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Higher Education Policy

, Volume 31, Issue 4, pp 447–470 | Cite as

Towards a Definition of Environmental Sustainability Evaluation in Higher Education

  • David Alba-HidalgoEmail author
  • Javier Benayas del Álamo
  • José Gutiérrez-Pérez
Original Article

Sustainability is increasing their presence at universities, so it is convenient to reflect on the impact and effectiveness that university sustainability actions are having. Several authors have recognized mature experiences about environmental sustainability in the different dimensions of higher education: teaching, research, operations and outreach. Assessment of university sustainability is an emerging field of research of Education for Sustainable Development in Higher Education, because of the use by universities of assessment tools to improve the performance of its policies, but also to disseminate their results. This paper will try to define what is meant by ‘assessment of university environmental sustainability’ based on different evaluation approaches found in an integrative meta-analysis of specialized literature on the subject and review of assessment tools. While the most common evaluative approach is the self-assessment, to improve the implementation of policies, other approaches aimed at promoting university activity in sustainability through its participation in rankings or accreditation system increasingly are becoming greater presence. This leads to identifying a particular concern among universities to compete and appear in the university context as ‘sustainable’ without ensuring that their actions are being designed really to improve sustainability, at a university and global context.

Keywords

higher education sustainability assessment 

Introduction

Progress in the development of actions on sustainability in different areas of university activity is directly related to the assessment of actions. Universities plan, organize and develop these interventions, and at the same time, evaluate them, for their own record. Lately, several evaluation and assessment tools have been developed, allowing universities (1) to become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, (2) to add value to their activities before the university community, authorities, institutions and society at large, and to define strategies to improve actions, (3) to set indicators that help identify and compare the progress made in efforts to ensure internal and external sustainability. At the same time, there is a certain interest in developing models for sustainable universities that help rationalize practices. These models help also substantiate and account for actions and the commitment with sustainability, within the institution and beyond.

There has been also a growing enthusiasm of universities getting involved in sustainability (Scott and Gough, 2007; Leal Filho and Manolas, 2012; Tilbury, 2012; Leal Filho et al., 2017) and attention paid by scientists to these processes (Karatzoglou, 2013; Wals, 2014; Lozano et al., 2015). However, some challenges and doubts remain (White, 2014, 230): (1) Is the development of universal environmental sustainability plans or interventions reaching its goals? (2) Are the programmes and initiatives developed suitable? (3) Are demands and necessities met in each case? (4) Do assessments present methodological relevance, precision and quality?

The assessment of environmental sustainability at universities is usually approached from within a conceptual framework of programme assessment methodologies (Stern et al., 2013; Newcomer et al., 2015). The assessment of sustainability programmes is understood as a systematic process aimed at gathering data on context, processes and impact of achieved changes (Roorda, 2004). Sustainability programmes are evaluated in relation to several aspects: the baseline situation; the feasible adoption of tailored measures to meet identified needs; the relevance, appropriateness, and usefulness of actions to be implemented; and the possibilities for continued improvement and achievement of goals. Certain value judgments are given in relation to efficiency and effectiveness, quantifying the impact on university agents, training plans, the territory, and the educational institution itself, and proactive interventions are designed for the future to promote the improvement of the programmes. O’Donoghue (2016) and MacKay and Kember (1999) identify two types of approaches regarding how assessments are implemented: one of these approaches is accountability-oriented and generally political or institutional in nature; the other approach is focused on internal self-regulation of programmes and its aim is the continued improvement of actions and strategies.

