This contribution is grounded empirically in a review of UN’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UN DESD) which the author was commissioned to carry out by UNESCO. The review’s section on the learning processes taking place in the higher education arena forms the basis of this article. Particular attention is paid to the role of UNESCO ESD Chairs in advancing sustainability-oriented learning and competences in higher education. The main conclusion that can be drawn is that Higher Education Institutions are beginning to make more systemic changes towards sustainability by re-orienting their education, research, operations and community outreach activities all simultaneously or, which is more often the case, a subset thereof. They are doing so amidst educational reforms towards efficiency, accountability, privatization, management and control that are not always conducive for such a re-orientation. Some universities see in sustainability a new way of organizing and profiling themselves. The UNESCO ESD Chairs mainly play a role in conceptualizing learning, competence and systems change.