30 SES 06 B, Research on Progress towards Sustainability in (Higher) Education Systems
The research presented here is set within the framework of a project called “HOCHN – Sustainability at Higher Education Institutions: developing – networking – reporting” which is conducted by eleven German higher education institutions (HEIs). As the project name indicates, the partnering HEIs do not intend to stay a closed group, but aim to create an extensive inter- and transdisciplinary network that allows the exchange of findings, experience and methods in order to foster the institutions’ sustainable development in Germany and beyond. The project is meant to feed the network and interested HEIs with a joint understanding of sustainability and transformational processes, the identification of fields of action, and useful guidelines to promote sustainability-related development of HEIs. In order to secure a comprehensive approach towards sustainability at HEIs and seize the specific expertise of the interdisciplinary team of researchers, the project has been divided into six working packages: teaching, research, operations, sustainability reporting, transfer, and governance. The last of which makes the theme of this paper, whereas all the others certainly play important roles in the construction of sustainability governance at HEIs.
The recognition of sustainable development (SD) as a key objective for HEIs around the world has been steadily increasing for at least two decades (Barth, 2015; Michelsen, 2016), and researchers have taken on the identification of suitable strategies for its implementation (Ferrer-Balas et al., 2009). Nevertheless, the inquiry into underlying processes and structures, actor constellations and sensitivities of SD implementation at HEIs – the sustainability governance – is rarely dealt with (Spira et al., 2013; Baker-Shelley et al., 2017). This might be due to the highly context-dependent conditions under which different HEIs of different sizes, in different locations and with different disciplinary foci face the challenges that arise with the institutionalisation of SD. In order to encourage a broader integration throughout the global HEI landscape, it is therefore a welcome but so far rare approach to systematise the different manners through which SD is introduced and operationalised at HEIs. Leal Filho (2015) as well as Rath and Schmitt (2017) suggest ways of typification of HEIs and their sustainability processes. While the first differentiates mainly between three manifestations ranging from individual sustainability ambitions by certain actors, over sectoral strategies of single faculties to institution-wide commitments, the latter build on this notion and define four degrees of institutionalisation, from single sustainability-related activities to a sustainability-related organisational profile, each illustrated through an exemplary HEI.
It is the intent of this paper to further explore and expand these types by taking a closer look onto the time axis and intertwining governance procedures taking place along the way of SD implementation. Which processes promote the different degrees of institutionalisation? Which formal and informal structures are essential to build, and which stand in the way? Which actors are involved and when and how do they get involved? As the process of SD implementation in its whole is very much about the people engaging in it, the application of structures, means of communication and practices of decision-making that enable their integration in a meaningful manner, subsumed in the concept of participation, is considered the process’s backbone (Disterheft et al., 2015; Shriberg, 2002; Spira et al., 2013).
As a first step, a literature review on sustainability governance at HEIs in German and English was done. In a second phase, ten explorative expert interviews were conducted. The sample consists of ten experts who are known in the German HE landscape as promoters of sustainability at HEIs. However, they all represent different approaches, functions and perspectives towards the sustainability processes they have been involved in. Among the interviewees are several people who have supported or even initiated the SD process of the institution that they belonged to, be it as a student, a researcher/teacher or manager. Others have taken an external perspective on different universities in order to advise or steer them. Based on the results of the expert interviews, a second interview guide was set up to lead through the main data collection: stakeholder interviews. Different stakeholders from each of the eleven HEIs participating in HOCHN were interviewed to identify typical processes and structures of sustainability governance at HEIs and to shed light on the backgrounds of these types. The interviewed stakeholders represent five different status groups within a single HEI: the management level, student initiatives, the administration, academic staff like professors or researchers, and – if existent – a representative that is specifically dealing with sustainability, e.g. a sustainability commissioner. For all five groups the same interview guide was applied. The interview covered questions concerning the development and assessment of the sustainability agenda within the university. Furthermore, two non-verbal tools were applied during the interviews, a network map and a scheme of a five-dimensional governance equalizer, a heuristic that was presented by the authors at last year’s ECER. The first tool was intended to help visualise the interviewee’s perception of the importance of different stakeholders and their interrelations concerning the sustainability processes at the respective institution. Whereas the second tool served the individual assessment of the institution’s achievements with regard to each equalizer dimension (politics, profession, organisation, knowledge, and visibility). The interviews were recorded, transcribed and anonymised. Based on qualitative content analysis and using a coding scheme, the interview data is currently being analysed by three researchers and expected to present a valuable source with regards to the envisaged typology which will also be presented and discussed at interactive practice research events and networking days. These discussions will help to further reflect on the results and draw conclusions equally relevant for theory and practice.