The programme literature aimed to encourage ESD assessment is considered an essential ingredient of any action for sustainability (UNESCO, 2014). In his review of higher education, published on the occasion of the UNESCO Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), Wals concludes that in order to achieve deep changes, new forms of learning, professional development, monitoring and assessment are required in ESD, among other things (Wals, 2014, 14). On the other hand, declarations on university sustainability have underpinned an emerging competition on sustainability among universities and may become an element of competitiveness in the future (Grindsted, 2011, 30). The need to take the assessment of university sustainability programmes into account is reflected in the Lüneburg Declaration of the Global Higher Education for Sustainability Partnership (2001). The Lüneburg Declaration invites universities to develop monitoring tools for environmental management of their campuses (Grindsted and Holm, 2012, 38). Besides, the 2004 Barcelona Declaration mentions the need to use assessment and monitoring techniques, although it does not specify how interest groups are to be reported on results (Lozano et al., 2013, 16).

Some authors describe assessment and reporting as the fifth dimension of university sustainability, together with teaching, research, management and extension (Lozano, 2006, 964; Boer, 2013, 122). They are also the least implemented of all (Lozano et al., 2015, 9–10). The review by Vaughter et al. confirms that the scientific literature pays attention to the assessment of university sustainability (2013, 2256): just under 15% of 103 articles studied by these authors mention it. Most of these academic articles on university sustainability assessment tools focus on the environmental impact of university management (Vaughter et al., 2013, 2264), which confirms that these tools are not considering the relevance of incorporating sustainability into teaching, research and extension activities (Yarime and Tanaka, 2012, 73–74). Many of the academic articles mentioned on university sustainability assessment focus on what to measure, but there seems to be no consensus on what to evaluate or how to evaluate it (Vaughter et al., 2013, 2265).

Therefore, there is a lack of clarification about what environmental sustainability assessment is, and how this concept, their procedures and instruments may help to higher education contributes to sustainability. This article aims to highlight the different evaluative approaches and their incorporation into the main assessment tools in the area of university sustainability, in order to provide a definition of this new field of research and action.

This article is structured in six sections. Following this introduction (“Introduction” section) and a few words on methodology (“Methodology” section), “Results: Assessment of University Environmental Sustainability in the Scientific Literature” section collects the results emerging from article reviews, which illustrate how university sustainability assessment is considered in the scientific literature. “Results: Models, Systems and Tools for the Assessment of University Environmental Sustainability” section summarizes the features of prominent university sustainability assessment models and tools. “Results: Approaches to Evaluating University Environmental Sustainability” section recapitulates the different approaches to university sustainability assessment in articles reviewed, and also the tools and models analysed. Finally, “Discussion and Conclusions” section presents some conclusions about the state of art of the university sustainability assessment.

Methodology

Many areas of social sciences research are in less need of further research than they are in need of organization of the existing research (Card, 2012, 4). Research on sustainability was an exciting example to this sort of emergent research needed of systematic review of the science production. A study has been carried out on the assessment of environmental sustainability in universities through an integrative meta-analysis (Schmidt and Hunter, 2015) of specialized literature on this area. The meta-analysis aims to draw common features in the design of assessment methods of recent studies (Suri, 2014) and to identify design and implementation challenges and needs. Also, the meta-analysis contributes to the delineation of general standards that can be used to gauge rigour in a multivocal of literature reviews (Ogawa and Malen, 1991).

This multivocal review has been carried out in the seven stages described by Cooper (2016): (1) formulating the problem, (2) searching the literature, (3) gathering information from studies, (4) evaluating the quality of the studies, (5) analysing and integrating the outcomes of studies, (6) interpreting the evidence and (7) presenting the results.
  1. 1.

    Formulating the problem To describe and integrate funding and result of the state of the art of the research on assessment and evaluation sustainability programme in higher education.

     
  2. 2.

    Searching the literature This stage focused on the review of academic literature; search engines for academic resources, such as Google Scholar or ScienceDirect, have been regularly queried for keywords including ‘sustainability’, ‘environment’, ‘assessment’, ‘higher education’ or ‘university’. Given the novelty of this field, the selected articles have all been published during the UNESCO Decade for ESD. The search was limited to studies on environmental sustainability and did not include other studies about programme sustainability on economy or management at university. Following a snowball sampling strategy, our research has been enhanced by reviewing both references to each article and the referring articles – whenever the search engine provided these data.

