Charting the local challenges of implementing global goals

International research into Kuwait University has shone light on the complexities and challenges of implementing sustainability in higher education, the importance of regional and social and cultural context, and the need for rules that enforce sustainable behaviours. ‘Developed globally, induced locally’ does not always work well, the researchers say.

“The Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] are a global concept that goes into local contexts. The SDGs seem universal, but don’t always translate well on the ground,” says Assistant Professor Muhammad Al Mahameed. He is with the department of accounting in the College of Business Administration at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, and formerly of Copenhagen Business School in Denmark.

“Things get lost in translation. Each region, country and city has its own priorities and is dealing with its own problems,” he told University World News.

The research kicked up stark examples of contextual challenges. An eco-friendly glass building, which would work perfectly in Europe, is built in Kuwait – where temperatures hit 60 degrees Celsius – and it becomes a greenhouse, consuming high energy to cool.

Where there is segregation between males and females, open spaces may not work. “People put newspapers on the glass and on partitions in the offices,” he says.

The implementation of sustainability practices in Arab higher education institutions”, which describes the Kuwait University study, was published in the Journal of Financial Reporting and Accounting earlier this year.

Al Mahameed’s co-authors are based in the United Kingdom: Umair Riaz and Mohammad Salem Aldoob of the accounting department at Aston University, and Anwar Halari of the department of accounting and finance at the Open University Business School.

The backdrop

Universities that are striving to achieve a more sustainable vision can face internal and external challenges. This has led to many researchers studying diverse aspects of sustainability implementation in universities.

The Arab Gulf context, especially Kuwait, was selected as a setting for the study to provide new insights into this process by examining the perspectives of educators and administrators regarding sustainability implementation.

Kuwait University is the country’s top higher education institution, with nearly 40,000 students, some 1,700 academic staff and 5,000 administrative and academic support staff.

The university moved to a new campus in 2021, known as Sabah Al-Salem University City – Kuwait University, as one of the projects that form part of the ‘Kuwait 2035’ vision. The campus is divided into male and female buildings, following traditions in Kuwait as an Arab Islamic country.

As well as intrinsic motivations for implementing sustainability practices, universities also face powerful external pressures to show commitment to the SDGs.

“As a result, more universities are integrating sustainability concepts into their research, curricula, institutional frameworks and day-to-day activities. They are creating eco-friendly campuses and prioritising the teaching and research of sustainability issues,” says the article.

The study explores the impacts of social and cultural requirements on the development of sustainability practices at the new Kuwait University campus.

The researchers conducted 21 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 16 educators and five administration or management staff with pivotal roles in sustainability implementation and creating the new campus. They also analysed numerous documents.

Out of 16 educators, nine were females and seven males, while three administrators were male and two were female. All participants had a PhD. It was during the COVID-19 pandemic, so interviews were via telephone or video conferencing.

Lack of knowledge, focus on environment

The researchers found that sustainability was “embedded in a narrative that was repeated at the practice level”, and this facilitated setting sustainability objectives and tasks and also helped people develop understandings of practice and the importance of emotions, self-intentions and patterns of culture.

There was enthusiasm for sustainability among respondents, who also reported high interest levels generally on campus.

Even so, there was a significant lack of knowledge and awareness about sustainability, especially with understanding its definition, which Al Mahameed describes as a “huge challenge, even for people who want to do it”. Without sufficient information, people will not work on sustainability initiatives, understandably fearful of doing something wrong.

Sustainability is a complex concept with several definitions, and is not well understood generally. The 1987 Report of the World Commission on the Environment and Development: Our Common Future defined sustainable development as advancement that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

But 14 out of the 21 participants were uncertain how to identify the meaning of sustainability and its implementation in universities. At the beginning of interviews, most participants requested a definition. “This emphasises that educators and administrative staff do not have similar notions about sustainability concepts and their practices,” the article says.

One interviewee said: “Many groups, committees and meetings popped up to reveal and explain how we should understand sustainability and implementation of its practices.”

However, participants admitted that they had not attended seminars or educated themselves about the university’s sustainability implementation process.

Lack of rules and regulations

Since the seminars were not mandatory, they depended on the willingness of staff to participate. It was not clear whether the respondents did not attend because of lack of interest, or time or resources. The researchers identified some resistance to change, which one participant said was especially the case among older colleagues.

Some participants suggested that changes to old cultural habits should be applied first to achieve the university’s new vision and mission.

