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Special Issue "The Role of Universities in Regional Transitions towards Sustainability"

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

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (30 April 2021).

Special Issue Editors

Prof. Dr. Daniel Schiller
E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
Institute of Geography and Geology, University of Greifswald, 17489 Greifswald, Germany
Interests: Institute of Geography and Geology, Chair of Economic and Social Geography, University of Greifswald, Germany
Dr. Verena Radinger-Peer
E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
Institute for Sustainable Economic Development, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, 1180 Vienna, Austria
Interests: regional planning and development; spatial planning; sustainable regional development, role of universities in (sustainable) regional development, organizational learning and institutional change processes

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

The transition of sociotechnical systems towards sustainability has been studied comprehensively based on the multilevel perspective. Universities and other public research organizations have been identified, by this literature, as an important change agent for sustainability transitions. Besides numerous investigations of the incorporation of sustainability into the structure of universities, scientific research into their real impact on sustainable development is still in its infancy. We therefore identify the need to better understand the interdependence between agency of universities and, in particular, the emergence of transition paths from a spatial perspective. The agency of universities in their specific regional context is usually related to their so-called ‘third mission’. It is exercised by activities of individual scientists and organizational strategies in research, teaching, and the operation of the university itself. Universities thereby come into effect in the course of regional sustainability transitions based on a wide variety of forms and multiscalar actor constellations.

This Special Issue aims to bring together researchers from multiple disciplines to contribute to the theoretical and practical understanding of the role of universities in regional transitions towards sustainability. We welcome all researchers from relevant domains to submit papers that address the overarching concerns including, but not limited to:

  • The interdependence between universities and the emergence of regional transition paths towards sustainability;
  • Application of the multilevel perspective to understand the role of universities in regional sustainability transitions;
  • The positioning of universities within multiactor strategies for sustainability at the regional level;
  • Drivers and barriers within universities for establishing regional change agency towards sustainability;
  • Transition processes within universities that aim at increasing their ability to contribute to sustainable regional development and at creating sustainable universities.

Prof. Dr. Daniel Schiller
Dr. Verena Radinger-Peer
Guest Editors

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 2000 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.

Keywords

  • sustainable regional development
  • universities and regional development
  • university–industry linkages
  • third mission
  • change agents
  • geography of sustainability transitions
  • transition of sociotechnical systems
  • regional transition paths towards sustainability
  • sustainable universities
  • science for sustainable development
  • multilevel perspective

Published Papers (10 papers)

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Editorial

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Editorial
Introduction: The Role of Universities in Regional Transitions towards Sustainability
Sustainability 2021, 13(14), 7940; https://doi.org/10.3390/su13147940 - 16 Jul 2021
Viewed by 500
Abstract
The transition of sociotechnical systems towards sustainability has been studied comprehensively based on the multilevel perspective [...] Full article

