2020/08/12 | University | Humanities & Society

“Pressure for sustainable universities is increasing”

Universities that want to stay competitive in the future must integrate sustainability values, says Anne Zimmermann, researcher at the University of Bern and President of the COPERNICUS Alliance, a network of universities committed to transformational learning for sustainable development. How this transformation can be anchored and qualitatively secured at universities will be discussed at the Higher Education Summit, held virtually from 31 August to 2 September 2020 and co-organized by the University of Bern.

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

«uniaktuell»: Ms Zimmermann, the European universities that are members of the Copernicus Alliance are calling for a rapid, radical transformation to sustainable development. In the past, universities haven’t exactly stood out as setting the pace for change, instead persisting in tradition in terms of their structures and processes. As President of the Copernicus Alliance, how do you rate the potential for radical change in higher education?
For a long time, there were, indeed, just a few universities that tried to integrate and embody sustainability in their actions out of an intrinsic motivation. After 40 years of debating sustainability, we’ve finally reached the point where – thanks to the 2030 Agenda, youth climate activists, and global and national political decisions – most universities have added sustainable development to their list of priorities. Because of the pressure from politics and society, but also from students, they now have to show that they’re sustainable. From this angle, I believe the potential for change is great at many universities.

Is the external pressure strong enough for real change, or is it simply “greenwashing”?
There is a tendency towards greenwashing in almost every sector. Universities aren’t much different. But I think we can push them where their motivation is strongest: in the desire to stand out and be “better” than the others – in other words, in their competitive thinking. At the same time, it’s important to listen carefully to these players, to truly acknowledge their efforts, and then to suggest new, innovative ways of doing things and jointly broaden our understanding of sustainable development.

In other words, use competition, which is otherwise considered counterproductive in sustainability thinking, in order to achieve the goal of sustainability?
Jes, exactly. There’s no other way we can make headway on this. Universities will want to stick to their current, mainstream ideas of competitiveness unless we show them that they can remain competitive precisely by integrating values of sustainability. At the University of Bern, this has been understood very well by researchers in the area of climate, sustainability, and biodiversity, but also more recently in the humanities for example – with the Sinergia project “Ecological Imperative”.

So what is radical or rapid about this sort of change?
Indeed, radical change isn’t easy, as it’s not really compatible with the concept of a university. Tradition is an essential part of a university’s DNA. So, it’s very important to identify and strengthen what is relevant to sustainability at each university. Just how rapidly this can be done is a central question. Because we really don’t have any time left. In the debate about global warming, pressure for change came primarily from students. Now it’s the coronavirus crisis that is forcing us to make changes worldwide.

This gives rise to a fundamental question: Do we simply want to let crises change us, or do we want to seize the opportunity to steer needed changes in a particular direction? And how will things look after this crisis? Will we fall back into old patterns that we should know by now don’t work? We’re at a point where it’s probably still possible to steer things. But we have to want it together. “Rapid” change seems more likely now than if everything had continued on its usual course. The coronavirus crisis has been a brutal eye-opener; it offers us a chance to move in the right direction.

Transformation to sustainable development can’t be determined from the top down. Why should higher education play an important role in this process?
Participation and personal motivation are fundamental for sustainable development. We all have to be willing to continue learning, rather than simply receiving “truths”. In this sense, universities are great places for learning. After all, they encourage critical thinking. Critical thinking is an important part of transformative learning processes. It also means questioning one’s own perspectives and ways of thinking. But in addition to transformative learning, we need knowledge that enables us to make responsible decisions based on facts and avoid repeating past mistakes. For this, we need researchers who conduct studies both in their own discipline and across and beyond disciplines. This type of community is mainly nourished by universities. However – and here I come back to the needed change within universities – higher education institutions must be prepared to offer an education that not only imparts knowledge and critical thinking, but also fosters other competences, ranging from personal skills to leadership skills.