     
  3. 3.
    Gathering information from studies Firstly, articles relevant to the identification of university environmental sustainability assessment and evaluation were selected. The standard article was required to have an inter- or supra-university scope (‘cross-institutional assessment’); they should either reflect experiences in more than one university, or study the use of new systems, or provide an in-depth reflection on their usefulness. Subsequently, a content analysis was performed, classifying articles according to the following categories:
    • Type of article: (1) tool reviews; (2) if they try to define specific proposals of instruments, systems, and models; (3) case studies, if they describe how a particular system is applied; and finally, (4) sample studies covering numerous universities (e.g. all universities in a specific country), which may focus on the implementation of a specific system or the general assessment of sustainability policies and their application.

    • The main approach to evaluation, and the purpose or usefulness of the approach:
      • Formative evaluation articles, implying monitoring, self-diagnosis, audit or assessments that acknowledge progress, improvements and pending issues, and also determine future interventions. This approach will be named assessment.

      • Summative evaluation articles, implying recognition from an alien institution. There are three subtypes of summative articles:
        • Benchmarking articles compare cases in order to set good practices.

        • Reporting articles to disseminate among stakeholders and general audiences any progresses made in the area.

        • Ranking/rating articles to categorize cases according to ranking or rating.

      • Transformative evaluation articles, which globally evaluate sustainability processes in their territorial context and provide a whole institution approach, also known as appraisal.

     
  4. 4.

    Evaluating the quality of the studies Sixty articles and some book chapters have been used for this bibliographic review as final sample. Systems or tools considered in each article regarding their proposal or application to a specific case, either because they have been included in a review, or because they are the main object of the article.

     
  5. 5.

    Analysing and integrating the outcomes of studies Each article has been categorized through a double process. After the initial setting of article typologies (tools review, proposal, case studies, sample studies) and assessment approaches (assessment, benchmarking, ranking/rating, reporting, appraisal), the content analysis allowed to characterize the different categories. The results were codified into a spreadsheet to allow further descriptive analysis. One of the limitations assumed is the incompleteness of the search; another one is the fact that the results of the categorization process depend on the codifying team – other codifying teams may obtain different but equally valid results.

     
  6. 6.

    Interpreting the evidence After identifying the systems and tools most frequently mentioned in the scientific literature, a selection of these was made, including a wide range of cases. Unofficial or experimental proposals of sustainability assessment models were added, in order to increase diversity of models and instruments. These twelve models and tools were the object of a descriptive analysis focused on their features: weaknesses, strengths and usefulness for the evaluation approaches explained above. The authors provided the following scale code:

    -

    Not useful

    +

    Somewhat useful

    ++

    Useful

    +++

    Very useful

     
  7. 7.

    Presenting the results and conclusions.

     

Results: Assessment of University Environmental Sustainability in the Scientific Literature

Academic interest in the assessment of university environmental sustainability has grown in recent years. The article Institutional assessments tools for sustainability in Higher Education by Shriberg (2002) may be considered a starting point and foundational study in the area and is frequently cited in the reviewed articles. Since then, more and more indexed articles on this area have been published, particularly in recent years. As shown in Figure 1, 75% of the articles appeared in 2011 or after (45 articles, while 15 were published between 2002 and 2010).
Figure 1

Articles by year of publication.

As for the journals where these articles have appeared, Figure 2 shows that more than half of them have been published in two journals: the Journal of Cleaner Production (21 articles) and the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (13 articles). The Journal of Cleaner Production has issued monographs on the Environmental Management of Sustainable Universities (EMSU) conferences, including a great deal of articles on this subject. The rest of articles appear in journals on environmental education or education for sustainable development (Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, Environmental Education Research), higher education (Higher Education Policy, Innovation in Higher Education Assessment and Assessment in Higher Education) or sustainability in general (Sustainability: The Journal of Record, Sustainability and Sustainability Science).
Figure 2

Distribution of articles by journal.

