education, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 17 July 2023

Issue publication date: 2 January 2024




This paper aims to ask how the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) has orchestrated a sustainable development (SD) agenda in its international policy since 2020.


By drawing on theoretical ideas around policy orchestration as a key UN governing strategy and applying them to the analysis of the progression of the SD agenda in the EHEA, the paper conducts a thematic analysis of six recent key EHEA international policy documents and 19 interviews with key Bologna stakeholders in France, Germany and Italy.


The resultant analysis uncovers three overarching key themes that show the EHEA has the capacity to mitigate pitfalls in the UN’s SD agenda; some weaknesses of the UN’s orchestration of SD are translated into weaknesses in the EHEA’s formulation of its SD agenda; and the further development of an SD agenda as an essential direction of EHEA’s work. The paper then goes on to discuss how EHEA policies only mention SD discourse, omit concrete plans for its implementation and keep the very meaning of SD ambiguous throughout international policy documents.


The authors offer three original recommendations that the EHEA should adopt in an attempt to mitigate the issues raised in the run-up to its 2030 deadline for implementing its policies: the EHEA should develop an explicit definition of SD; recognise the Euro-centredness of EHEA policies and open them up to other voices; and cite academic research when developing policy documents.



Funding statement: The research reported in the article was made possible (in part) by a grant from the Spencer Foundation (#202200185) awarded to Dr Iryna Kushnir. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funder.

Ethical approval: The overarching research design of the project that served as a foundation for this article was informed by BERA (2018) Research Ethics Guidelines, and data collection followed a favourable ethics decision (Ref: KUSHNIR 2021/414) from the Schools of Business, Law and Social Sciences Research Ethics Committee (BLSS REC) at Nottingham Trent University.

Data availability statement: The data set with interview transcripts, generated and analysed during the current study, is available in the Research Data Archive of Nottingham Trent University, at


Kushnir, I., Eta, E.A., Mbah, M.F. and Kennedy, C.-R. (2024), "The orchestration of a sustainable development agenda in the European Higher Education Area", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 25 No. 1, pp. 143-160.



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