United NationsDepartment of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development

Higher Education Sustainability Initiative





The Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI), a partnership between United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UNESCO, United Nations Environment, UN Global Compact’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative, United Nations University (UNU), UN-HABITAT, UNCTAD, UNITAR, Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and key actors in the space, was created in 2012 in the run-up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).

Through its strong association with the United Nations, HESI aims to provide higher education with an interface between higher education, science, and policy making by raising the profile of higher education’s sector in supporting sustainable development, convening multi-stakeholder discussions and action, and sharing best practices.


National and International Frameworks

Nagoya Declaration on Higher Education for Sustainable Development


The Nagoya Declaration on Higher Education for Sustainable Development, adopted by the participants of the International Conference on Higher Education for Sustainable Development in Nagoya, Japan on 9 November 2014, reaffirms the responsibility of higher education for pursuing of sustainable development.


Aichi-Nagoya Declaration on Education for Sustainable Development


The 2014 UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) marked the end of the UN Decade of ESD (2005-2014) and launched the Global Action Programme (GAP) on ESD. The conference took place from 10-12 November 2014 in Aichi-Nagoya, Japan.


The Platform for Sustainability Performance in Education


From Outcome to Implementation


8 months after Rio+20, during the 27th Session of UNEP’s Governing Council (Nairobi, Feb 20th), the Platform for Sustainability Performance in Education was launched as one of specific follow-up of the HESI. (http://www.sustainabilityperformance.org/).


The Platform is a shared web-space showcasing the worlds HE sustainability assessment tools and has formal recognition and support from UNEP, UNGC, PRME and UNESCO. The Platform is a direct HE Education sector-led response to Rio+20 and it aims to be a key resource to help both signatories of the Higher Education for Sustainability Initiative (HESI) and other HEIs implement the Education paragraphs in ’The Future We Want’ document.


The UNCSD 2012 (Rio+20) final text signed by 193 states confirms the importance of Education in building more sustainable societies and creating new paradigms. Chapters 229-235 highlight a number of actions that the institution should develop to fulfill its leadership role in the deployment of sustainable development. In addition, Article 47 encourages all stakeholders to “develop models for best practice and facilitate action for the integration of sustainability reporting”. This Platform rises to this challenge.


Green Plan (initially launched in France)

The “Plan Vert” is a sustainable development strategy designed by university associations in France (Conférence des Grandes Ecoles and Conference of University Presidents), the French government and non-governmental organizations within the framework of the Grenelle Environment Roundtable. It consists of a framework of objectives and actions drawn from the European Sustainable Development Strategy and is designed to pilot and evaluate those actions. More than 100 “Grandes Ecoles” and universities used it in 2010.


STARS (initially launched in US)

The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System™ (STARS) is a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. STARS® was developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education with broad participation from the higher education community.


Sustainability Leadership Scorecard (International)

The Sustainability Leadership Scorecard is a self-assessment tool for colleges and universities to measure, report and improve their whole institution sustainability performance. Automatically drawing on many of the sustainability standards and accreditations you have achieved, the Sustainability Leadership Scorecard: • Allows a coordinated whole-institution approach to sustainability. • Provides you with reports that you can use to communicate performance success within your own institution, set new targets and monitor and improve progress. • Gives you the choice over which aspects of sustainability you wish to focus on for action and improvement. • Is free and easy to use for all universities and colleges in the UK and Ireland and available for international institutions for a very small annual fee.


AISHE (initially launched in Netherlands)

AISHE, the Assessment Instrument for Sustainability in Higher Education, was developed and validated in the Netherlands in 2000-2001 by DHO, the Dutch Foundation for Sustainable Higher Education. With the help of AISHE results, universities or their departments can be awarded the ‘Certificate of Sustainable Higher Education', which is a star system, enabling universities to acquire 1, 2, 3 or 4 stars. AISHE can be applied freely by any university. (‘Publications section'). In Dutch only.


Projects That Matter

This free, matchmaking website connects practitioners, students, faculty, and volunteers with projects to transform our world into a better place for all. If you are a practitioner or researcher working on solutions for the environment, economy, and/or social well-being, post what help you need with research, implementation, project management, or evaluation (locally or virtually). This site can save you many hours that it would normally take to recruit students or volunteers. If you are a student or volunteer, review these SDG based projects and see how you can get involved.

UN Programmes


The United Nations Environment Programme conducts Environmental Education and Training that promotes attitudes and value systems that influence environmentally ethical behaviour by developing understanding, skills and values that enable people to participate as active and informed citizens in the development of an ecologically sustainable and socially just society. Environmental Education is fundamental to the achievement of the goal of Sustainable Development. Education and training are essential to UNEP fulfilling its mandate of inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to achieve sustainable development. UNEP's flagship initiative is the Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability,,which aims to promote the integration of environment and sustainability concerns into teaching, research, community engagement, the management of universities, greening of university infrastructure/facilities/operations, as well as to enhance student engagement and participation in sustainability activities both within and beyond universities.



As lead-agency of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO supports policy-makers in integrating Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) into education plans and curricula; publishes material on ESD for decision-makers, teachers and students; monitors progress in the implementation of the UN Decade; communicates good ESD practice in all areas of education; brings together ESD practitioners from all world regions; and contributes to developing ESD further.



The UN Global Compact is a call to companies everywhere to voluntarily align their operations and strategies with ten universally-accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption, and to take action in support of UN goals, including the Millennium Development Goals. The UN Global Compact is a multistakeholder leadership platform for the development, implementation and disclosure of responsible corporate policies and practices. Launched in 2000, it is the largest corporate responsibility initiative in the world, with over 10,000 signatories based in 140 countries. Higher education institutions are encouraged to participate in the UN Global Compact as deeply and meaningfully as the thousands of traditional corporate and organizational participants that have adopted its principles for over a decade. A working group of UN Global Compact academic stakeholders has developed guidelines for higher education institution to implement the principles in their goals, strategies, and operations.