The article typology is a relevant matter, the most common type or article being the proposal of a university or system sustainability model to be evaluated (43% of reviewed articles, as shown in Figure 3).
Figure 3

Distribution of articles by focus.

The application of these model or system proposals – either to a specific case (21%) or as a study of several universities (20%), often nationwide – represents almost the same percentage as the proposals of models. The review articles, a total of 16, represent 17% of the total articles considered.

The second stage of the review involved studying specifically the features of the most relevant university models, systems and tools for environmental sustainability. The review of scientific articles on university sustainability assessment shows that there are nearly thirty systems and tools, based on as many conceptual frameworks and models. Figure 3 shows the main systems and tools for assessing university environmental sustainability, sorted by the number of times they appear in the reviewed articles. However, considering that many of these articles have been aimed at proposing new frameworks and instruments, the figure of eleven could double or triple, despite being scarcely used or non-officially used, e.g. the FLA model by Ferrer-Balas et al. (2008, 2009); the model GMID by Mader (2013); or the INDICARE model by Diesterheft et al. (2015, 2016). The review articles look at different tools, but not all articles look at the same ones, although some of them certainly recur (STARS, SAQ and AISHE, above all). Certain systems or tools that have been referenced in scientific publications once or twice, if ever, should be mentioned: Le Plan Vert by the French Ministry of the Environment; the Green Gowns Awards by the British Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges (EAUC); and the Green League by the student organization People of the Planet. Making a selection of systems and tools to be studied in some depth is not an easy task (Figure 4).
Figure 4

Tool appearances in the articles studied.

Three instruments occupy the top of the list with eleven occurrences: firstly, the American Sustainability Assessment Questionnaire for Colleges and Universities (SAQ) by the Association of United Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF) – probably the most veteran instrument among those studied – and secondly, the Auditing Instrument for Sustainability in Higher Education (AISHE), a European instrument mainly used by Dutch and Flemish universities, both of them considered in the review by Shriberg (2002). Thirdly, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). UI GreenMetric, the main ranking of university environmental policies by the Universitas Indonesia, is another international instrument included in the previous figure, but only studied in four of the articles reviewed.

Besides AISHE, another two instruments share a straight curricular approach to university environmental sustainability and also a European scope: the Graphical Assessment of Sustainability in Universities (GASU) and the Sustainability Tool for Assessing Universities’ Curricula Holistically (STAUNCH), both of which appear in eight and five articles, respectively. The Green Report Card (GRC) or College of Sustainability Report Card (GSRC), from the Sustainable Endowments Institute, is used in American universities and appears six times. Finally, there is an instrument used only in Canadian universities, known as Campus Sustainability Assessment Framework (CSAF), which occurs in five articles and has an evaluative approach to teaching.

The rest of systems and tools studied have a smaller presence. The Alternative University Appraisal on Education for Sustainable Development (AUA) by the ProSPER.Net network (Promotion of Sustainability in Postgraduate Education and Research Network) is covered in five articles, has a continental scope in the Asia–Pacific area and is sponsored by the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS). The Unit-Based Sustainability Assessment Tool (USAT), sponsored by the UNEP Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in African Universities Partnership (MESA), is mentioned in two articles, while the instrument proposed by the Environmental Sustainability Assessment Group of Spanish Rectors Association (CADEP-CRUE) for Spanish universities has been studied in three articles.