Research

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Article
Establishing the Regional Sustainable Developmental Role of Universities—From the Multilevel-Perspective (MLP) and Beyond
Sustainability 2021, 13(13), 6987; https://doi.org/10.3390/su13136987 - 22 Jun 2021
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 617
Abstract
This article establishes the multilevel perspective (MLP) as one of the main research approaches in transition research to study complex systemic change processes in socio-technical systems at different structural levels. The application of the MLP to the higher education system, especially to conceptualize [...] Read more.
This article establishes the multilevel perspective (MLP) as one of the main research approaches in transition research to study complex systemic change processes in socio-technical systems at different structural levels. The application of the MLP to the higher education system, especially to conceptualize the transition of universities towards a sustainable (regional) developmental role, is still in its infancy. Through using a descriptive narrative analysis of seminal articles, the results of the four-years cooperation within an expert working group, and own empirical findings, the present paper investigates the suitability of the MLP to study the transition of universities and university systems towards a sustainable developmental role in the regional context. Based on these investigations, three further perspectives (which must be considered for establishing a more comprehensive understanding of the universities’ sustainable developmental role) are identified and conceptualized: (a) The target dimension of sustainable regional development, (b) the role of agency, and (c) the introduction of space and place to multiscalar regional transitions. Based on these perspectives, a future research agenda beyond the MLP is developed. Full article
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Article
Students as Change Agents for Community–University Sustainability Transition Partnerships
Sustainability 2021, 13(11), 6036; https://doi.org/10.3390/su13116036 - 27 May 2021
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 885
Abstract
While higher education institutions play a role in regional sustainability transitions, community–university partnerships for sustainability may be underdeveloped and fraught. Moreover, the specific role of students in building and strengthening those partnerships remains little explored. This research occurred in Laramie, Wyoming—the first community [...] Read more.
While higher education institutions play a role in regional sustainability transitions, community–university partnerships for sustainability may be underdeveloped and fraught. Moreover, the specific role of students in building and strengthening those partnerships remains little explored. This research occurred in Laramie, Wyoming—the first community to resolve to pursue carbon neutrality in the top coal-producing state in the U.S.—amidst declining state revenue and absent any formal community–university sustainability partnership. Drawing on a community resilience framework and the social-theoretical construct of agency, we examined an informal, multi-year partnership developed through a project-based, community-engaged Campus Sustainability course at the University of Wyoming. Through a chronological sequence case study, we synthesized autoethnography, document analysis, and semi-structured interview methods involving community and university stakeholder and student participants. We found that students, rather than other university actors, played a vital bridging role in absence of a formal community–university sustainability partnership. They also served in a catalyzing role as change agents alongside community stakeholders, providing the potential to develop stronger community–university partnerships and advance sustainability transitions across other Wyoming communities. Findings suggest a need to keenly attend to power dynamics and whose agency is driving higher education institutions’ roles in regional sustainability transitions in specific contexts. Full article
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Article
Exploring the Role of a Colombian University to Promote Just Transitions. An Analysis from the Human Development and the Regional Transition Pathways to Sustainability
Sustainability 2021, 13(11), 6014; https://doi.org/10.3390/su13116014 - 26 May 2021
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 1051
Abstract
Universities are central organisations that can act as promoters and amplifiers of regional just transitions. In this paper, we analyse how a Colombian regional university, the University of Ibagué (UI), is playing this role through two initiatives: (1) a governance experiment piloted between [...] Read more.
Universities are central organisations that can act as promoters and amplifiers of regional just transitions. In this paper, we analyse how a Colombian regional university, the University of Ibagué (UI), is playing this role through two initiatives: (1) a governance experiment piloted between 2018 and 2019 that constructed an aspirational vision for this university through the definition of eight human capabilities; (2) a formal curriculum regional programme named Peace and Region (P&R) established in 2010 as a service-learning strategy for undergraduates in their final year. To analyse the contribution of these two initiatives towards a just transition, we built a specific analytical framework based on the human development and capability approach and Regional Transition Pathways to Sustainability (RTPS). Exploring both the content and the process of building the list and perceptions of the different actors involved in the P&R programme, we found that both initiatives have a strong directionality that resonates with the normative ambition of a just transition. Moreover, in both processes, people involved have expanded human capabilities, and co-produced holistic and transdisciplinary knowledge through the interaction of academic and non-academic actors. From an RTPS perspective, the programme captures regional complexity and moulds micro-dynamics to socially fair and sustainable paths. Full article
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Article
Sustainability Transfer as a Concept for Universities in Regional Transformation—A Case Study
Sustainability 2021, 13(9), 4956; https://doi.org/10.3390/su13094956 - 28 Apr 2021
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 740
Abstract
The research object of this study is the in-depth discourse on the sustainability transfer activities of higher education institutions (HEIs) and their contribution to a regional sustainable transformation. For this purpose, a heuristically-derived concept of sustainability transfer is empirically tested with a mixed-methods [...] Read more.
The research object of this study is the in-depth discourse on the sustainability transfer activities of higher education institutions (HEIs) and their contribution to a regional sustainable transformation. For this purpose, a heuristically-derived concept of sustainability transfer is empirically tested with a mixed-methods approach based on the example of Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development (HNEE). The empirical findings demonstrate that the realization of sustainability transfer depends mainly on the personal initiative of teachers and researchers. Major barriers are a lack of time and financial resources. The observed concept of sustainability transfer is applicable to all study and research areas of HNEE. Involvement in sustainability transfer can include the whole of society, from politics, enterprises, and civil society to education and research institutions. Overall, the empirical testing of the concept offered by this study illustrates its practical suitability to capturing specifically those sustainability transfer activities that are not tapped by third mission approaches. This opens up a novel dimension for transfer potential at universities and their role in regional sustainability transformation. It also highlights that the interdependencies between HEIs and practitioners need to be more contextualized with quality criteria such as the value of the transfer performance or level of ambition. Full article