The research identified lack of rules and regulations to enhance sustainability implementation as a key factor hindering academics in educating themselves on sustainability. As a result, academics act in ways they see as sustainable, based on their beliefs and attitudes.

Basically, says Al Mahameed, the field of sustainability lacks knowledge and information – the IKEA manual, which shows what should go where. “So we highlight the need for guidelines, and initiatives, and realistic goals.”

Further, the research found: “Participants showed a lack of cultural understanding of change and sustainability. They also insisted that students lacked an understanding of sustainability and identified this as creating difficulty in implementing sustainability within the university.”

Environmental focus

The study revealed that participants mainly focused on environmental issues, such as waste reduction, electricity consumption and ways to reduce CO2 emissions, and overlooked wider concepts and core values of sustainability. This seems common to universities worldwide.

“I contribute to the university’s sustainability vision by not wasting resources such as paper and electricity; by not handing out notes, instead uploading them to Blackboard, and I shut the lights and devices after I finish my lecture,” said one respondent.

This highlights the emotion and good intention of respondents, and also the need to change their understanding of new sustainability concepts and practices.

“This is perhaps because people in Kuwait have not been thoroughly acquainted with the sustainability concept, as it has been recently introduced to not only educational institutions but to the country as a whole and surrounding regions,” the authors write.

“It requires universities in Kuwait to create and implement specific awareness strategies to achieve sustainability goals.”

Diverse practices

Kuwait University is steeped in the culture and social norms of the Arab region, but it is also highly international. Most of the academics encountered were international, but the university leadership was all Kuwaiti.

“We noticed that there are diverse practices, which we consider good,” Al Mahameed told University World News. The educators had different views on everything. “Although everyone agrees that this should be something they do, they proceed in different ways. Do we need to communicate in a specific way? Can we think about this from the bottom, instead of thinking from the top?” In making decisions, universities need to take diversity into account.

Although there was enthusiasm around sustainability, the research found positive and negative opinions of sustainability initiatives.

“Sometimes when the negative is with top management, things don’t go ahead. But if you have enough skills to convince the top people to implement, they will implement,” Al Mahameed says. “Educators have significant influence over sustainability implementation.”

The study findings highlight the importance of the engagement of educators, who have substantial influence on the implementation process as they are responsible for designing and delivering sustainability courses and research.

Some conclusions

The researchers recommend that universities in Kuwait consider creating specific guidelines and initiatives to achieve sustainability goals.

They argue that establishing a sustainable culture at all levels of the university “goes well beyond introducing sustainability initiatives such as new modules or courses or some estate greening without any change sought beyond these practices”.

While changes presented in the study were positive, the authors called for deeper responses and a shift in the university’s cultural purposes, roles and operations instead of ad hoc efforts.

Since sustainability is an all-encompassing concept, its meaning needs to be understood with reference to the context and purposes of bringing about effective change.

“The context becomes imperative to drive engagement and effort as, depending on the underlying rationale of sustainability, success will be defined differently in different contexts. Therefore, organisations may engage in sustainability activities and projects depending on the context and rationale of such activities.”

“Interestingly, studies have also highlighted variations in the conceptual understanding of sustainability from region to region,” the authors write. This implies that as well as social, economic and environmental dimensions, the regional dimension is essential in understanding the concept of sustainability.

Further, 75% of the participants agreed that compliance with the university’s sustainability vision “heavily depends on one’s beliefs and attitudes”. For instance, 50% of the respondents expressed a negative perspective about transparent offices with mostly glass walls, with some women of conservative Islamic culture feeling it impeded on privacy.

“This study highlights that integrating sustainability within the organisation’s business model is a long-term venture, and support from senior management is the key,” the article stresses. Internal policies and metrics are essential in integrating sustainability.

Other research has emphasised that the smooth, successful implementation of sustainable development in universities requires policies and strict rules to enforce certain behaviours.

Since academics have control over their own time and teaching methods, no consistency was found in implementing sustainability based on the rules. Further, educators have been basing actions on their beliefs and commitment. This creates poor goal congruence and undermines achieving objectives because not all staff are on the same ‘wavelength’.

The results of the research will interest universities and policy-makers in the Gulf and Arab Emirates region and universities around the world, the authors write. It will help regulatory bodies to plan sustainability initiatives, and universities to enact sustainable practices and embed values, attitudes and behaviours for sustainable development in the region.