Why do universities fail to integrate sustainability, when general stepping stones are available?

Recent studies looking at the integration of sustainable development in higher education showed that universities worldwide are struggling to execute a thorough, structural and systemic approach. Initiatives to integrate sustainability in higher education are often characterised by a bottom-up, ad-hoc, and piecemeal approach, mainly in the universities’ own operations (e.g. sustainability assessment, ecological footprint analysis) or in education (e.g. competences, sustainability courses). No doubt these initiatives have a valuable influence on the integration of SD, nevertheless university leaders often fail to incorporate the initiatives within their organisation.

A bottom-up approach has to be treasured to get the sustainability integration process going on, as without awareness and engagement the integration process would not be successful. However, if the bottom-up approach is not supported by a holistic plan at the university level, the integration might slow down, or stick at the level of ad-hoc initiatives without impact on the university system.

It is a bit strange to see universities are struggling to pass the level of ad-hoc initiatives and move on towards a systemic and structural approach. After all, the framework, guiding principles and key success factors of a structural integration process are well described in the literature. Examples are ample, e.g. within the context of change management in business, and also within the context of higher education.

Often, university policy makers fail to see the bigger picture: how can this ad-hoc and bottom-up initiative be positioned within the framework of sustainable higher education? It might be helpful to clarify the sustainability integration process into a model, following the structure of a higher education institution, clustering key guiding principles and offering flexibility to use in the context of a single university.

Within the literature, several stepping stones, integration strategies or guiding principles towards sustainable higher education are identified, at different levels: policy, education, research, outreach, operations. An SD implementation model, following a logical structure and containing stepping stones, might help in framing the university’s efforts within the concept of sustainable higher education. Furthermore, it offers inspiration for universities to develop their own approach, as it is not possible to create a standard blueprint, applicable in every higher education institution.

The figure below presents such an SD implementation model, built upon seven stepping stones: (1) vision, (2) mission, (3) SD working group, (4) integration strategies for education, research & outreach, operations, (5) evaluation, (6) reporting, (7) certification & accreditation. For each stepping stone, the model offers some key criteria and guiding principles for the SD integration process. The model is not a static blueprint, but requires a personal translation at the level of a single higher education institution, or even a single unit within a bigger university.

Stepping Stones for Sustainable Higher Education

Read more

Lambrechts, W., Van den Haute, H. and Vanhoren, I. (2008). Making progress towards sustainable higher education: design of an implementation model with guiding principles. Paper presented at the Businet Annual Conference, Palma de Majorca, 12-15 November 2008.

Waas, T., Hugé, J., Ceulemans, K., Lambrechts, W., Vandenabeele, J., Lozano, R. and Wright, T. (2012). Sustainable Higher Education. Understanding and Moving Forward. Flemish Government – Environment, Nature and Energy Department, Brussels.


3 responses to “Why do universities fail to integrate sustainability, when general stepping stones are available?

  1. Pingback: Sustainability Assessment in Higher Education | sustainable higher education·

  2. Pingback: Implementation project: ‘ECHO for a Sustainable Future – Transition towards Sustainable Higher Education’ | sustainable higher education·

  3. Pingback: A change management perspective on sustainable development in higher education | sustainable higher education·

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