The results of this research will make possible to identify sustainability governance profiles at different HEIs, which deal with sustainability in research, teaching and operation. This will help to better understand how sustainability governance processes at universities look like and how they can be facilitated more effectively. Furthermore, this research will contribute to further developing the theories on sustainability governance at universities. According to the planned state of the project in September 2018, this paper will present a substantial part of the findings from the stakeholder interviews. Guided by the questions posed above, the findings will allow creating a typology of SD governance at HEIs which then can serve as a useful orientation for implementing SD at universities.
Baker-Shelley, A.; van Zeijl-Rozema, A.; Martens, P. (2017) ‘A Conceptual Synthesis of Organisational Transformation. How to Diagnose, and Navigate, Pathways for Sustainability at Universities?’, Journal of Cleaner Production. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.01.026. Barth, M. (2015): Implementing sustainability in higher education. Learning in an age of transformation. London: Routledge Disterheft, A.; Azeiteiro, U.M.; Leal Filho, W.; Caeiro, S. (2015) ‘Participatory processes in sustainable universities – what to assess?’, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 16 (5), pp. 748–771. doi: 10.1108/IJSHE-05-2014-0079. Ferrer-Balas, D.; Buckland, H.; de Mingo, M. (2009) ‘Explorations on the University's role in society for sustainable development through a systems transition approach. Case-study of the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC)’, Journal of Cleaner Production 17 (12), pp. 1075–1085. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2008.11.006.Franz, K.; Brüsemeister, T. (2016): Selektive Wissensorganisation in Kommunen des BNE-Transfers. In: Bormann, I./Hamborg, S./Heinrich, M. (eds.): Governance-Regime des Transfers von Bildung für nachhaltige Entwicklung. Qualitative Rekonstruktionen. Wiesbaden: VS Leal Filho, W. (2015): Education for Sustainable Development in Higher Education. Reviewing Needs. In: Leal Filho, W. (Hg.): Transformative Approaches to Sustainable Development at Universities. Cham: Springer International Publishing (World Sustainability Series), S. 3–12. Michelsen, G. (2016): Policy, politics and polity in higher education for sustainable development. In: Barth, M.; Michelsen, G., Thomas, I.; Rieckmann. M. (eds.): Routledge Handbook of Higher Education for Sustainable Development. London: Routledge, pp. 40-55 Rath, K.; Schmitt, C. T. (2017): Sustainability at Universities: Degrees of Institutionalization for Sustainability at German Higher Education Institutions—A Categorization Pattern. In: Leal Filho, W.; Brandli, L.; Castro, P.; Newman, J. (Hg.): Handbook of Theory and Practice of Sustainable Development in Higher Education. Volume 1. Cham, s.l.: Springer International Publishing (World Sustainability Series), S. 451–470. Shriberg, M. P. (2002) ‘Sustainability in U.S. Higher Education: Organizational factors influencing campus environmental performance and leadership’, dissertation, University of Michigan. Spira, F.; Tappeser, V.; Meyer, A. (2013) ‘Perspectives on Sustainability Governance from Universities in the USA, UK, and Germany: How do Change Agents Employ Different Tools to Alter Organizational Cultures and Structures?’, in S. Caeiro, W. Leal Filho, C. Jabbour, U. M. Azeiteiro (eds.). Sustainability assessment tools in higher education institutions. Mapping trends and good practices around the world, Cham: Springer, pp. 175–187.
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