Sustainability: Researching Trends in Higher Education Mandates

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Editor’s Note: The Scholars-in-Residence Program, undertaken annually at University of Toronto’s Victoria College, is a fantastic research opportunity for undergraduate students in the social sciences. Combining the fascinating disciplines of natural sciences, mathematics and social sciences, the various projects aim to foster creativity and solutions to unique challenges the world is facing today. This article is part of a series, edited by Asad Jessani, written by participants of SiR this past May.


Sustainability has become an emerging mandate for higher education—something that universities around the world are taking seriously. In May this year, along with a team of four dedicated undergraduate students, PhD candidate You Zhang, and Professor Elizabeth Buckner from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, I worked on the “Higher Education for Sustainable Development: Tracking University Commitments Worldwide” project as part of the Jackman Scholars-in-Residence (SiR) program. This intensive four-week research opportunity taught me what the inductive research process looks like, how long a research project can really take, and how I feel about research as a future endeavour­­­. All the while, it also gave me incredible insights on the sustainability discourse in higher education, global regional patterns in commitments to sustainability, and much more. I left SiR with many lessons, and as I reflect on this experience below, I hope you too can take something new home. 

Our role in this larger project was to conduct qualitative analysis in order to understand how universities around the world are framing ideas of sustainability and sustainable development, as well as why these ideas are important to them. Through using an inductive research process, our first task was to extract meanings and attach codes to a random sample of university mission and vision statements from across the world that mentioned the words “sustainability,” “sustainable development,” “SDGs,” or anything similar. By using a random sample of approximately 370 mission and vision statements across seven to eight regions worldwide, we attempted to parse out the ways in which universities were justifying their commitments to being sustainable.

It is important to recognize that sustainability has evolved to encompass a variety of meanings and understandings globally, ranging from environmental to social to fiscal.

As for what has come out of this project? Far more than I can fit within the designated length of this blog post! Instead, here are a few “logics” of sustainability, or ways in which universities across the world appear to be demonstrating their commitments to being sustainable. Interestingly, while certain regions chose to emphasize environmental sustainability, others were more concerned with signifying their commitment to sustainable development or other conceptions of sustainability that go beyond its ecological understanding. Therefore, first, it is important to recognize that sustainability has evolved to encompass a variety of meanings and understandings globally, ranging from environmental to social to fiscal. For example, some of our findings revealed that for a number of universities in the Middle East and North Africa, sustainability is understood as community development. For others, sustainability is about social responsibility. Alternatively, in other universities, sustainability along with the SDGs is understood as a pathway to address societal needs and contribute to education, while sustainable development is conceived of as a way to meet or confront the challenges of globalization. 

Live graphics speaking during the session "Shaping a Sustainable World with McGill University" at the Annual Meeting 2017 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 20, 2017
Live graphics speaking during the session “Shaping a Sustainable World with McGill University” at the Annual Meeting 2017 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 20, 2017. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek. “Shaping a Sustainable World with McGill University” by World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Certain interesting trends which also emerged as we began concluding our research were that sustainable development was rarely—if ever—mentioned by universities in North America. It seemed to be something universities in Latin America or other parts of the world chose to utilize more than the so-called “developed” world. While this may reflect the trends of the development agenda at large—and was certainly something we did not anticipate being able to see as we conducted our coding—the analysis part of our findings remains to be something that I’m sure will reveal even greater insights, patterns, or recognizable themes that would be telling of the trajectory of higher education and its endorsement of sustainability. 

Overall, I couldn’t be more grateful for this experience! It has broadened my perspective greatly on what my own future pursuits could be. Moreover, as an international student, my value for education takes utmost priority because it is something my parents have always emphasized and sacrificed for. Being able to work on a project that examines trends in higher education, including one of our most pressing issues—sustainability––is a true complement to my undergraduate experience. It has showed me how much I enjoy the research process. I can definitely see myself continuing down this path in some future capacity. 

To bring this circle to a close, it would be useful to explain what prompted my interest in this project initially. My interest in this project stemmed from the fact that I am pursuing a co-operative program in International—now more commonly being recognised as “Global”—Development Studies with minors in Anthropology and Political Science. This program is predicated on understanding the development discourse in conjunction with themes of social justice and inequality. Of course, one can imagine what an increasingly emergent trend sustainable development would be in this discipline. Moreover, education, especially—higher educational institutes, development, and sustainability—all create a deeply important nexus that needs further research and investigation. 

How will higher educational institutes shape, frame, or influence the future integration of sustainability in our world?

Being able to work so closely on a project which dealt with just this was immensely gratifying and curiosity-fuelling. How will higher educational institutes shape, frame, or influence the future integration of sustainability in our world? How do we generate greater action to these commitments to sustainability given the impending climate crisis? How are institutions in Canada, like my very own University of Toronto, demonstrating their own commitments to sustainability through recent divestments from fossil fuels, climate positive plans, and sustainability pathways? What can the rest of the world learn from them? These are but a few questions running through my mind that I hope to be able to explore in future endeavours—especially given my newly acquired passion for research!

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Arushi Dahiya

Arushi Dahiya is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in the Specialist International/Global Development Co-operative program with a double minor in Political Science and Socio-cultural Anthropology. Currently, she is on her Co-op placement, living and working with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vientiane, Laos.

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