by Brianna Crandall — September 4, 2017 — Canadian higher education institutions that have undergone a sustainability assessment also incorporate sustainability into their strategic plans in a more significant way, according to a new study by the Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN).
SEPN examined strategic plans from a cross-Canada sample of 50 post-secondary institutions to determine the extent to which colleges and universities are prioritizing sustainability in their long-term visions. The study is part of a larger study examining sustainability uptake across the Canadian formal education system.
A key finding from the study was that institutions affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) were more likely to have higher quality sustainability responses in their strategic plans. AASHE is an organization that empowers students, faculty, staff, and administrators in higher education to drive sustainability uptake in their schools.
Meghan Fay Zahniser, the executive director of AASHE, remarked:
SEPN’s findings point to the advantage of having clear targets for sustainability in universities and colleges. AASHE provides a lot of resources, including our STARS sustainability assessment program, that help institutions identify what they’re doing well and what they can improve on. Figuring out where to start can be pretty overwhelming. Our resources can help institutions focus their often limited resources.
SEPN’s research also points to some significant gaps and opportunities for improvement. SEPN found one in five institutions did not discuss sustainability in their strategic plans at all. In plans where sustainability was discussed, half dealt with sustainability superficially, lacking specific sustainability-related goals and mostly focusing on institutional operations. As strategic planning helps higher education institutions envision their goals and outline the actions needed to achieve them, the lack of clear sustainability targets is concerning, notes SEPN.
While AASHE members were more likely to include progressive sustainability actions in their core missions, goals, and policies, none of the 50 institutions examined exhibited “transformative responses,” in which higher education institutions integrate sustainability into all their activities so everything they do becomes more sustainable, according to the report.
Dr. Marcia McKenzie, principal investigator for SEPN, commented:
One thing we see quite often is higher education institutions doing a great job with their facilities management — improving building efficiency, changing light bulbs, installing low-flush toilets — but sustainability needs to go beyond one area of institutional activity. Transformative strategic planning creates a culture of sustainability throughout the entire institution. When sustainability is integrated successfully into all areas of institutional activity — governance, curriculum, operations, research, and community outreach — sustainability becomes a core property of the institution’s activities.
SEPN’s research shows that having specific goals with measurable outcomes can be a powerful tool for improving sustainability uptake in higher education, and that sustainability assessments such as the AASHE STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System) program can be effective tools for helping higher education institutions become more sustainable.
Visit SEPN’s Resources page to read the paper, research brief, and infographics for this research project.