The mission of the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative is to inspire and champion responsible management education, research and thought leadership globally. The PRME are inspired by internationally accepted values such as the principles of the United Nations Global Compact. They seek to establish a process of continuous improvement among institutions of management education in order to develop a new generation of business leaders capable of managing the complex challenges faced by business and society in the 21st century. In the current academic environment, corporate responsibility and sustainability have entered but not yet become embedded in the mainstream of business-related education. The PRME are therefore a timely global call for business schools and universities worldwide to gradually adapt their curricula, research, teaching methodologies and institutional strategies to the new business challenges and opportunities. Taking the Six Principles as a guiding framework, any institution which is willing to integrate corporate responsibility and sustainability in a gradual but systemic manner is welcome to join the initiative.



The United Nations University implements research and educational programmes in the area of sustainable development, with the particular aim of assisting developing countries. Established in 1973 as “an international community of scholars, engaged in research, postgraduate training and dissemination of knowledge in furtherance of the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”, UNU operates through a worldwide nexus of institutes and programmes. UNU serves as a think tank for the United Nations system and provides a bridge between the UN and the international academic and policy-making communities.


Other Initiatives During the Rio Summit

The 50+20 initiative

The 50+20 initiative describes a vision for the transformation of management education, in which the common tenet of being the best in the world is revised in favor of creating businesses that are designed and led to achieve the best for the world. Providing management education for the world, according to the 50+20 Agenda, involves three fundamental roles: educating and developing globally responsible leaders, enabling business organizations to serve the common good, and engaging in the transformation of business and the economy.


The People´s Sustainability Treaty on Higher Education

A group of over 30 agencies, organisations and associations came together in 2012 to influence Rio + 20 dialogues. These stakeholders are rooted in different regions of the globe and actively engaged in sustainable development at the higher education level. The partnership, led by Copernicus Alliance with the support of UNU IAS and the International Association of Universities has generated a Higher Education Treaty for Rio+20. This Treaty is one of a series of People's Treaties developed to influence Rio+20 but also to make visible commitments across various sectors. The process of influencing higher education to reorient itself towards sustainability is complex and a long term commitment. Others engaged in, and with, higher education are invited to support this process by becoming signatories to the Treaty. The Treaty will remain open for signatories until the 31st August. Plans will then be developed in the autumn to progress, as well as showcase, efforts of signatories beyond 2012.



Higher Education should play a key role in building a sustainable future by providing current and future decision-makers with sufficient knowledge, skills and mindsets to make informed and effective decisions to this end.

Sulitest is an online platform developing training and assessment tools to improve sustainability literacy for all and to provide tangible indicators to monitor this journey. Sulitest's ecosystem of tools include: the Quiz, consisting of a set of around 10 questions and played as an interactive game between several teams, it can be used during board meetings, classes, and other events; Looping, a platform that proposes a reverse pedagogy experience where learners play an active role in co-creating new knowledge, creating questions and using critical thinking and collective intelligence in a peer evaluation process; and lastly, the most well-known tool, the Test, an individual exam that includes a core module of 30 international questions, and optionally, customized modules linked to a specific country, SDG, or topic of choice through customization.

In only a few years, the Sulitest has grown into a learning tool of reference. It is widely used by almost 1000 HEIs and organizations in 80 countries and almost 160,000 tests have already been taken on the Sulitest platform. Building on its community, Sulitest is developing a diversity of modules to provide internationally recognized and locally relevant tools aligned with the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Sulitest is a tangible implementation of HESI and a contributor to the review of the 2030 Agenda through the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). Each Sulitest question is aligned with one or more SDG in order to create the largest database on citizens’ awareness and understanding of the goals. An annual report highlights these indicators to map awareness of the SDGs and to monitor progress.

Download the 2020 Sulitest HLPF Report here.

In addition, complementary modules are supporting the learning journey toward the SDGs. In 2017, Sulitest and UN DESA launched a first module on the SDGs framework and processes to empower citizens to contribute to the global agenda. Since then, modules on SDG 7, SDG 11 (focused on holistic waste management) and SDG 12 (focused on Circular Economy) were developed and made available. Currently, Sulitest is co-creating with UN DESA and Mercator Ocean International a SDG 14 modules with questions about ocean-related issues.

Sign-up your organization here (or use your existing account) and start expanding your knowledge and assessing your sustainability literacy with Sulitest!

Rankings ratings and assessment

Rankings, ratings, and assessment (RRA) organizations have significant influence - and thus significant responsibility - to guide the academic sector. As we approach the threshold of irreversible climate change, many of these have recognized the need to change their criteria for assessment of the performance of higher education institutions to include contributions to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Numerous initiatives aimed either at improving current standards or creating new ones have emerged.

Given the scale of the issues and the deadlines involved, this is likely a paradigm shift rather than merely improvement on the surface. However, as with any paradigm shift, it is never easy to have a clear idea of what to do and what pitfalls to avoid.

HESI therefore tasked a multi-stakeholder working group of sustainability experts/practitioners with creating advice that would guide these assessments to best practice.

Leading RRA organizations who have committed to these guidelines in the lead-up to the 2021 High-Level Political Forum include:

  • The Association for the Advancement of Higher Education;
  • Corporate Knights;
  • The Financial Times;
  • Round University Ranking;
  • Times Higher Education; and
  • UBI Global.

Since then, other organizations have committed to these guidelines, including Elsevier, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and the Positive Impact Ranking.




Related Goals