Europe’s 10 Most Verbiage-Free Master Programs in Sustainability

Europe’s 10 Most Verbiage-Free Master Programs in Sustainability

Almost all interdisciplinary study programs introduced to the teaching universe in the past 5 years contain some form of “sustainability” in the program title – be it from the political, environmental or economic sciences or even engineering. Isn’t that a very positive trend? Well, at first sight, yes. But what about the critics who say all programs related to sustainable development are wishy-washy, since too many different fields are touched upon and not even one subject gets detailed treatment?

In this article, I try to prove the opposite by mentioning ten more specialized, but still interdisciplinary sustainability master programs that do go into detail. Starting with a general introduction, the following sustainanility master programs focus on one specific subject, while not forgetting to follow a typically interdisciplinary and holistic approach.

General vs. Special Sustainability Master Programs

Is less more? After my own bachelor program on Environmental and Bio-resource Management left me on my own with lots of open question marks, I do think so. Less is more. Above a certain necessary minimum, the lower the amount of diverging topics you touch, the higher the number of connections you discover. Nothing’s wrong with discovering a new perspective, but touching five different topics on the surface when you could get into detail with two, does not really make sense. While in times of abundant free access to information (yes, the name says it all, information technology), there is nothing standing against individual research, and the opportunities for discussion and critical reflection offered by universities should be used in all respects. We have to realize that it is just impossible to get into detail about every environmental issue on every level of solution strategy if you have just a handful of semesters available. Hence, I think opening the view to all areas, but focusing on a few special ones in detail, is a good idea. On the other hand, the structure of a generalized bachelor program that provides orientation and a more specialized master’s degree that goes into detail still makes sense, in my humble view. However, there are different opinions on this and you should decide for yourself. So, why don’t we finally start? What sustainability master study programs are on offer?

Social-ecological Resilience for Sustainable Development

Here we go. The first thing most people associate with sustainable development is, of course, ecology. Ecology-wise, there are a gazillion environmental science and biodiversity-oriented master programs out there. One that particularly caught my attention is the “Master’s Programme in Social-ecological resilience for sustainable development” offered at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Starting this very term for the first time, the program will educate its students especially in “ecosystem management in the context of change and uncertainty.” In the first of two study years, four exquisite courses will give students a profound introduction into resilience thinking, social-ecological system interaction and governance. The second year, as in most master programs, is dedicated to the master’s thesis. Find the program overview and a link to the program flyer here. If you are not quite familiar with the term resilience, check out this article on knowtheflow: More Than Ecosystem Dynamics – Understanding the Different Concepts of Resilience.

Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability

Sweden is one of the pioneer countries of applied sustainability thinking. Maybe that’s why two more Master degrees that match my above-mentioned criteria are offered there. Business-wise, the “Master’s in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability” seems promising. The program’s location in the tiny town of Karlskrona is the downside, whereas the MBA-content presented in an MSc-format (and the MSc tuition fee) has to be added as a big plus for the program when solving the where-to-study equation.

Sustainable Product-Service System Innovation

Engineering-wise, green product and service innovations are the focus of another master’s offered in Karlskrona by the same Blekinge Institute of Technology. The “Master’s in Sustainable Product-Service System Innovation” has a special intensive course on life cycle assessment. Why life cycle thinking makes sense is explained on the program design pages:

In order to tackle complex socio-ecological challenges of human society, each designer should have a broad perspective, or a bird’s eye view. Practically, this means that those who work with product innovation must have expertise in strategic sustainable development and have the ability to evaluate a product’s positive and negative socio-ecological impact during its life cycle, as well as the related economic conditions and implications.

Material Flow Management

Even if we leave the Köttbullars and Giflars, we can stick to a master’s program in engineering that integrates Life Cycle Assessment. “International Material Flow Management” (IMAT) takes place in Germany, at the Environmental Campus Birkenfeld, close to the student city of Trier.

During the IMAT program, students will apply concepts such as: Circular Economy, E-Mobility, Carbon Trading, Zero-Emission, along with several other terms relating to environmental management. Students learn to convert the concepts into practical business strategies.

So far, so good. This description of the Material Flow Management Program could apply to many other programs in environmental management. What makes it different is the practical, SME-focused industrial approach:

International best practice examples and case studies from various fields in MFM serve as guided teaching tools throughout the program. […] The IMAT program aims to engage students with hands-on project development, fostering of eco-entrepreneurial business ideas, and cooperation with small-medium sized enterprises.

And even more important, there is an option to combine studying for one year in Germany with a second year abroad, either in Brazil, Japan or Turkey. Find more information at

Industrial Ecology

Sticking to Industrial Ecology, there is a master’s in the Netherlands with this exact title, that incorporates a great deal of flexibility. The University of Leiden, in cooperation with the University of Delft, offers the two-year “Industrial Ecology” course. The huge variety of elective and specialization modules can be explained by the broad offerings made available by the two big universities. There are study programs from virtually all disciplines, and you can chose from all of them, given that your coordinator agrees to your plan.

300+ Sustainability-related Master Programs in the US

AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, lists 399 international master programs, mostly from the US, some from Europe. Both general and specialized master’s degrees found their way to this manifold collection. While most of these focus on social sciences, prospective designers can find an exotic program that is not on this list, in Finland.

Creative Sustainability

If you are more of a practical type, and seek a fully interdisciplinary, application-oriented program, consider going to Finland. In the town of Aalto, the “Creative Sustainability” master is offered by a joint venture of departments that are usually not known for extensive cooperation: architecture, design, arts, engineering and economics. I have to admit, even though a total lack of natural science is striking in a sustainability master, this program sounds fun:

The Master´s Degree Programme in Creative Sustainability brings together students from different fields to study in multidisciplinary teams that increases understanding of different disciplines and enables adapting a holistic approach. This activates students to create new sustainable solutions for human, urban, industrial and business environments. The pedagogical approach is based on integrating teaching and research, problem-based learning, blended learning and strong connection to practical outcomes.

Environmental Governance

I’m sure those of you interested in politics will urge a master in environmental governance. There are many. Three that stand out include Environmental “Security and Governance at the University for Peace”, in Costa Rica (yes, apparently not in Europe, but as I said, it stands out…), also offering a big list of elective courses; ”Environmental Governance” at Freiburg, Germany, with an extraordinary degree of student self-organization; “Political Science: Global Environmental Governance” in Amsterdam, with a possible specialization in comparative European Politics.

…and There’s No Limit

To go further, here are some keywords that may be useful in searching for additional programs and some of the exemplary places where they are located. Sustainable Resource Management, Munich; Sustainability Science, Lüneburg (near Hamburg); Earth Sciences, Amsterdam; Water Management and Environmental Engineering, Vienna; Material and Energetic Utilization of Renewable Resources, also Vienna; and Corporate Social Responsibility, e.g. the one-year program in Belfast.

Good luck choosing the right one, I hope I could provide you with some inspiration. And please be so kind to add yours in a comment, if you graduated recently and liked your own sustainable master program!

The magnificent article image was taken by beatplusmelody and licensed under CC BY 2.0.



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