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Article
Sustainability in Brandenburg Study Programs. Perspectives for Anchoring Sustainability in Higher Education Curricula
Sustainability 2021, 13(7), 3958; https://doi.org/10.3390/su13073958 - 02 Apr 2021
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 742
Abstract
The study investigates the extent to which sustainability is anchored in university curricula of a federal state (Brandenburg, Germany). (1) It provides a baseline for identifying opportunities for sustainability-related curriculum reform by analyzing study programs, levels and type of degree, level of anchoring, [...] Read more.
The study investigates the extent to which sustainability is anchored in university curricula of a federal state (Brandenburg, Germany). (1) It provides a baseline for identifying opportunities for sustainability-related curriculum reform by analyzing study programs, levels and type of degree, level of anchoring, and context within the documents. (2) The case studies included an analysis and quantitative evaluation of 748 curricular documents. (3) A third of the study programs refer to sustainability; to an equal extent in both bachelor’s and master’s programs, and to an above-average extent in the fields of science and engineering. There is a strong commitment to sustainability in 12% of the curricula; however, it is strongly anchored in only 3% of study and examination regulations, and in only 9% of module descriptions. (4) For the first time, we have comprehensive results on sustainability in university curricula of an entire federal state and can discuss potentials for its further integration. The innovative method was developed out of the National Monitoring on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and adapted to the federal state level; the analysis of curricula through a wider set of variables is transferrable to other states. (5) The study provides indications for the regional development of universities which is crucial for future regional sustainability transformation. Full article
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Article
Creating Transdisciplinary Teaching Spaces. Cooperation of Universities and Non-University Partners to Design Higher Education for Regional Sustainable Transition
Sustainability 2021, 13(7), 3680; https://doi.org/10.3390/su13073680 - 26 Mar 2021
Cited by 6 | Viewed by 1197
Abstract
Teaching formats involving non-university partners are increasingly gaining importance to deliver key competencies needed in higher education for sustainable development. Such teaching formats may also create new transdisciplinary spaces that allow different actors to impact regional transition towards sustainable development. Against this background, [...] Read more.
Teaching formats involving non-university partners are increasingly gaining importance to deliver key competencies needed in higher education for sustainable development. Such teaching formats may also create new transdisciplinary spaces that allow different actors to impact regional transition towards sustainable development. Against this background, this article focuses on how universities foster regional transition through teaching, particularly in collaboration with local non-university. Using the interdisciplinary certificate programs on sustainable development offered by the German Universities of Tübingen and Duisburg-Essen as case studies, we analyze the potentials and challenges of teaching programs on sustainable development for promoting regional transition. Leaning on the multi-level-perspective-approach, we have used qualitative interviews to shed light on the design of cooperation between the university and regional partners as well as the creation and integration of transdisciplinary learning spaces. This paper shows that the impact of such teaching formats on the regional transition consists primarily of awareness and network building. One of the most fundamental challenges faced is unequal power relations in terms of access to resources, financing, and doing the course planning. Simultaneously, co-design, mutual understanding, and collective decisions on roles and responsibilities and—especially—empathy and trust are crucial factors for successfully teaching cooperation towards regional sustainability. Full article
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Article
HEI Efficiency and Quality of Life: Seeding the Pro-Sustainability Efficiency
Sustainability 2021, 13(2), 514; https://doi.org/10.3390/su13020514 - 07 Jan 2021
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 922
Abstract
This study assesses the efficiency of higher education institutions (HEIs), considering the social, environmental and cultural factors (pro-sustainability), and at the same time examines how this efficiency can influence regional quality of life (QoL). The study adopts a two-step methodology. In the first [...] Read more.
This study assesses the efficiency of higher education institutions (HEIs), considering the social, environmental and cultural factors (pro-sustainability), and at the same time examines how this efficiency can influence regional quality of life (QoL). The study adopts a two-step methodology. In the first step, the standard Data Envelopment Analysis (DEA) is used to estimate the efficiency scores of 23 Portuguese public HEIs; and in the second step, a multivariate logit regression is performed to assess the role played by the HEIs’ pro-sustainability efficiency in regional QoL. The main findings reveal that the HEIs located in the Greater Lisbon area have a higher pro-sustainability efficiency, but that efficiency is more significant regarding social factors. Concerning the contribution of pro-sustainability efficiency to the region’s QoL, this is significant for all the components, with the environmental and cultural aspects contributing positively to this significance. Full article
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Article
Towards Implementing Transdisciplinarity in Post-Soviet Academic Systems: An Investigation of the Societal Role of Universities in Armenia
Sustainability 2020, 12(20), 8721; https://doi.org/10.3390/su12208721 - 21 Oct 2020
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 1310
Abstract
The concept of transdisciplinarity (TD) has been introduced to find solutions for complex sustainability challenges via knowledge co-production by scientists and societal actors. The understanding of the societal role of universities is a critical factor when implementing transdisciplinarity in the academic systems of [...] Read more.
The concept of transdisciplinarity (TD) has been introduced to find solutions for complex sustainability challenges via knowledge co-production by scientists and societal actors. The understanding of the societal role of universities is a critical factor when implementing transdisciplinarity in the academic systems of Post-Soviet countries, given their historic development. Using Armenia as a case, we adopted a qualitative research approach by analyzing legal documents, conducting semi-structured expert interviews and focus group discussions with a range of stakeholders. We identified discrepancies of expectations between stakeholders as challenges for a joint understanding of the societal role of universities, as well as differently perceived competences and motivations, which can lead to trust deficits. The results are discussed according to four main features of transdisciplinarity: focusing on real-life problems, transcending and integrating disciplinary paradigms, ensuring participatory research and teaching, and searching for unity of knowledge beyond disciplines. Findings show that no formal obstacles exist for implementing transdisciplinarity in two Armenian universities and that the societal understanding of the role of universities could be expanded. Yet, while society is in principle ready for collaboration, the initiative is expected to come from academia. A particular responsibility will lie with teachers from the younger generation to become key-agents for change. Full article
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Review

