Promoting sustainable development – How are universities faring?

In May and June 2010 the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi), the International Association of Universities and the Association of African Universities jointly carried out a survey of higher education institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa to determine what contribution they were making towards sustainable development.

The initiative followed a declaration made by leaders of African higher education institutions at the 12th General Conference of the Association of African Universities (AAU) in Nigeria in May 2009, calling on all stakeholders to take necessary steps to enable African institutions to play a meaningful role in promoting sustainable development.

An online questionnaire was sent to nearly 500 institutions in 41 African countries. The areas covered in the questionnaire were: teaching and learning; research; outreach and services; institutional governance; and campus operations.

Seventy-three institutions (response rate 15%) from 23 countries filled in – either fully or partially – and returned the questionnaire. Among the respondents, 69% were publicly funded institutions and 75% were Anglophone.

The full survey report is available on the websites of the AAU and the International Association of Universities. The salient findings in the different areas are summarised below.

Teaching and learning

From the responses received, 41% of institutions indicated that they had mainstreamed sustainable development in their various curricula. Of these institutions, 27% had done so in social sciences and 23% in natural sciences, with only 9% in engineering and applied sciences and 7% in physical sciences.

Further, 26% of the institutions reported that they were running specific sustainable development degree courses, and 40% inter-disciplinary sustainable development courses. Most of the inter-disciplinary courses were run in public institutions and well over half of them were offered as compulsory courses.

The three main barriers identified as hindering the introduction of sustainable development courses in institutions were: lack of funding (23%), lack of qualified staff (20%) and lack of awareness and information about sustainable development (17%).

Only 35% of the responding institutions had a faculty of education, and of these only 39% were producing learning materials for schools in support of education for sustainable development.


For 60% of the respondents, research on sustainable development represented 20% to 40% of all research undertaken in the institution. Only in 20% of the institutions was sustainable development research greater than 40% of all research.

Contrary to the situation in teaching, the two areas in which the bulk of sustainable development research was undertaken were natural and physical sciences and engineering and applied sciences. Research on sustainable development in health and medical sciences, education and management disciplines was particularly poor.

In most of the institutions sustainable development research undertaken by students and as postgraduate research represented less than 20%.

The responses received with respect to what uses were made of sustainable development research results were quite revealing.

About 19% of the institutions reported that the research results were published in refereed journals, another 19% that they were presented at international conferences and 18% that they were placed as documentation in the university libraries.

Only 12% of the institutions mentioned that the results were used for outreach programmes, and 10% for advocacy and policy-making. The research results on sustainability are therefore not really benefiting the main stakeholders, namely communities and the policy-makers.

Institutions were asked to identify the main enabling factors that motivate research on sustainable development: 17% of them mentioned partnerships with other institutions, researchers, government or industry; 14% identified a supportive research environment; and another 14% donor funding.

Partnerships and community engagement

About 60% of the respondents mentioned that they partnered with local or national bodies, and about 55% with regional and international ones. Also, 55% of institutions had developed non-formal or informal sustainable development activities targeting a variety of audiences such as government, the general public, industry, teachers, students and others.

Two-thirds of the responding institutions mentioned that they were engaged with a rural community, either through research (63%), or student-staff exchanges (49%) or internship (44%).

Over half of the respondents were also engaged in activities related to peace, security and conflict resolution through research (44%), staff-student outreach programmes (38%) or direct collaboration with the communities concerned (28%).

About 60% of the institutions were equally engaged in various activities to promote cultural diversity and inter-cultural dialogue and understanding.

The institutions were particularly active in responding to HIV/Aids challenges. More than 80% indicated that they were involved in HIV prevention activities. Efforts undertaken by the AAU and other organisations in getting African universities actively involved in trying to combat the HIV/Aids pandemic appear to have been successful.

Institutional governance and campus greening

From the responses received, senior management (rectors or vice-rectors) or deans and heads of department appear to have ‘quite a bit’ of commitment to sustainable development.

About 60% of the responding institutions had some type of formal institutional policy – in the form of a policy document or coverage in annual reports or brochures-catalogues – showing substantial commitment to sustainable development. However, the bulk of these institutions were public ones, with private institutions showing little commitment.

Also, 60% of the institutions surveyed, again mainly public ones, mentioned that they had established multi- or inter-disciplinary structures for teaching and research on sustainability issues, and 60% of the institutions had an institutional research agenda on sustainable development.

With regard to coordination of sustainable development activities, 39% of the institutions mentioned they had appointed a sustainable development coordinator, 39% had also assigned the responsibility to an appropriate dean or director, and 38% had set up an environmental council or sustainable development task force. A few institutions (28%) had appointed an energy officer and a couple of them even had a 'green' purchasing officer.

From the point of view of campus greening, the survey revealed that very little was happening with regard to energy conservation, waste reduction or recycling, water conservation or sustainable landscaping practices. No institution reported having a sustainable transportation programme.

However, the institutions were conscious of the importance of such practices. When asked about their future plans for promoting sustainability on campus, 53 of the 73 institutions mentioned introduction of energy conservation initiatives, 48 planned to develop a new strategic plan with a strong sustainability component, and 32 aimed to mount compulsory courses on sustainable development.

Conclusions and recommendations

This survey, covering 73 higher education institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa, can by no means be regarded as comprehensive, and there is clearly a need for a more in-depth study. Nevertheless, it does give an indication of sustainability practices in African universities.

The survey seems to indicate that private higher education institutions are not currently committed to promoting sustainable development and yet private higher education represents a large and rapidly growing sector in Africa.

Overall, there is some leadership commitment to sustainable development in African higher education institutions, and more than half of the respondents are addressing sustainable development issues in a variety of ways through their teaching, research, outreach functions and operations.

However, much more needs to be done. The main barriers identified by the institutions in fully engaging in sustainability are lack of funds, lack of human resources, lack of awareness about sustainable development, and inadequate institutional policy on sustainable development.

There is a need to create a database of positive experiences and practices on sustainable development in African universities so that these can be shared by institutions across the continent.

The AAU, at its conferences and in its leadership programmes, could run short courses for university leaders in order to improve their understanding of sustainable development and how their institutions can promote it.

African higher education institutions appear to need assistance in a few specific areas: how to embed sustainability in their strategic plans; how to mainstream sustainability in their institutional activities, especially in their campus operations; and how to set up an appropriate coordinating unit for sustainable development.

Many institutions around the world have successfully done so and African higher education institutions, through partnerships and staff exchanges, can learn from them. Donor and development agencies can assist them in promoting such partnerships and exchanges. The regional and continental African university associations could also gear their programmes towards assisting member institutions in these tasks.

After decades of neglect and underfunding, African universities are currently going through a process of revitalisation – it is important that they integrate the promotion of sustainable development into that process.

* Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former secretary general of the AAU and former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. This article is an abridged version of a paper presented by the author at the International Conference on Higher Education and Development held in Mauritius in September 2012.