Purpose – Higher education has a key role and responsibility in creating change and addressing issues of fundamental human concern such as inequality and social justice, globalisation and development, environmental protection and sustainability. The purpose of this paper is to describe how RCE-Ireland, established in September 2007, aims to develop awareness and engagement with these realities and ensure they become integrated into education in Ireland. Design/methodology/approach – Action research is based on a cyclical process of action, observation, reflection and adaptation, and has been adopted by RCE-Ireland as key to reorienting the practice of education towards sustainability. Two case studies of action research projects are the focus of the paper: Critical Thinking in Large Scale Lectures, University of Limerick, and Reorienting Course Content towards Ethical and Ecological Consumerism, St Angela's College, Sligo. The methodologies employed include both qualitative and quantitative data collection, and address critiques of action research while remaining true to the aims of democratic teaching and engaged scholarship. Findings – The case studies demonstrate action research as a valuable and valid research methodology in itself, as well as recognising its appropriateness in reorienting education towards sustainability. The University and University-based educationalists have a unique role here by linking research and practice, blurring the boundaries of research as objective and value-free, and in demonstrating innovation and leadership in addressing global challenges and human concerns. Originality/value – The University can provide opportunities for reorientation towards sustainability, as well as presenting challenges to this work. There is much evidence that higher education settings find it more difficult to adjust their practices than to adjust their content. One approach to engender such change in practice is the promotion of action research in higher education settings, where the twin roles of the academic practitioner as teacher and as researcher are brought together to adapt educational practice.