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Competences for Solving Complex Problems: A Cross-Sectional Survey on Higher Education for Sustainability Learning and Transdisciplinarity

Successfully coping with complex, real-world challenges, such as those related to sustainable development and the resilience of coupled human–environment systems, calls increasingly for adapted forms of education and extended competences. Hence, we argue that, beyond knowledge and expertise in professional domains, additionally, personal, systemic, creative, and sociocultural competences are required to meet such challenges. Herefor, institutions of higher and continuing education play a crucial role.

In this paper, universities as institutions of higher education are critically considered in relation to delivering education for sustainable development by raising awareness and providing the necessary competences to cope with complex problems such as sustainable development through effective forms of higher and continuing education as well as training. Research on attitudes and perceptions regarding sustainable development and the perceived need for comprehensive competences required to deal with such complex problems is still lacking.

Our study provides a first attempt to elucidate core aspects of these attitudes, perceptions, and competences aiming to contribute to future, more tailored education approaches. We discuss the outcomes of a survey on sustainability in teaching and learning conducted at four Austrian universities. The analyzed sample comprised 3200 students as the recipients of, and 498 lecturers as the providers of, sustainability education in various academic disciplines at four distinct Austrian universities. Applying a questionnaire-based investigation of self-reported sustainability-related perceptions, attitudes, and competences and conducting factor analysis and cluster analysis, five sustainability types were identified that revealed a type of specific core awareness of sustainability and the perception of required competences related to sustainable development.

The results presented are positioned to build a basis for further investigation that goes beyond the self-reported assessments to enable a comparison with sustainability-related, real-world problem-solving performance.


F. Risopoulos-Pichler, F. Daghofer, G. Steiner, Competences for Solving Complex Problems: A Cross-Sectional Survey on Higher Education for Sustainability Learning and Transdisciplinarity, Sustainability 12(15) (2020) 6016

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