Five questions and 100 delegates from 15 countries: COPERNICUS conference on higher education, sustainability and ESD


COPERNICUS Alliance Conference on Leadership in a Changing World: Higher education, sustainability and the new Global Action Programme on ESD (Education for Sustainable Development) was held at the University of Gloucestershire UK on 10-11 January 2014.

This international conference, attended by 100 delegates from over 15 countries from Europe (including UK, Spain, Germany, Sweden, France, Czech Republic, Finland, Poland, Italy, Austria, The Netherlands, Denmark) and outside (e.g. Jamaica, USA, Kenya, Australia, Canada), took place during a major transition period for ESD globally, namely the end of the UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development (DESD, 2005-2014) and the beginning of the new Global Action Programme on ESD.

The two-day event was structured around the following themes:

  • Day 1: University Leadership for Sustainability
  • Day 2: Student Leadership for Sustainability and COPERNICUS Alliance (CA)


University Leadership for Sustainability (Day 1)

The conference started with a welcome by Professor Steven Marston, Vice-Chancellor, University of Gloucestershire.

In her opening address, Professor Daniella Tilbury (Chair of the UNESCO Monitoring and Evaluation Group for the DESD and President of COPERNICUS Alliance) emphasised that, with a focus on global platforms, institutional development and student leadership for sustainable development in higher education, the conference was underpinned by five questions:

  • What have been the major changes and shifts in higher education towards sustainability over the last ten years?
  • What does the future hold for universities and colleges engaged with this agenda?
  • What role will the new Global Action Programme on ESD play in advancing change for sustainability in higher education?
  • How do we extend the circle of the committed and build partnerships for change?
  • How do you understand transformation for sustainable development in higher education?

The morning of Day 1 featured three keynotes:

  • Dr Alexander Leicht (UNESCO, Chief of ESD Section, France): The Global Action Programme on ESD and UNESCO ESD plans in post-DESD
  • Mahesh Pradhan (United Nations Environment Programme UNEP and Founder of its Global University Partnerships on Environment and Sustainability GUPES, Kenya): Ambitions and achievements of UNEP’s GUPES
  • Dr Geoff Scott (Emeritus Professor of Sustainability at the University of Western Sydney and Co-Chair of the Sustainable Futures Leadership Academy SFLA, Australia): Findings of the Turnaround Leadership for Higher Education study

An interactive panel discussion, chaired by Dr. Alex Ryan (CA, UK), followed, directing the delegates to five discussion groups on the following:

  • Learning from the UN Decade of ESD
  • The desirable outlook of the new kind of higher education
  • Education and diversity
  • Partnerships for connecting higher education system to wider community
  • Leadership in higher education

The afternoon began with two parallel sessions.

The first parallel session comprised sessions under three themes:

Whole-institutional approaches:

  • Enhancing higher education for sustainable development by advantaging a developed change management process for universities, Tove Holme, Novia University of Applied Sciences, Finland
  • Implementation of sustainable development in higher education: Evidence from 70 universities, Professor Rodrigo Lozano, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, The Netherlands
  • A viral approach, Jean-Christophe Carteron, KEDGE Business School, France
  • A research plan for modelling organisational transformation towards sustainability at higher education institutions, Alex R Shelley, International Centre for Integrated Assessment and Sustainable Development (ICIS), The Netherlands

Partnerships for sustainability

  • Partnerships for change: ESD in practice in Welsh Higher Education, Lara Hopkinson, Cardiff University, UK
  • Sustainable cities: opportunities for building partnerships through European Green Capital, Chris Willmore, University of Bristol, UK
  • Building a partnership for change: The connecting children and nature network, Nicola Kemp, Canterbury Christ Church University, UK

Teaching and learning for sustainability:

  • Widening the geography of learning; reflecting on community based learning in sustainability education, Kenny Lynch, University of Gloucestershire, UK
  • Politechnolopis: Let’s be designers of out future, not its victims, Maja Ewa Nowak, Wroclaw University of Technology, Poland
  • From the human-environment theme towards sustainability: The case of Danish University Geography, Thomas Skou Grindsted, Roskilde University, Denmark
  • Through global learning and teaching towards sustainability, Birgitta Nordén, Malmö University, Sweden

The second parallel session covered two themes:

Whole-institutional approaches:

  • Achievements of the environmental sustainable development at University of Granada, Carolina Cardenas, University of Granada, Spain
  • Education for Sustainable Development at the University of West England, Bristol, Professor James Longhurst and Dr Georgina Gough, University of West England, UK
  • Higher education and the challenge of sustainability: The Central European case, Jana Dlouhá, Charles University, Czech Republic
  • In transition USC: A programme for the promotion of participation to improve university sustainability, Tamara Miguéns, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Higher education and sustainability networks:

  • The UN SDSN project and the MED-Solutions Network, Dario Piselli, University of Siena, Italy
  • Contributing to partnerships of change: The International Sustainable Campus Network, Dr Bernd Kasemir, USA
  • Sustainability in Canadian post-secondary education: a comparative analysis of how institutions are engaging with sustainability, Philip Vaughter, The Sustainability Education Policy Network, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
  • Sustainability at University of Siena: Greening USiena and a model of cooperation between stakeholders, Dario Piselli, University of Siena, Italy

The afternoon of Day 1 saw three more keynotes:

  • Dr Lorna Down (Teacher Education Expert at the University SML-CorpConf-SubPicof West Indies, Jamaica): Outcomes of a Teacher Education project on curriculum innovation in sustainability in Jamaica
  • Professor Javier Benayas (Co-ordinator of RISU [Network of sustainability indicators in higher education] at the Iberoamerican Network of Universities for Sustainability [ARIUSA] and Executive Secre­tary of CADEP-CRUE [Sustainability working group within the Conference of Rectors of Spanish Universities], Spain): Work of ARIUSA and progress on one of its flagship projects on sustainability indicators
  • Dr Ingrid Mulà (CA Co-ordinator, UK): Ambitions and plans of the UE4SD project

The keynotes were followed by an interactive panel discussion chaired by Dr Simon Burandt (Leuphana University of Lüneburg and CA, Germany).

The day’s dialogues and outcomes were summarised by Professor Dr Clemens Mader (Visiting Professor for Environment and Sustainability in the Region at Leuphana University of Lüneburg and Vice-President of CA, Germany).

Day 1 ended with closing words by Maxine Melling Pro-Vice Chancellor (Operations) University of Gloucestershire.


Student Leadership for Sustainability (Day 2)

Day 2 began with a welcome by Professor Tilbury and featured four keynotes in the morning:

  • Jamie Agombar (Ethical and Environmental Manager, National Union of Students NUS, UK): Students and sustainability
  • Felix Spira (Co-founder of RootAbility, Germany): Maastricht University Green Office concept
  • Dr. Zoe Robinson (Director of Education for Sustainability at Keele University, UK): A report of the international conference on Student Action for Sustainability held at Keele in October 2013
  • Tom Newman (Students Union, University of Gloucestershire UK): Greener Gloucestershire Project

The keynotes session was followed by an interactive panel discussion, chaired by Iain Patton (CEO Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges EAUC, UK).

Finally, a session on student sustainability projects and research, chaired by Professor Jiri Dlouhy (CA, Czech Republic), took place:

  • Student research on energy literacy, Dr Wendy Miller, Plymouth University UK
  • University students as active and engaged citizens, Dr Salvador Calabuig, University of Girona, Spain
  • Action plus reflection = learning: The role of embedded activity in transformational learning, Chris Willmore, University of Bristol UK
  • What do staff and students make of Sustainable Development, and what can we do about it? Dr Neil Gordon, University of Hull, UK


COPERNICUS Alliance AGM (Day 2)

The conference was followed by the CA Annual General Meeting.

COPERNICUS Alliance (CA) is a European network of higher education institutions that aims to re-orient their programmes and research towards sustainable development while promoting best practice on sustainable management of university campuses. It also seeks to build partnerships with business, government agencies and civil society to progress sustainability at the local and global level.

CA’s origins run back to the 1993 COPERNICUS Charta, which has so far been endorsed by 326 European universities, showcasing their commitment in leading change for sustainable development. In 2011, an updated version of the COPERNICUS Charta, namely COPERNICUS Charta 2.0, was developed and this calls for a greater commitment of universities in re-orienting themselves towards sustainable development.

Images created from photographs by Asitha Jayawardena



Copernicus Alliance website


UNESCO ESD website

UNESCO World Conference on ESD 2014 (Japan, 10-12 November 2014)

Rio+20 Treaty on Higher Education

Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability (GUPES) of UNEP

Global University Partnership on Environment and Sustainability (GUPES)

UNEP Greening Universities Toolkit

Turnaround Leadership for Sustainability in Higher Education


Students’ Green Fund website of NUS (National Union of Students) UK



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Related posts on The Sustainable University Notes blog

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Pathways to a sustainable university

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Opportunities for integrating sustainability across curricula (Part 2 of EDUCATION pathway to a Sustainable University)

University of Planetshire approach to integrating sustainability across the curriculum (Part 3 of EDUCATION pathway to a Sustainable University)

Outputs of the University of Planetshire Approach to integrating sustainability across the curriculum (Part 4 of EDUCATION pathway to a Sustainable University)

Will it work? – The University of Planetshire Approach to integrating sustainability across the curriculum (Part 5 of EDUCATION pathway to a Sustainable University)


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