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Review
Sustainable Shift from Centralized to Participatory Higher Education in Post-Soviet Countries: A Systematic Literature Review
Sustainability 2021, 13(10), 5536; https://doi.org/10.3390/su13105536 - 15 May 2021
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 707
Abstract
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, higher education (HE) in post-Soviet reality continues to face complex challenges, including hierarchical structures, antiquated teaching methods, and lack of international standards. In the meantime, in the US and in Europe, HE has recently focused on [...] Read more.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, higher education (HE) in post-Soviet reality continues to face complex challenges, including hierarchical structures, antiquated teaching methods, and lack of international standards. In the meantime, in the US and in Europe, HE has recently focused on participatory curriculum development (PCD) and programs that seek to directly connect student learning to “real-world” problems, accelerating positive change in curricula and through their contributions to regional communities. Accepted into the Bologna Process—the standardization of European HE—Armenian HE institutions struggle to satisfy requirements and related sustainable development goals with centralized standards, inhibiting them from being internationally competitive and regional sustainability change agents. In this article, we examine post-Soviet HE development since 1991 and challenges, with a particular focus on Armenia; what participatory curriculum building may offer; and how it contributes to HE and regional sustainability transitions. A systematic literature review was applied, using specific combinations of important terms restricting the search with criteria such as language, year of publication, and descriptive or critical in nature. The results illustrate the status quo of post-Soviet HE, synthesize current barriers of HE as potential change agents, and highlight PCD as a way to overcome these barriers. Full article
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