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Sustainable University (SU)


Photograph by Asitha Jayawardena

Sustainable University

What is a sustainable university? According to a number of scholars, a sustainable university project should develop from a systems or holistic perspective, perceiving the campus as a ‘learning laboratory’, a ‘model sustainable community’ or a ‘sustainability life world’ or as a ‘learning organisation’ with regard to sustainability.

A. Beringer and M. Adomssent emphasise that a sustainable university project should target the entire institution from various leverage points, such as:
 Research, teaching, and community service and outreach/ knowledge transfer
 Academia and administration/ operations
 Systemic, technical and paradigmatic

Thus, a sustainable university project strives to realise a university’s social responsibility in building a sustainable future.

Sustainable University 21 model

Taking into consideration a number of threads and findings in the sustainable university research discourse, I have developed a Sustainable University 21 model as follows, using three perspectives on what a typical university is.

Campus and campus family
Firstly, a university is an organisation that employs people to provide a set of services to society while contributing to the economy. However, like any other organisation, it consumes natural resources, produces waste and affects the environment.

Knowledge, skills and values
Secondly, a university is an organisation that facilitates flourishing of knowledge, and to a lesser extent, skills and values through its core academic functions – teaching, learning and research. The knowledge, skills and values it creates, transfers and promotes would influence and even shape the future society.

Community and wider world
Thirdly, a university is a responsible organisation situated and operating in a wider community and ecosystem, ranging from local to global. Its policy, practice and day-to-day operations have impacts on its community and wider world.

What is the relationship between sustainability and higher education (HE)? Why should a university consider sustainability seriously? What is a Sustainable University (SU)? What is the Sustainable University 21 (SU21) model?

Sustainability and Higher Education (HE)

Broadly speaking, sustainability could be viewed as an ideal state where economic growth, social justice and ecosystem health thrive in mutual harmony, ensuring wellbeing for most, if not all, of humanity now and in the future. Sustainable Development could be seen as the process that takes humanity towards sustainability.

Sustainability, society and education
The concept of sustainability is gradually becoming mainstream in society. Education can play a key role in driving sustainability and this has been emphasised in a number of international forums, such as the 2002 Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development. Since the launch of the UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), ESD has secured a lead role in sustainability movements, from local to global, around the world.

Sustainability and higher education (HE)
Increasingly, society perceives that higher education (HE) has a crucial role in building a sustainable future and some scholars consider this as the biggest challenge to universities in the twenty-first century. Since first definition of Sustainable University in the 1990s, forward thinking universities are acting as agents of change, driving sustainability agenda in the wider community as well as within their institutions.

Importance of sustainability to higher education 

Why should a university consider sustainability seriously? Broadly speaking, there are three reasons:
 Responsibility
 Necessity
 Opportunity


Organisational responsibility
A university is a large organisation that consumes significant amounts of resources, produces large amounts of wastes and has adverse effects on the environment. Being a large organisation, it inevitably has an impact on the local community it is situated and operates in. So, it has a responsibility to minimise its impacts on the wider community and environment.

Knowledge responsibility
Sustainability issues are complex. Finding a solution to such issues requires interdisciplinary approaches, sometimes even synthesising different ways of knowing, such as scientific and cultural. Society turns to universities for finding solutions to such complex problems. So a university has a knowledge responsibility to society.

Social responsibility
A university receives large amounts of public funds. In a society where sustainability is becoming mainstream, a university has a social responsibility to be sustainable.

Futuristic social responsibility
A university is a training ground for professionals and political leaders. Their decision-making has an enormous impact on sustainability at local, national and global levels. So, a university has a responsibility to society to produce sustainability-oriented/competent graduates.


Government policy is increasingly shifting towards sustainability, particularly as a result of the global pressure on carbon reduction. Non- compliance or inadequate compliance with regulations, especially carbon and environmental regulations, would incur costs to universities.

Funding implications
Universities receive funding from government and philanthropists. With sustainability increasingly becoming culturally valid in society, a university with an unsatisfactory sustainability performance may find its funding gradually drying up. In England, for example, the HE funding council, HEFCE, is tying funding to a university to its carbon reduction performance.


Cost savings
Efficiency is at the heart of sustainability. At a university, encouraging efficient use of materials and utilities in the name of sustainability would achieve cost savings as reduced bills.

