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Education for Sustainable Development

Sustainability and the University Strategy

Sustainability is one of four key principles outlined in the University Strategic Plan 2020-2026. These principles overlap and are designed to help us deliver on our purpose; to “act together, using our collective skills and diversity, to deliver a better world through the transformational power of quality education and research”.

The principle of sustainability is implemented using a necessarily wide set of activities. There are six in total presented by Sustainability Services. This includes a number that focus on developing infrastructure, greening the campus and achieving net zero targets. These activities are important yet there is a recognition that any approach must include a creative and committed focus on embedding sustainability in the curriculum. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is mentioned here and is one of the most effective and logical ways that the University of Reading can achieve its sustainability goals. The approach to ESD and curriculum enhancement is outlined in a number of ways. Firstly a set of overarching objectives can be found on ESD Essentials. These objectives form the structure of this guide. The objectives are also accompanied by an ESD Framework that has formed the basis of our claim for the UK People and Planet University ranking.


Sustainability is increasingly important to Higher Education Institutions and getting the approach right could be central to its continued success. The sustainability skills survey is run by Students Organising for Sustainability and funded by Advance HE. The data for 2020-21, on which much of our approach was based shows that 91% of students think that their place of study should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development, and that 84% would like to see sustainable development actively incorporated and promoted through all subjects. These numbers challenge preconceptions about which subjects hold domain over sustainability, and which student want to learn about it. The same set of surveys found that 93% of respondents feel it is important for students to leave their time in formal education with the knowledge and skills required to address sustainability challenges, while over two thirds (68%) of students identify sustainability as the pre-eminent issue impacting their lives, placing a particular focus being on the empowerment of students as the solution. This is important in terms of student choice and motivation for selecting place and subjects of study. From a student perspective there is much to suggest that we as an institution should be looking to incorporate sustainability and involve them in that process. For information on how this manifests at Reading please see the Reading Students' Union sustainability pages.

There have been a number of metrics that have emerged that attempt to assess the quality of University attempts to embed ESD and develop related skills. The UK People and Planet league table is designed with the aim of “building an empowered generation of change-makers who are equipped with life-long skills, motivation and networks to be a force for change in achieving a more equitable and sustainable world.” In 2021-22 the University of Reading, supported by the publication of the above resources raised our position to 15, 13 places higher than the previous year. The ESD specific rating was raised to 95% in that category. It’s worth noting that this rating the year before would have seen us place 4th. We have improved, but the field is moving. 

The Curriculum Framework

In order to effectively embed ESD we must engage in curriculum enhancement. To look at how the subject curriculum can be used to apply knowledge to resolve real world sustainability challenges. The Curriculum Framework (CF) has been updated to incorporate ESD. It captures the University's ambition to integrate education for sustainable development appropriate to the discipline. This will be achieved by embedding opportunities and empowering students to engage with environmental, social and economic challenges within their programme and beyond. It does this by encouraging a programme level approach, embedding ESD related skills in to learning outcomes, ensuring these are constructively aligned with appropriate pedagogy and authentic assessment. The CF is also useful in exploring the synergies between ESD and related activities such as employability, student engagement and the inclusivity agenda.

The Curriculum Framework, its approach and its principles underpin curriculum enhancement activities via curriculum review. The Programme Review Project represents the most significant cross University curriculum review and as such provides an ideal opportunity to take a programmes level approach to embedding ESD. The tool below is designed to provide quick reference tips for those considering what ESD is and what it means to them in terms of programme design. Tips are structured under each of the 4 ESD objectives to help you visualise how you might be meeting them. Good design for ESD is good design in general and these tips should be read in conjunction with the learning design process which highlights the importance of key related terms such as constructive alignment and programme level approach.

Further information and support