Sharjah University: Research helped raise sustainability

The University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates is building an international reputation for sustainability, underpinned by introspective research that has studied – and worked to improve – the sustainability performance of students and staff. Counterintuitively, it has found students to have lower sustainability levels than staff.

A campus survey into sustainability performance generated recommendations for the university’s Sustainability Office, and action plans were implemented. The UI GreenMetric World University Rankings, a recognised measure of green campus and environmental sustainability of universities globally, was used to keep track of progress.

“The results showed higher overall ranking scores for the higher education institution compared with the year 2017,” says a paper published in March on the research. “Its global ranking also increased from 452 in 2017 to 398 in 2018, 294 in 2019 and, finally, to achieve 194 in 2020.” Last year Sharjah rose further – and spectacularly – to number 81.

From 2017 the number of sustainability courses increased by 15%, the number of student-run sustainability organisations rose to 13 and the number of sustainability-related events increased by 69%.

Implementing the recommendations from the research has significantly helped enhance sustainability performance in various aspects, according to the article in Systems Research and Behavioral Science, titled “Enhancing sustainability performance of universities: A DMAIC approach”. An earlier paper became a chapter in the 2020 book, Sustainable Development and Social Responsibility – Volume 2.

Co-author Professor Imad Alsyouf, director of the Sustainability Office at the University of Sharjah and a member of its Sustainable Engineering Asset Management (SEAM) Research Group, told University World News this week that the study was based on a design project he supervised and that graduate students contributed to the research.

“We’ve recently designed an updated survey scheduled for distribution this semester to evaluate University of Sharjah stakeholders’ sustainability awareness. This questionnaire builds upon an enhanced iteration of the previous one,” he said.

“And we plan that it will be used again to remeasure the same group of stakeholders after three to four years, to monitor the impact of the university’s sustainability efforts in producing graduates who advance sustainability.”

The other article authors are Anwar Hamdan, Sadeque Hamdan, Nada Murad, Marah Abdelrazeq, Sondos Al-Ali and Maamar Bettayeb.

Aspects of sustainability performance

Universities play an influential role in sustainable development and in achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals, given their primary role as knowledge providers. They respond to sustainability challenges such as climate change through research and by educating people towards more sustainable ways.

Therefore, argue the authors, universities should pay attention to the sustainability of curricula, the campus and its environment and the behaviour of individuals on campus, and should continuously assess and improve their sustainability levels.

The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) and GreenMetric are two sustainability rating systems for universities. Whichever is used, there are five important sustainability aspects – knowledge, behaviour, concern, awareness and attitudes.

“Assessing and understanding these aspects and measuring their levels at any higher education institution are essential to help achieve better recommendations and excellent sustainability performance results,” says the article. A literature review concluded that no previous works had considered all five of the sustainability aspects in one study.

Monitoring sustainability performance should be done continuously. The researchers used a DMAIC approach – a systematic continuous improvement approach that has been used successfully in sectors such as banking, health care and manufacturing. To the authors’ knowledge, DMAIC methodology had not previously been used to assess sustainability performance in a university.

So the paper assesses the sustainability levels of knowledge, behaviour, concern, awareness and attitude between different campus populations – students, faculty and staff – and colleges within the same university to provide recommendations for improvement that are aligned to the international sustainability rating systems.

“This work will help decision-makers at higher education institutions identify sustainability weaknesses and gaps so they can design the right and efficient programmes to boost their sustainability performance. Furthermore, the proposed framework will help them achieve continuous improvement by monitoring the institute’s performance,” says the article.

The survey

Data collection consisted of a research survey to measure the sustainability level and participation in the UI GreenMetric World University Rankings, operated by Universitas Indonesia, so as to measure and control the international sustainability performance level and benchmark it with other universities.

An online questionnaire was distributed to all students, staff and faculty via email, and it was available from 12 March to 5 April 2018. Participation was optional and anonymous. Due to slow early response, a weekly reminder was sent out from the chancellor’s office.

The study scope was limited to colleges that teach in English, at that point, and so it did not cover colleges that teach in Arabic – law, Sharia and Islamic studies and community college – which cover 16% of all of the university’s students.

