Higher education institutions have an essential role in sustainability.
Colleges and universities are helping to shape new ways for the world, educate global citizens, and deliver knowledge so societies can innovate. These institutions are key agents in educating future leaders who can contribute to the successful implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Two of the SDGs are directly linked to education: goal 4, which focuses on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education while promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all; and goal 8, which promotes sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.
In 2012, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) stated that for every $1 spent on education, $10 to $15 could be generated in economic growth. An additional year of schooling can increase a person’s earnings by 10% and increase the average gross domestic product by 0.37% annually, a direct impact on goal 8.
UNESCO also correlates the strong relationship between education and health. The completion of basic education is associated with higher-quality health indicators. Significant improvement can be achieved by completing secondary education, especially by women. For example, in sub‐Saharan Africa, an estimated 1.8 million children’s lives could have been saved if their mothers had at least secondary education.
In a direct impact on goal 1, which calls for ending poverty in all its manifestations, UNESCO states that 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low‐income countries left school with basic reading skills.
Sustainability in education
Universities can educate students on the importance of living sustainably through curriculum, open education, and competency.
Curriculum: The curriculum should include SDGs in the learning process and use immersive and gamified content as instructional materials.
Open education: If it is made more affordable, accessible, and attainable for learners, open education can enable lifelong learning. Learners could become members of a larger family, where they would formulate and exchange ideas, knowledge, culture, and skills between communities, countries, and continents.
Competency: To make sustainability part of a university's culture, it is important to integrate it across all departments. For example, business students can learn about sustainable business practices, and engineering students can learn about sustainable design. These students would have the right skillsets and be the flagbearers of sustainable practices.
Managed sustainability for universities
Universities are adopting several initiatives to respond to the call for sustainability.
They include pledges, vision statements, action plans, sustainability reports, responsible investments, curriculum courses, and research on sustainability-related areas.
However, sustainability is complex and achieving outcomes can be challenging. A structured approach using continuous improvements can help in effective sustainability management.
1. Discover and aspire
1.1 Maturity assessment
It begins by understanding the current context, sustainability maturity level, and baseline. In this phase, universities must identify current impact and opportunities, industry benchmarks and best practices, various stakeholders and their needs, as well as conduct broad scenario analyses.
1.2 KPI definition
Metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) are required to define performance across all environmental, social, and governance focus areas of universities for measuring objectives and accountability. Metrics underpin a performance-based approach that offers greater flexibility than a prescriptive approach, especially in a financially constrained world where multiple stakeholders with competing objectives and uncertainty are the norm.
For example, in the case of a built environment, a target stating 100% of new buildings and major renovations to achieve a 5-star rating can be more helpful than embedding university sustainable design principles in all buildings.
A report on digital sustainability reveals a strong relationship between digital strength and organizational progress in achieving sustainability outcomes. Universities must choose platforms that have a greater number of functionalities and can be easily integrated with existing systems.
For example, a platform for energy data input, analysis, and reporting versus one that includes real-time energy monitoring, asset management, and optimization can improve both value and cost effectiveness.
University sustainability reports highlight commitments on several sustainability issues under SDGs. A materiality assessment can help identify and prioritize issues to ensure that crucial ones are not omitted and those with medium and low materiality are not unnecessarily included, allowing optimum resource allocation and, by extension, a streamlined pace of change in priority areas. Such an assessment conducted periodically can also help ensure the time-relevancy of issues, especially in a fast-changing world.
2. Plan and implement
This step involves translating the vision, policies, and targets into actionable items, such as developing roadmaps and action plans, allocating resources, providing training, ensuring documentation control, and maintaining communication.
At this stage, detailed programs for each focus area are also developed and solutions, both technological (sustainable technologies such as solar panels and enabling technologies like digital technology) and managerial, are proposed, procured, and implemented.
2.1 Energy and carbon management
Energy and carbon management and optimization tools can greatly accelerate the process and provide valuable cost savings that can be put back into education and research. These tools can assist with data capture, analytics, and reporting and loop back into identifying areas of wastage, raising alarms, and providing solutions for optimization with automation integration capabilities. With university campuses spread out geographically, such cloud-based tools can streamline data collection and be highly cost-effective.
2.2 Training and education
Universities cannot possibly possess in-house information on every aspect of their sustainability journey, particularly when it comes to industry-related expertise. There is also the challenge of disseminating this knowledge and practice widely and efficiently to all the stakeholders (both internal and external) involved in the implementation process.
University-specific training programs, custom designed with relevant stakeholder input, and delivered on digital platforms with immersive content and 3D modeling such as heating, ventilation, air conditioning systems, renewable energy systems, and more, can catalyze sustainability performance while improving time and cost-effectiveness.
3. Monitor, report, and review
The final stage involves verifying that solutions are working, and targets are being met. Non-conformances must be addressed, and feedback loops should be created to assist in reviewing and modifying the whole process as necessary.
Reporting still relies predominantly on the time-consuming and cumbersome process of manual data collection and analysis, which runs the risk of data lag in addition to person-hours wasted and cost inefficiencies. Real-time monitoring via digital platforms can streamline and speed up the reporting and review process.
When aligned with standard reporting formats, such as the Global Reporting Initiative, these tools can assist universities in meeting compliance requirements effortlessly. However, tools alone cannot do the job; continuous support, training, and fine-tuning with time will help ensure they deliver positive impacts.