Why do Swiss universities bother about sustainability?

Perhaps because Swiss institutions of higher education want to continue to be relevant in the distant future? Perhaps massive online learning is about to replace universities?  Maybe new industries of the future require training that universities do not supply? Or do universities just wash themselves green to be part of the trend in industry? These questions were raised at the annual conference where rectors, deans, administrators, professors and students participated.

Sustainable University Day is the annual Swiss conference for all institutions of higher education and was held this year on 18 March at the university of St. Gallen. Its aim was to address the issue of responsible leadership in the context of the universities’ contribution to sustainable development, and to ask how to educate future leaders who can combine economic success with social justice and the preservation of natural resources?[1]

The meeting proved once more that institutions of higher education need to give attention to sustainability, which implies the economic, social and ecological health and well-being of our society and to ensure the same for future generations. And there are plenty of challenges and risks that were expressed at the conference as well as very positive commitments to move universities in the right direction.

It is not surprising that on-line conferences leave a lower carbon footprint (no travel needed to attend), and it also became clear that industries of the future will require skills that universities need to educate for today. Moreover, no one is under the illusion that many refer to “sustainability” merely as convenient green PR. But there is no doubt, even universities – often the bastions of tradition, prestige and heritage – are adopting change, reform and more open learning tools to be relevant far into the future. Universities, like flag-ship companies, need to be examples of smart, lean, adaptive and sustainable organisations.

Criticisms were voiced in the way professors are employed (too much focus on traditional academic rat race instead of innovative research and pedagogy that favours sustainability), and insufficient support for professors to adopt good pedagogical methods that create long-term value. The future relevance of universities depends on how they adapt and manage their impact on students and stakeholders, and how their own institutions become examples of sustainable management. By being examples of good governance, universities become models of responsible citizenship to their students and make a greater impact on education for a sustainable world.

There is no doubt, expectations are high: Schools must at once set an example of excellent performance that is ethical, sustainable, and responsible, and they must facilitate student learning of these principles in the industries of the future that will impact the quality of life of the graduates’ own children and grand-children. It became clear to all of us participants, that such a tall order can only be achieved through personal engagement by all stakeholders and students. No one can just sit back and wait for sustainability to “happen”. With this in mind, Dr Katrin Muff, Dean of Business School Lausanne, moderated the final conference module during which Rectors, Deans, Professors, managers and Students made personal commitments to do their bit for sustainability in education.

A number of students made fascinating commitments that by themselves were innovative, such as:

“My Commitment: I will tell to everybody that can hear my voice or read my notes that every day we have choices to be responsible or not. And that I am glad I had the opportunity from my university to have the sustainability topic in my studies, therefore I could choose the right path.”, and another student wrote: “Organize and lead student initiatives that will continue beyond just one event, and will multiply and engage many “layers” of the university. Examples: More vegetarian diet at the university, mobility without carbon emissions or lastly, engaging students to sustainability through events and information.”

Some professors promised to engage thus:

I will:
– Bug our rector to make sustainability matter
– Bug my colleagues to integrate Sustainable Development in their teaching
– Bug my students to become more active, to engage
– Continue my work in our group looking for Sustainable Development change.”

Researchers also became engaged, and one expressed it thus: “I want to put in practice what I research about: “rethinking science for sustainable development: reflexive interaction for a paradigm transformation.

Persons with influence on their institutions pledged to facilitate greater sustainable practice on campus, such as: “At the University of Fribourg, we agreed (with the new secretary general) to think about a new structure to implement Sustainable development in teaching, research and the administration of the campus”. Another participant wrote a commitment saying: “Sustainability as mainstream in all (institutional) aspects of a university (as it happened with the idea the shareholder value and individual + economic value maximization): only once then it is lived in everyday life, then universities have done their job.

A dean pledged to redesign curricula to better incorporate these necessary aspects if sustainability, and one stated that: “I will create a professional development course to help teaching staff figure out how to get started at integrating sustainability into his or her teaching.

Finally, one of the Rectors announced in the form of his personal vision: “My dream is to change the culture of the university. We have done it 15 years ago when we introduced a quality culture and it is time to do it again for sustainability and responsibility. We’ll succeed by promoting real interdisciplinarity! It will take time but I know it is possible.”

One participant wrote the following commitments:

  1. Prepare students on: reflection, impact, competence for action.
  2. University as a role model: conflict is good, reduce travel for CO2 footprint, solar panels etc.
  3. Be the personal role model: alternative life model.”

And finally, something we can all identify with: “I am young, I have plenty of ideas for a more sustainable development. But I get hindered often by the system and people who are afraid or tired of change. My commitment now is: Not to give up being motivated!

[1] Text taken from the conference invitation brochure, University of St. Gallen.

Olivier Brenninkmeijer PhDOlivier Brenninkmeijer PhD

Associate Dean, BSL


1 thought on “Why do Swiss universities bother about sustainability?

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