The total number of students, staff and faculty at the University of Sharjah was 16,587 in 2018. There were 646 questionnaire participants, with 408 female participants (63.16%). This was representative because the total female percentage in the institution is 63.77%.

Three quarters of the respondents were students (75.7%), who comprise 87% of the surveyed university population. Academics comprised 10.53% of respondents (they are 4.2% of the total population) and other staff comprised 13.78% (they are 8.5% of the university population).

Some findings

The survey found that males, academics and the college of medicine had the highest sustainability levels in their categories.

“The slightly higher males’ normalised overall level comes from the behaviour aspect. Faculty members have higher sustainability knowledge, awareness and attitudes than staff,” says the article. The lowest sustainability level was in the communication college, followed by the college of fine arts and design and the college of business administration.

The knowledge aspect was “significantly low” in all categories, while the other sustainability aspects were high based on gender and campus population.

In the arts and humanities college and the communication college, the “significantly low” sustainability level indicates low exposure to sustainability concepts and practices, which could be due to the nature of programmes and activities. “Involving more students, faculty and staff from these two colleges in sustainability-related activities can enhance their concerns and inspire better behaviour.”

The paper attributes the high sustainability level among academics to their exposure to sustainability concepts because of career requirements, and high levels of education. “Both faculty and staff members showed higher sustainability levels in all aspects compared with the students’ levels.”

Managerial insights and actions

It made sense that the lowest performing categories should be the focal point for decision-makers to achieve improvements. The authors argue that “focusing on spreading knowledge can enhance other aspects” – behaviour, awareness, concerns and attitude.

There were 30 brainstorming sessions and several focus group meetings with decision-makers to prepare recommendations and action plans for implementation. The recommendations developed by the Sustainability Office were:

• Increase the knowledge level about sustainability among students by introducing more seminars and workshops about relevant sustainability topics.

• Integrate sustainability in a broader range of courses in various colleges, especially those with low sustainability levels.

• Involve students in sustainability activities by establishing sustainability student clubs, which will increase students’ sustainability knowledge, awareness, concerns and attitudes.

• Announce more sustainability-related events focusing on students, staff and faculty in the communication college to increase sustainability concern and promote more sustainable behaviours and best practices.

• Provide training sessions and orientation days focusing on sustainability to all campus populations, focusing on new members to improve sustainability knowledge, awareness and concern among the campus population.

• Provide awards and incentives to the campus population for efforts in creating and achieving a sustainable campus, to increase sustainability behaviours and attitudes.

• Perform students-to-students and students-to-staff sustainable activities and events to increase the knowledge and concern of students.

• Encourage students to carry out sustainable projects with other campus populations, to benefit from their knowledge and experiences in different fields.

• Hold competitions to reduce energy, water consumption and waste generation among all campus populations, to promote sustainability behaviours and attitudes.

A range of actions was initiated. For instance, in 2019 the University of Sharjah organised more than 30 sustainability seminars, workshops, forums and competitions. The Sustainability Office announced 2020 as the year of sustainability, and established two student sustainability clubs and a sustainability hub in the communication college.

To increase stakeholder engagement levels, the university implemented the ‘circles of sustainability’ concept – a method for understanding and assessing sustainability and for project management directed towards socially sustainable outcomes.

“Further, the sustainability curriculum and the sustainability studies circles introduced new courses and encouraged the research groups to publish more on sustainability, and the Sustainability Office launched a sustainable garden project on campus.”

Some conclusions

The authors conclude that the results of the sustainability survey helped university decision-makers by identifying weaknesses, finding gaps and building on strengths.

The framework could guide decision-makers on how to use strengthened areas to develop action plans. For instance, high awareness levels can facilitate the implementation of actions as acceptance among students and staff would be high. By contrast, if acceptance levels are low, action plans need to start by spreading awareness as people could resist change.

Moreover, the increased awareness and concern among the higher education institution community could also enhance the whole society’s awareness and concern.

The study suggests that coordination between universities in the UAE could be forged to compare their sustainability levels. “This could help connect the study findings to several characteristics, such as the geographical location of the universities, available colleges, national context and diversity. Furthermore, future studies could focus on barriers to sustainability, such as behaviour differences and differences between actions and attitudes,” the study said.