Exemplary lessons: Rectors share sustainability strategies

Higher education institutions, and universities in particular, have been called upon from the outset to play a leading role in the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and many people consider that this leadership role in sustainability, both through training and through research and outreach, is currently in crisis.

Part of this crisis is due to the increasing pressure facing higher education worldwide: to do more with less. And to this pressure is now added the pressure to do so sustainably and with a catalytic effect that guarantees a social and economic impact in the progressive move towards a development model in line with the SDGs.

Because of the growing concern about the failure to achieve the SDGs, an increasing awareness is emerging among rectors and higher education leaders of the critical role that universities are called upon to play.

Higher education institutions’ unique position provides them with the potential to participate in and lead the way towards sustainable economic, social and environmental development. And this potential should be placed alongside a significant responsibility to do the utmost to advance sustainable development themselves.

Most higher education institutions already contribute to the SDGs in different ways and to different extents, but this is often done through scattered initiatives, with no overarching approach to sustainability or a sustainability strategy at an institutional level.

Higher education institutions can represent the vanguard in transforming human activities to reduce their negative impact on the environment and ensure the adoption of a sustainable development model.

Most higher education institutions are the size of a small or medium-sized city. They are thus real communities whose practices can be exemplary for other communities, from small municipalities to large cities. Therefore, it is no surprise that so many university rectors need to understand better how to contribute to the SDGs and how to systematise their approach.

Three pillars of sustainable action

A review of international debates and practices reveals the emergence of three fundamental pillars that often work together simultaneously. The first, and probably the most important, is designing an institutional strategic plan for sustainability focused on a few immediate priority objectives that will guide daily practices and future developments.

The second pillar is the progressive transformation of institutional practices in areas critical to sustainability, from building design and maintenance to waste treatment.

The third and final pillar consists of generating awareness campaigns that transmit clear messages to members of the academic community with the intent of progressively modifying certain behaviours while at the same time facilitating awareness of the need to commit to sustainable development daily. In many cases, awareness campaigns are an integral part of strategic plans.

The incorporation of sustainability into higher education practices is not going smoothly and its implementation is uneven to say the least – both in terms of disciplinary diffusion and understanding of sustainability.

Sustainability culture translates into members of an institution sharing assumptions and beliefs about the importance of balancing economic efficiency, social equity and environmental responsibility, and a failure to embed sustainability in higher education institutions suggests that sustainability has failed to become part of the mainstream institutional culture.

This observation is supported by the 2006 UNESCO call to integrate the values inherent in sustainable development into all aspects of learning. This is especially the case given that most barriers to university partnerships for urban sustainability are human rather than technical. These shortcomings need to be addressed.

Organisational culture

If higher education institutions are to fulfil their potential role as exemplary organisations, as technical, cognitive and cultural models of sustainability for both their students and the communities they serve, they must be prepared to promote significant inward cultural transformation, which involves attitudinal change and the development of a new set of values and behaviours: in short, they must develop an organisational culture for sustainability.

A sustainable university requires individuals who behave sustainably, that is, in ways that are autonomous, self-regulated and responsible.

It must be a place where the behaviours which promote sustainability are considered desirable by all stakeholders and, therefore, collectively encouraged so that, if an organisation has a sustainability culture, its members and stakeholders will develop sustainable relationships with each other and this will be reflected at the institutional scale in a virtuous circle.

A UNESCO course for rectors

This is where the Sustainable University Leadership and Governance. Towards the 2030 Agenda programme, developed by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, comes in.

From 20-22 September, in parallel with the activities of the United Nations 2023 Sustainable Development Goals Summit, 20 rectors from Latin America met at Casa de América in Madrid to kick off the international course, “Leadership and Sustainable University Governance. Road towards the 2030 Agenda”.

There they shared their sustainability practices and built a space for dialogue, reflection and collaboration to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals within and across their institutions. The rectors came from public and private institutions from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Peru.

In this course, participant rectors share their experiences about models that integrate sustainability into their institutional strategies and debate how to strengthen their strategic plans with a view to sustainability.

Each university rector is accompanied by a mentor, who will support them in developing their institutional implementation plan and institutional roadmap to achieve their goals in the short term.

After the face-to-face meeting, the training continues with virtual sessions, both synchronous and asynchronous, until December 2023.

Alternative models

In these sessions, during which each rector is joined by two other members of the senior management team at the university, participants will learn about alternative models of integrating sustainability, not only when it comes to campus management but also institutional strategies for quality teaching, relevant research and committed work with their communities.

During their meeting in Spain, the rectors visited the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid to learn first-hand about the activities they have carried out to achieve the goals established by the 2030 Agenda.

The participant rectors signed a Decalogue for university sustainability in Latin America as an indication of their commitment and their willingness to work as an active network to reinforce their capacities in a peer-learning environment.

This first cohort of rectors will serve as mentors for the second round of the course, thus enhancing the catalytic effect of this UNESCO initiative.

Francesc Pedró is director of the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNESCO IESALC).