Special Issue "The Role of Higher Education in Sustainability Transitions: Principles, Design and Analysis"

A special issue of Sustainability (ISSN 2071-1050). This special issue belongs to the section "Sustainable Education and Approaches".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (15 May 2019).

Special Issue Editors

Prof. Dr. Arjen E.J Wals
Guest Editor
Wageningen University, The Netherlands
Prof. Dr. Magdalena Svanström
Guest Editor
Chalmers University, Sweden
Assist. Prof. Flor Avelino
Guest Editor
Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

A reorientation of higher education towards sustainability requires unconventional ways of looking at management, leadership, knowledge creation, and the interface between science and society. At least three trends call for such a reorientation: The emergence of sustainability science, the emergence of transition initiatives, and the call for responsive and responsible research. Sustainability science (Lang et al. 2012) and related so-called ‘post-normal science’ perspectives (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993) are borne out of the realisation, within a small, but critical mass within the science community, that global challenges—such as climate change, food and nutrition security for all, rising inequity, and the continued loss of (bio)diversity—are urgent and require that we explore new ontologies and epistemologies (König and Ravetz 2017). Transition initiatives (Geels and Schot 2015; Loorbach et al. 2017) try to disrupt or transgress (Lotz-Sisitka et al. 2015) hegemonic forces that push towards fragmentation, commodification, inequity, and exploitation by engaging multiple stakeholders in co-creating embedded and embodied forms of sustainability. Often, these initiatives occur in niches where there is room for experimentation and out-of-the box thinking. Responsive and responsible research (Stilgoe et al. 2013; Tassone et al. 2017) comes from the international—mainly the European Union—policy arena, where there is a realization that without a reflection on values and ethics and a consideration of planetary boundaries and fundamental qualities of life, research and innovation will likely accelerate unsustainability.

In this Special Issue, we are bringing together scholarly work that describes and analyzes how higher education can connect with and contribute to these trends and initiatives. Questions include but are not limited to: 

  • How can staff and students become part of emerging reflexive communities that pop up everywhere, albeit under different names (e.g., living labs, transition arenas, sustainability incubators, challenge labs)?
  • What are some design principles or features of learning configurations and learning processes that facilitate mindful and responsible transformations, transgressions, and transitions?
  • How can or should the learning of participants be monitored, evaluated, and assessed?
  • What do we know about how participants are affected by these new ways of learning?
  • What do we know about how these new ways of learning are actually contributing to a sustainability transition and/or meaningful socioecological outcomes?
  • How can the learning of students be embedded both in these transition initiatives and in their formal higher education institution?

The Special Issue will also include critical reflexive case studies (Walker et al., 2014) of hybrid learning configurations, learning ecologies, and transboundary learning arenas in which HEIs participate (e.g. Wals et al., 2016).


Submission of 1 page manuscript ideas (stage 1): January 15th 2019 ([email protected])
Selection and invitation of full paper submissions: February 1st
Submission of complete drafts: May 15th
Publishing of first papers anticipated: September 15th
Finalization of Special Issue (including editorial paper): December 15th - 2019

Prof. Dr. Arjen E.J Wals
Prof. Dr. Magdalena Svanström
Assistant Prof. Flor Avelino
Guest Editors



Geels, F.W. and Schot J. (2007) Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways, Research Policy, 36 (3): 399-417 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2007.01.003

Funtowicz, S.O. and Ravetz, J.R. (1993) Science for the Post-normal Age, Futures, 25(7), 739–55.

König & J. Ravetz (2017), Sustainability Science, London: Routledge.

Loorbach, D., Frantzeskaki, N., and Avelino, F. (2017) Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 42(1), 599-626

Lotz-Sisitka H., Wals A.E.J., Kronlid D., McGarry D. (2015) Transformative, transgressive social learning: rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 16, 73-80, doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2015.07.018

Stilgoe, J., Owen, R. and Macnaghten, P. (2013) Developing a Framework for Responsible Innovation, Research Policy, 42(9), 1568–80.

Tassone, V.C., O’Mahony, C., McKenna, E., Eppink, H.J., Wals, A.E.J., 2017. (Re)designing higher education curricula in times of systemic dysfunction: a responsible research and innovation perspective. PP 1-16. Higher Education. Springer, Open Access, available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-017-0211-4

Walker, K., Corcoran, P.B. and Wals, A.E.J. (2004). Case Studies, Make-Your-Case Studies, and Case Stories: A Critique of Case Study Methodology in Sustainability in Higher Education. Environmental Education Research

Wals, A.E.J., Tassone, V.C., Hampson, G.P. and Reams, J. (2016) Learning for Walking the Change: Eco-Social Innovation through Sustainability-oriented Higher Education  In: Matthias BarthGerd MichelsenMarco RieckmannIan Thomas (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Higher Education for Sustainable Development, London: Routledge, p.25-39.

Wals, A. E. J. and Peters, M. A. (2017). Flowers of Resistance: Citizen science, ecological democracy and the transgressive education paradigm. In A. König & J. Ravetz (Eds.), Sustainability Science (pp. 61-84). London: Routledge.

Manuscript Submission Information

Manuscripts should be submitted online at www.mdpi.com by registering and logging in to this website. Once you are registered, click here to go to the submission form. Manuscripts can be submitted until the deadline. All papers will be peer-reviewed. Accepted papers will be published continuously in the journal (as soon as accepted) and will be listed together on the special issue website. Research articles, review articles as well as short communications are invited. For planned papers, a title and short abstract (about 100 words) can be sent to the Editorial Office for announcement on this website.

Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are thoroughly refereed through a single-blind peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. Sustainability is an international peer-reviewed open access semimonthly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1800 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI's English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.


  • Higher education
  • Transitions
  • Engineering education
  • Transgressive learning
  • Boundary crossing
  • Hybrid learning

Published Papers

There is no accepted submissions to this special issue at this moment.
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