Sustainability and employability

Sustainability is not often seen as central to a university's purpose. But could producing graduates who are literate both in their academic discipline, and in sustainability, actually enhance student employability?


Contributed by Harriet Kingaby, January 2012.

Imagine an institution that is internationally recognised for its work on sustainability. Students choose it on reputation, academic staff are proud to work on world leading research that works towards a sustainable society. The institution’s values are simple and recognisable, reflected in every aspect; from flexible working hours to the building stock. Students are coveted by employers, who recognise that the institution’s commitment to embedding sustainability throughout its curriculum produces students who are forward thinking and equipped with the skills to produce sustainable workplaces.

The alternative is disheartening. Sustainability initiatives are met with puzzlement, indignation or plain incomprehension - “What has sustainability got to do with my history degree?” Many feel the university does enough by simply educating its students. Or multiple initiatives are running which create confusion as projects are duplicated, dropped or conflict with each other.

The first scenario is possible, but it requires a combination of both action and good communication.

Higher education is about so much more than simply education. It is about ground breaking research, life-changing experiences and broadening horizons. Within this context, inspiring students – and staff – to want to create a better, more sustainable society surely has a place?

The big question is not how institutions can use sustainability to become distinctive; it is "how can everyone be inspired to find the fit between their reasons for being at the institution and sustainability?"

Ask yourself why

The world is full of too many generic sustainability stories. The answer is to use the institution’s distinctive identity as the focal point around which to construct links with the sustainability agenda. Ask everyone: staff, students and community to find out why sustainability is important to your institution and create a narrative around it.

A great example is Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU). They worked hard to understand why they were engaging with sustainability and how it fits with their ethos as an institution. The result: ‘Education, transformation, sustainability’ is the unifying theme throughout their communications.

Make it simple

Communicating it is all about simple but compelling stories. Oxford Brookes’ Net Positive Impact works so well because the brand is recognisable and consolidates all of the university’s initiatives under a common umbrella. Most people won’t trawl through all of your carefully constructed and researched documents to find what is distinctive about you. Branding such as this let the uninitiated know straight away.

Finally, remember that communicating isn’t easy.  However, if you tell stories, simplify and make your communications compelling you’ll be making a great start.

Featured contributor


Harriet Kingaby is a consultant at Futerra, a sustainability communications agency which has worked with clients across a number of sectors to develop their sustainability strategy, communications and employee engagement. Some of their resources are available, free, on their website:

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Topics: Establishing your distinctiveness.

Browse Resources…



A 'Wicked' Approach to a 'Wicked Problem': Developing ESD in the curriculum at Canterbury Christ Church University, Stephen Scoffham and Peter Rands 2011. Powerpoint presentation and accompanying PDF notes available here (you will need to scroll down the page):

Making the Transition to Interdisciplinarity: Effective strategies for early student support Robinson and MacGregor, Keele University, 2010.

Keele University offers an excellent micro-site to support students starting on courses that incorporate sustainability:

Net Positive Impact, Oxford Brookes 2011. Download the latest Sustainability Report 2010/2011.

Marrying ESD and employability to create sustainability literate graduates - Simon Kemp, Director of Employability and Employer Engagement University of Southampton. Powerpoint presentation, and accompanying notes, from the 'Global Vision, Local Action' International Conference hosted at Bournemouth University are available here (scroll to 10th down within the presenter links):

The University of Bradford, as the lead Higher Education partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, have developed a PG Cert in the circular economy, learn more about this and other HE projects