Interest in and understanding of the various competencies that university sustainability and environmental graduate degree programs should aim for has increased in recent years. Yet empirical efforts that assess the effectiveness of programs from a competency building perspective have visibly lacked—particularly from a macro-perspective examining multiple cases. This study fills this gap in the literature by conducting a novel comparative assessment of different types of master's degrees in a sample of 14 programs from top-performing universities in Europe, Asia and North America. Our study uses quantitative and qualitative approaches to assess the effectiveness of differing types of programs at building key sustainability competencies defined in the literature, and to understand the defining characteristics of programs, innovative competency building approaches, challenges encountered, and potential countermeasures. Using a typological methodology, this study classifies programs into three categories: research-oriented, neutrally-oriented and practice-oriented and then examined the competency building effectiveness of each category through questionnaires administered to faculty (n = 40) and students (n = 205). Results revealed low success in all program types at equipping graduates with anticipatory competencies. Statistically significant differences were also observed between research-oriented and practice-oriented programs, with the latter demonstrating higher success in building interpersonal, strategic and normative competencies. Qualitative questionnaire responses revealed a widespread student demand for more practice-orientated learning and collaborative projects with societal stakeholders. However they also highlight the important role of research-oriented programs at equipping students with theoretical and conceptual knowledge. From a sustainability competency building perspective, the findings point to a need for research-oriented programs to integrate practice-based didactic approaches for building skills and methods via real-world learning projects with external stakeholders. They also prompt a reconsideration of the special importance of research-oriented sustainability and environmental degree programs in a higher education landscape increasingly shaped by vocational and job market expectations.
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