With government policy shifting towards sustainability, the demand for sustainability competent graduates is likely to increase in the future. In the UK, for example, government’s drive for a low carbon economy has created new markets in green technologies and businesses, consequently raising the demand for sustainability competent graduates. So sustainability competency is gradually becoming a key element in graduate employability. Moreover, this is an opportunity for a university to start new courses on sustainability or introduce sustainability modules to its existing courses because the demand for such courses is likely to go up.

Business collaboration
Collaboration with businesses in research, consultancy, knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs) and partnerships is a key source of financial income for a university, especially in the context of government funding restrictions such as in the UK. Being conscious about their corporate image, businesses – especially large ones – prefer to collaborate with sustainable universities.

Marketing and branding
In a society where sustainability is gaining cultural validity, sustainability offers any university enormous marketing and branding opportunities to attract the best as students, staff and business partners as well as cash flow as funding and consultancy.

Stakeholder rallying
Sustainability is relevant to any person/organisation that lives/exists or situated on the Planet Earth. So it is an opportunity for a university to rally all its stakeholders – internal and external – around its vision if it is sustainability-centred.


The Sustainable University 21 model comprises the following elements:

Campus and campus family:
 Campus: land, infrastructure
 Campus family: students, academic staff, non-academic staff, alumni

Knowledge, skills and values:
 Knowledge: teaching/ learning/ curriculum and research
 Skills development
 Values development

Community and wider world:
 Community engagement: local community, business community, state sector and authorities, education and higher education sector, non-governmental and community organisations, media, global family
 Wider world: local, national and global ecosystems

I have adopted this model for my proposed Sustainable University 21 project.

Please note...
The content above is entirely based on the academic sources below.


Adomssent, M., Godemann, J. and Michelsen, G. (2007) Transferability of approaches to sustainable development at universities as a challenge. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 8(4), pp.385-402.

Beringer, A. and Adomssent, M. (2008) Sustainable university research and development: inspecting sustainability in higher education research. Environmental Education Research, 14(6), pp.607-623.

Copernicus Alliance (1993) The CRE-Copernicus University Charta. Copernicus Alliance – European Network on Higher Education for Sustainable Development.

EAUC (2011) About Us [Online] Available from: Environmental Association of Universitie and Colleges (EAUC) website [Accessed 27 May 2011].

Garcia, F.J., Kevany, K. and Huisingh, D. (eds.) (2006) Sustainability In Higher Education: What is Happening? (Special issue on sustainability in higher education). Journal of Cleaner Production, 14(9-11), pp. 757-1038.

HEA (2011a) Sustainability. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 2 January 2011]. Higher Education Academy.

HEA (2011b) Sustainability in Higher Education Developers (SHED). [Online] Available from: [Accessed 2 January 2011]. Higher Education Academy.

HEFCE (2009) Sustainable development in higher education: 2008 update to strategic statement and action plan. Publication ref: 2009/03. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 21 December 2010]. Higher Education Funding Council for England.

HEFCW (2009a) Policies that influence higher education. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 2 January 2011]. Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

Koester, R.J., Eflin, J., and Vann, J. (2006) Greening of the campus: a whole-systems approach. Journal of Cleaner Production, 14(9-11), pp.769-779.

Lukman, R. and Glavic, P. (2007) What are the key elements of a sustainable university? Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy, 9(2), pp.103-114.

Scott, W. and Gough, S. (2007) Universities and sustainable development: the necessity for barriers to change. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 11 (4), pp. 107-115.

SFC (2010) Sustainable development: Our work on sustainable development [Online] Available from: [Accessed 29 December 2010]. Scottish Funding Council.

Shriberg, M. (2002) Toward sustainable management: the University of Michigan Housing Division's approach. Journal of Cleaner Production, 10(1), pp. 41-45.

Steiner, G. and Posch, A. (2006) Higher education for sustainability by means of transdisciplinary case studies: an innovative approach for solving complex, real-world problems. Journal of Cleaner Production, 14(9-11), pp.877-890.

Sterling, S. and Scott, W. (2008) Higher education and ESD in England: a critical commentary on recent initiatives. Environmental Education Research, 14 (4), pp. 386-398.

UKNC for UNESCO (2010) Education for Sustainable Development in the UK in 2010, report by United Kingdom National Commission for UNESCO [Online] Available from: [Accessed 22 November 2010].

UUK (2011a) Sustainable Development Task Group. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 3 January 2011]. Universities UK.

UUK (2011b) Universities and the green agenda. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 3 January 2011]. Universities UK.

Van Weenen, H. (2000) Towards a vision of a sustainable university. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 1(1), pp.20-34.

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