Doesn’t this mainly speak to “elites”?
Not when we promote leadership skills that are combined with empathy for others and for the environment. In education for sustainable development, we speak of “servant leadership” as the ideal. It’s not about strengthening one’s own ego, career, or position of power, but instead oriented towards the needs of the community.

In this sense, we need people who are capable of thinking scientifically and researching things that serve to advance society – but it’s not about creating a ruling elite. Indeed, if universities see themselves as purely elite institutions and focus solely on excellent knowledge that affords them a market advantage – in other words, if they can only imagine knowledge detached from its basis in values and the broader context of the environment and society – they definitely won’t be able to fulfil their sustainability mission.

The conference will be attended primarily by scientists. How does the Copernicus Alliance engage other actors as co-researchers and co-learners – which is an important aim of transformative learning?
We want to address different partners and target groups with the conference. One of them is civil society. That’s why we planned field trips in Bern to neighbourhood initiatives, solidarity economy examples, and other similar projects. Due to the coronavirus, we’ve had to switch to virtual formats – in this case, videos. Our partners from these civil society initiatives will also be able to participate online in the conference. This is very important to us, because if we as a community only discuss things among ourselves, we miss out on innovations introduced from the outside, and the relevance of our work is diminished.

The University of Bern promotes sustainable development in the teaching of all disciplines. At CDE, you and a team co-design the corresponding support measures. What are the highlights, and where are the challenges?
We have a mandate from the University of Bern to support lecturers from all disciplines in integrating sustainability in their teaching. According to this mandate, at least two hours must be dedicated to sustainability in each course of studies. However, many subject experts consider this impossible – mainly because of deeply rooted disciplinary thinking, but also for structural reasons.

What do you mean by that?
It’s about money. Everyone is forced to prove the importance of their subject area in order to secure the resources they need. When something else like sustainability is added on top, this understandably leads to resistance. Further, many lecturers worry that their freedom in teaching and research will be constrained. That’s not the case at all – but it’s up to us to show them.

And the highlights?
The process and experience of working together with lecturers and researchers is really exciting: In conversation with them, we often discover they’re investigating and teaching things that could be highly relevant to sustainable development. In literary studies, for example, it’s possible to analyse different narratives and show how they shape our perception of the world. For the modelling of future climate scenarios, by contrast, we see that we’re eminently dependent on mathematical innovations. I maintain it’s possible to make connections to sustainability in every subject. This must be integrated in teaching. Another highlight is that our approach is attracting international attention and new networks are being created. I’m very thankful that we’re strongly supported in this by Silvia Schroer, Vice-Rector for Quality at the University of Bern.

Higher Education Summit 2020

The Higher Education Summit 2020 (#HES2020) at the University of Bern was originally planned as an in-person meeting. It will now take place online due to the pandemic. The conference is organized by the COPERNICUS Alliance, the universities of Bern and Lausanne, the Swiss Academic Society for Environmental Research and Ecology (saguf), and the Network for Transdisciplinary Research of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences (td-net). The event is being sponsored by the University of Bern as part of its mandate for education for sustainable development.


The COPERNICUS Alliance is a European network of universities and colleges committed to transformational learning and change for sustainable development. Its goal is to enable European higher education institutions and their partners to jointly identify challenges in higher education for sustainable development and address them from a whole-institution perspective. The members of the alliance currently comprise 21 institutions, most of them universities, as well as five individuals. The COPERNICUS Alliance promotes exchange with political decision-makers and with interest groups from society and the economy at the European and global levels. It is strongly committed to reducing the ecological footprint of its activities.

About Anne Zimmermann

Dr. Anne Zimmermann heads the Education for Sustainable Development Cluster at the University of Bern’s Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) and supports the Vice Rectorate for Quality in integrating education for sustainable development into the curricula of all faculties. She holds a PhD in English Language and Literature and has focused her academic career on the integration of sustainable development in research and teaching. She is President of the COPERNICUS Alliance.

About the Author

Gaby Allheilig is Head of Communications at the Centre of Development and Environment (CDE) of the University of Bern.