Validity issues of sustainability assessment in higher education

The growing attention towards Higher Education for Sustainable Development (HESD) has led to the development of different tools and instruments to assess the integration of sustainability. Depending on their focus, these tools contain criteria and indicators regarding education, campus operations, policy, research, and the societal role of the university. Some instruments also combine different dimensions.

Rather than comparing different sustainability assessment tools in order to decide which one is the best to use in higher education, critical issues emerge concerning ‘what’ is being assessed. Sustainable development is a contested concept, with numerous interpretations and definitions. This has serious consequences for sustainability assessment, as a different interpretation of sustainability might lead to a different outcome of the assessment. A new article, published in Journal of Cleaner Production, explores these validity issues of sustainability assessment of higher education curricula.

The abstract of the article and full reference can be found below. Read the article on the website of Journal of Cleaner Production.


While curricular assessments can give insight as to the extent sustainability is integrated into higher education study programs, issues remain regarding how assessments are conducted. Previous research has identified and compared various sustainability assessment tools for higher education, but there is a gap in literature studying issues arising from measurement. This paper highlights the need for discussions on this topic by exploring validity issues arising from a case study and discusses the potential of utilizing a supplementary course file during curricular assessments. To achieve this objective, a KU Leuven Faculty of Economics and Business program has been assessed using two different approaches, namely 1) a scan of a European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) file and 2) an instructor self-assessment via a supplementary course file. Based on this research, these two approaches to curricular assessment yield substantially different results, which gives rise to the need to further consider the validity of such assessments. While utilizing an instructor self-assessment (e.g., a supplementary course file) during assessments can help overcome some potential shortcomings and biases of ECTS file scans, both approaches are flawed in assessing true sustainability integration into a program. The varying conceptualizations of sustainability and the lack of uniformly adopted assessment approaches has the potential to create validity issues with the assessment of sustainability in higher education. Acknowledging sustainable development as a contested concept, and developing a faculty-specific conceptualization, can help in approaching assessments in a meaningful way.


business school; curricular assessment; higher education; STARS; sustainability assessment

Full reference

Stough, T., Ceulemans, K., Lambrechts, W., Cappuyns, V. (2017, in press). Assessing sustainability in higher education curricula: a critical reflection on validity issues, Journal of Cleaner Production (in press),



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