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Challenges in Higher Education

Introduction and background

Arguably, there can be no sustainable world without the participation of universities and higher education institutions in promoting sustainability. According to Sady et al (2019), such institutions are better placed to facilitate an effective transition into a sustainable future than other forms of institutions. Orr (2002) argued that universities can approach sustainability in such a manner that all their activities, including HRM activities, are ecologically sound, socially and culturally just, and economically viable (Dagiliute et al, 2018). But a new school of through is emerging among scholars and commentators that challenges the rising academic capitalism created by rapid marketization of university programs; most of them arguing that this goes against basic principle that universities should be vehicles for economic and social change (Avila et al, 2019). They claim that the higher education curriculum has largely focused on offering more academic programs at the expense of offering fundamental or basic degree courses (Purcell et al, 2019).


The perception that universities are too focused on commercialization to perform their social and economic roles raises the question on whether they can effectively participate in green initiatives. Yet, Shrivastava (2020) argued that universities have a role to play in the transition towards sustainability in such a way that the society’s ecological, economic, social and cultural issues are addressed. An intriguing issue to address, therefore, is that what are the fundamental principles that characterise universities’ engagement in sustainability.

Generally, according to Capocchi et al (2019), universities have largely participated in sustainability through various paths namely: clear identification of the ethical, environmental and social responsibility of the institution’s governance, mission and vision. Furthermore, Purcell et al (2019) pointed out that universities can engage in sustainability by integrating economic, environmental and social sustainability within its curriculum, developing a strong commitment towards a system’s approach to sustainability and literacy as one of the graduate attributes.

Although most universities have accepted the challenge of developing the best practice in knowledge creation and dissemination Baker-Shelley et al (2017), the need to transit into sustainability (as a fundamental social role of public institutions) opens a new set of challenges and opportunities that are of this study’s interest to explore. Non-governmental organizations, businesses, governments and an increasing number of universities have already achieved significant milestones with regards to the sustainability within their systems. But there are certain challenges that those universities are still significantly grappling with.

Universities are complex organizations with multiple entities shaped up in a variety of organizational concerns, traditions and sub-cultures (Leal et al, 2019). This implies that the impacts of universities’ transition to sustainability may go unrecognized (Avila et al, 2019). Moreover, some of the initiatives that are restricted to a few organizational units may go uncoordinated (Bauer et al, 2018). This is in addition to the fact that limited funding and budget cuts may only favour short term investments in sustainability, eliminating the possibilities of reaping long-term benefits.

Apart from these organizational challenges, the heavy workload held by university staff and students may be a may present a challenge to sustainability initiatives. According to Lattu & Cai (2020), the little time, and how that time should be spent pose a challenge to initiate, complete and evaluate sustainability initiatives – creating a natural resistance to change. This is besides the challenge that university generally do not have proper incentive structures needed to promote the required changes.

Statement of the problem

Universities operate in an environment of many interacting and competing stakeholders, which makes it difficult to make decisions about growth within the institution’s immediate community (Stephens et al, 2017). Even if the changes were made, the continual organizational changes, coupled with the loss of corporate memory as a result of staff turnover increases the likelihood of repeating mistakes and makes it difficult to maintain established improvement cycles. Nonetheless, two major challenges prevent universities from transitioning into sustainability namely the lack of awareness and engagement among staff and students; and lack of commitment from university leadership (Radinger & Pflitsch, 2017).

There are also important external factors that influence universities’ participation in sustainability initiatives. For example, Aleixo et al (2017) noted that pressure from peer institution, the government and non-governmental institutions – especially those that have made significant progress towards sustainability, can influence the institution’s engagement in a sustainability project. Similarly, Martins et al (2019) observed that universities may receive pressure from the society at large – especially if they are located within communities that demand a greener and cleaner world. Against this backdrop, the main aim of this study is to investigate the role of universities in Community Wealth Building through sustainability and green outcomes. This will be achieved alongside the following research objectives:

Research objectives

To identify how universities, engage in green and sustainability initiatives

To identify the role of the society and other community stakeholders in influencing universities’ engagement in sustainability and green initiatives

To identify the challenges encountered by universities in sustainability and green initiatives

Research Questions

How do universities engage in green and sustainability initiatives?

What is the role of the society and other community stakeholders in influencing universities’ engagement in sustainability and green initiatives?

What are the challenges encountered by universities in sustainability and green initiatives?

Justification of the study

From time immemorial, society has expected universities to positively contribute to the surrounding communities. However, according to Sady et al (2019), university administrations have continued to exacerbate instead of remediating the dire situations of surrounding communities. Consequently, they have neglected their roles of contributing to societal wellbeing. By evaluating how universities scan engages in green and sustainability initiatives, the proposed study will help universities achieve their intended purpose in terms of improving the lives of neighbouring communities.

Universities are large organizations (some have a global footprint) with various statutory benefits such as tax exemption and are expected to acknowledge how they impact local communities (Dagiliute et al, 2018). Through the proposed study, universities will learn how and why they should acknowledge and appreciate the influence they impose on neighbouring communities in terms of transport and infrastructure, local housing markets and jobs.

Universities are particularly important organizations that form part of ‘anchor organizations’ within a society. They are distinctive anchor institutions because they aspire to use their knowledge-generating capabilities and partnerships to progress the conditions of societies (Brown et al., 2020).

