University leader calls for compulsory sustainability course for all students

June 01 01:40 2023
All university students – regardless of the subjects they’ve chosen – should have to take a short course in sustainability in order to graduate, a high-profile academic leader has said.

Thuwal, Saudi Arabia – May 31, 2023 – Professor Nirmala Rao, who has held senior positions in universities in UK and Asia and is now Vice Chancellor of Krea University in India, said it was “not a tall order” for higher education institutions to make modules on sustainability compulsory over the next five years.

“This is incumbent upon us,” she said. “We need to prepare our students for the unpredictable world they’re living in and that means having the tools to look at the environmental, social, and demographic challenges we now face.”

Several universities across the world have already made courses on the environment mandatory. Last year, the University of Barcelona said all its 14,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students would have to sit a course on the climate crisis from 2024.

In 2014, when the University of Delhi made a module on environmental studies compulsory, most students responded favorably.

Professor Satyabhama Das Biju, who leads the university’s Systematics Lab, was reported in The Times of India as saying: “Initially when the module was introduced, students questioned the viability of studying about the environment when their core subject was Economics or Maths. However, understanding that today every profession has an impact on environmental sustainability, there is a revolutionary change in students’ outlook.”

In 2019, India’s University Grants Commission, which is responsible for standards of higher education in the country, told universities and colleges to introduce a six-module course on environmental studies to all undergraduates.

Rao said it should be up to universities to decide what form the modules on sustainability should take and how long they should be. The content should come from faculty members, she said, and could include a short independent research project.

Speaking at the Global Sustainable Development Congress (GSDC), where high-profile academics, government leaders and captains of industry are meeting at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia (KAUST), Rao said:

“Embedding a compulsory module into undergraduate degrees should be fairly easy given the broad scope and definition of sustainability,” Rao argued. “It’s time for higher education across the world to make sustainability a core requisite for all students.

“As universities, we are deeply engaged in debates and research about sustainability, and we are focused on coming up with solutions in partnership with governments, industry and others. We now need to embed sustainability into the curriculum. Education for sustainability should bring students into contact with real-world problems and immersive experiences.”

Rao said higher education institutions across the world are “highly engaged” with the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015. These pledge to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030, there is peace and prosperity.

KAUST researchers, for instance, are leading some of the most innovative climate research and climate technology development in the world: developing cryogenic carbon capture as a solution for power plants in the Kingdom; using ammonia cracking to make the hydrogen economy viable or holding the world record for solar cell efficiency. Further, all potable water on campus is produced from solar-powered desalination, and the KAUST Smart House is showcasing sustainable technologies in practice.

However, she warned that universities also need to look beyond 2030. “We need a longer-term perspective,” she said. “Higher education should inspire societal change and take a lead role in the transitions necessary for humankind and emphasize that the need for change is immediate,” she said. “I’m optimistic that this can be done.”

The Global Sustainable Development Congress, held for the first time in the Middle East and convened by Times Higher Education, aims to advance progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals with tangible action plans.

About the Global Sustainable Development Congress

The Global Sustainable Development Congress (GSDC), convened by Times Higher Education (THE) and hosted for the first time in the Middle East by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, (KAUST) aims to unite higher education, governments, industry, and civil society to drive forward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with tangible plans for action. The Congress will take place over three days from May 30 to June 1, 2023. The congress has four key tracks that align with the UN’s SDGs – health and demography; sustainable energy and industry; sustainable environment; sustainable cities and communities. For additional information, visit


Established in 2009, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is a graduate research university devoted to finding solutions for some of the most pressing scientific and technological challenges in the world as well as Saudi Arabia in the areas of food and health, water, energy, environment, and the digital domain. KAUST is a curiosity-driven, interdisciplinary problem-solving environment, with state-of-the-art labs, distinguished faculty and talented students.

KAUST brings together the best minds from around the world to advance research. More than 120 different nationalities live, work and study on campus. KAUST is also a catalyst for innovation, economic development and social prosperity, with research resulting in novel patents and products, enterprising startups, regional and global initiatives, and collaboration with other academic institutions, industries and Saudi agencies. For additional information, visit

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