Purpose: The world is shaped by an education system that reinforces unsustainable thinking and practice. Efforts to transform our societies must thus prioritise the education of educators – building their understanding of sustainability and their ability to transform curriculum and wider learning opportunities. The purpose of this paper is to focus on university educators and critically review the professional development and policy landscape challenges that influence their effective engagement with Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). The paper is informed by a pan-European collaboration involving 33 countries that identified emerging scholarship and practice in this area and assessed the lessons learned from ESD professional development initiatives. It sets the context for a special issue titled “Professional Development in Higher Education for Sustainable Development” that draws together a collection of articles focusing on professional development of university educators across the world. Design/methodology/approach: This paper provides a critical review of existing practice, international policy frameworks and literature relating to ESD, professional development and higher education. It examines innovative initiatives worldwide that seek to improve the capability of educators in higher education to integrate ESD into academic practice at individual, disciplinary and institutional levels. A rigorous process of selection was applied and overseen by an international expert group. This ensured that the initiatives sought educational change in ESD, and not simply the embedding of content about sustainability into learning opportunities. It also assured that the initiatives had a clear and intentional professional learning process to underpin the engagement of participants with ESD. Findings: ESD has grown in visibility and status worldwide, with a clear increase in activity in higher education. The sector is viewed as a significant force for change in societies, through the education provision it offers to future professionals and leaders in all sectors. However, universities currently lack capacity to integrate ESD effectively into mainstream teaching practices and the training they provide for academic staff or to integrate ESD into their institutional teaching and learning priorities. Many ESD activities remain focused on teaching issues arising in sustainable development research and delivering specialist modules or courses in sustainability. Very few countries and institutions have significant staff development programmes to enhance the ESD competences of university educators and build their academic leadership capabilities for ESD. The contributions to this special issue show the need for greater understanding of the multi-level task of integrating ESD into professional development activities, not just for individual impact in the classroom but to advance institutional change and decisively influence the teaching and learning discourse of higher education. Originality/value: There are few research studies and documented activities on ESD professional development in higher education available in the literature. This paper attempts to explore what ESD professional development involves and describes its complexity within the higher education sector. The special issue provides a collection of innovative research and practical initiatives that can help those involved in education and learning to develop ESD as a priority for future university innovative pathways.