Non-profit organizations, city authorities, and residents have turned to anchor institutions such as universities to influence economic and social development through community wealth building. According to Brown et al (2020), community wealth building refers to multidimensional initiatives started by localities to address various social and economic challenges faced by people in the neighbourhood. To address these problems, the locals adopts community wealth building through a system approach whereby stakeholders work collaboratively to local-based assets that promote sustainable economic and social development while enhancing inclusivity in ownership of the assets.

According to Sady et al (2019), anchor organizations are non-profit organizations that have a significant stake in the surrounding communities, especially due to their missions. Because anchor organizations have a significant impact in local communities through landownership revenue gathering, spending and employment, they greatly impact the local communities and their economies. Also, because as anchor institutions universities seek to maximize their profits, they have a better opportunity to intentionally create more impact on the local communities. This study seeks to unravel the various ways in which universities can create more impact on the local communities. It will also suggest solutions to the challenge’s universities may face in the process.

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A qualitative analytical study will be conducted to determine the impact of sustainability practices on employee engagements and on the performance of employees and organization performance. The participants will be university professionals and associates who will be randomly selected from universities in the UK Particularly, qualitative research approach is considered for this study following the use of similar research approach by Sedlacek (2013), who also investigated the role of universities in sustainability, albeit with different objectives.

Data will be collected through two sources as follows:

1. Questionnaire Survey: an online survey will be sent to university staffs and other stakeholders (e.g. student leaders) who play diverse roles in their respective university’s sustainability or green programs

2. Interviews: based on the above results, initial assumptions and findings are refined then on a small sample of university staffs that are chosen to interview in person, and collect more concentrated and reliable feedback, with focus on open-ended discussions. Data will be collected from both public and private universities. HR managers of those companies will be approached.


The research is expected to proceed in the following phases and durations:

  1. Most sections will proceed in an overlapping manner and hence the actual overall duration of the entire thesis projection will be less than the sum of all durations

Aleixo, A. M., Leal, S., & Azeiteiro, U. M. (2018). Conceptualization of sustainable higher education institutions, roles, barriers, and challenges for sustainability: An exploratory study in Portugal. Journal of cleaner production, 172, 1664-1673.

Ávila, L. V., Beuron, T. A., Brandli, L. L., Damke, L. I., Pereira, R. S., & Klein, L. L. (2019).

Brown, W., Barbara, G & Meghan, G. (2020) 'Title The University as Anchor Institution in community wealth building', in (ed.) Community Wealth Building and the Reconstruction of American Democracy: Can We Make American Democracy Work?. : Univ. of Virginia Library Interlibrary Services, pp. 244-258.

Barriers to innovation and sustainability in universities: an international comparison. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education.

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, 145, 262-276.

Bauer, M., Bormann, I., Kummer, B., Niedlich, S., & Rieckmann, M. (2018). Sustainability governance at universities: Using a governance equalizer as a research heuristic. Higher Education Policy, 31(4), 491-511.

Capocchi, A., Orlandini, P., Vallone, C., Harasheh, M., & Amelio, S. (2019). The Important Role of Universities in Enhancing Sustainability: The Case of the University of Milano-Bicocca. In Social Responsibility and Sustainability (pp. 389-410). Springer, Cham.

Dagiliūtė, R., Liobikienė, G., & Minelgaitė, A. (2018). Sustainability at universities: Students’ perceptions from Green and Non-Green universities. Journal of Cleaner Production, 181, 473-482.

Lattu, A., & Cai, Y. (2020). Tensions in the Sustainability of Higher Education—The Case of Finnish Universities. Sustainability, 12(5), 1941.

Leal Filho, W., Kovaleva, M., Fritzen Gomes, B., Fudjumdjum, H., Emblen-Perry, K., Platje, J., ... & da Cunha, D. A. (2020). Sustainability practices at private universities: a state-of-the-art assessment. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 1-15.

Leal Filho, W., Shiel, C., Paço, A., Mifsud, M., Ávila, L. V., Brandli, L. L., ... & Caeiro, S. (2019). Sustainable Development Goals and sustainability teaching at universities: Falling behind or getting ahead of the pack?. Journal of Cleaner Production, 232, 285-294.

Martins, V. W. B., Rampasso, I. S., Anholon, R., Quelhas, O. L. G., & Leal Filho, W. (2019). Knowledge management in the context of sustainability: Literature review and opportunities for future research. Journal of cleaner production, 229, 489-500.

Orr, D.W., (2002)The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture and Human Intention, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Purcell, W. M., Henriksen, H., & Spengler, J. D. (2019). Universities as the engine of transformational sustainability toward delivering the sustainable development goals:“Living labs” for sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Radinger-Peer, V., & Pflitsch, G. (2017). The role of higher education institutions in regional transition paths towards sustainability. Review of Regional Research, 37(2), 161-187.

Sady, M., Żak, A., & Rzepka, K. (2019). the role of universities in sustainability-oriented competencies development: insights from an empirical study on Polish universities. Administrative Sciences, 9(3), 62.

Sedlacek, S., 2013. The role of universities in fostering sustainable development at the regional level. Journal of cleaner production, 48, pp.74-84.


Stephens, J. C., Palchak, E., & Reese, B. (2017). Divestment and Investment: Strategic Financial Decisions in Higher Education to Promote Societal Change Toward Sustainability. In Handbook of Theory and Practice of Sustainable Development in Higher Education (pp. 305-315). Springer, Cham.

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