Results: Models, Systems and Tools for the Assessment of University Environmental Sustainability

Table 1 shows the features of prominent models, systems and tools selected. Twelve tools have been chosen, namely the most representative of several evaluative approaches considered in the previous section, within different international contexts. Half of them were proposed before 2010 and the other half within the last 5 years. The oldest one is AISHE, created in 2001 but updated in 2009, and the most recent are AMAS, proposed for Chilean universities in Uzquiza et al. (2015) and INDICARE, a tool focused on evaluating participation in the design and development of university sustainability initiatives, proposed by Diesterheft et al. (2015, 2016).
Table 1

Main characteristics from assessment tools and systems

Assessment tool/system

Promotor

Year of publication

Regional scope

Structure

Weighing/aggregation

Main references

Website

STARS – Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System

AASHE

2007

USA/Canada

4 areas, 17 subareas and 70 indicators

Proposed by the promotor; experts consultation; not clearly defined

Fonseca et al. (2011), Saadatian et al. (2011), White and Koester (2012), Yarime and Tanaka (2012), Kamal and Asmuss (2013), Shi and Lai (2013) and Uzquiza et al. (2015)

http://www.stars.aashe.org/

USAT – Unit-based Sustainability Assessment Tool

UNEP-MESA

2009

Africa

4 areas and 75 indicators

Togo and Lotz-Sisitka (2013) and Uzquiza et al. (2015)

http://www.unep.org/Training/docs/USAT_Tool.pdf

UI GreenMetric

Universitas Indonesia

2010

International

6 areas and 40 indicators

Proposed by the promotor; not clearly defined

Suwartha and Sari (2013), Uzquiza et al. (2015) and Lauder et al. (2015)

http://greenmetric.ui.ac.id/

AISHE – Assessment Instrument for Sustainability in Higher Education

DHO – Dutch Network for Sustainable Development in Higher Education

1.0: 2001/2.0: 2009

European region, mainly Netherlands and Flemish Belgium

5 areas and 30 indicators, with 5 levels

Shriberg (2002, 2004), Roorda (2004, 2013), Roorda and Martens (2008), Clarke and Kouri (2009), Saadatian et al. (2011), Yarime and Tanaka (2012) and Boer (2013)

http://www.eauc.org.uk/theplatform/aishe

AUA – Alternative University Appraisal on Education for Sustainable Development

ProSPER.Net & UNU-IAS

2011

Asia–Pacific region

4 areas, 16 indicators, 50 items

Proposed by the promotor; not defined

Fadeeva and Mochizuki (2010), Razak et al. (2013), Senaha and Sanusi (2014) and Uzquiza et al. (2015)

http://sustain.oia.hokudai.ac.jp/aua/

TUR – Three-Dimensional University Ranking

Lukman et al.

2010

International

3 areas and 15 indicators

Proposed by experts; analytic hierarchy process (AHP)

Lukman et al. 2010; Uzquiza et al. 2015

GASU – Graphical Assessment of Sustainability in Universities

Lozano

2006/2011

International

5 areas and 174 indicators

Proposed by the author; clearly defined

Lozano (2006), Lozano and Peattie (2011), Lozano and Young (2013), Lozano et al. (2013), Watson et al. (2013), Ceulemans et al. (2015) and Uzquiza et al.et al. (2015)

AMAS – Adaptable Model for Assessing Sustainability

Uzquiza et al.

2015

Chile

1 goal, 3 criteria, 9 subcriteria and 25 indicators

Proposed by experts

Uzquiza et al. (2015)

FLA – Framework, Level, Actors

Ferrer-Balas et al.

2008

International

3 areas: framework, level and actors with a scale of three steps

Ferrer-Balas et al. (2008, 2009)

GMID – Graz Model for Integrative Development

Mader

2012

International

5 principles with a scale of three steps

Mader (2012, 2013)

Environmental sustainability evaluation tool for Spanish universities

CADEP-CRUE

2011

Spain

3 areas, 12 subareas and 178 indicators

Proposed by the promotor; experts consultation; not clearly defined

Alba et al. (2012) and Uzquiza et al. (2015)

http://cadep-crue.upct.es/

INDICARE

Diesterheft et al.

2015

International

3 areas: context (11 indicators), process (13 indicators) and transformative (8 indicators)

Diesterheft et al. (2015, 2016)

In five cases, the promoters of the systems are university associations or institutional programmes focused on university sustainability: the STARS programme by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in the USA (however, in recent years, it has opened its doors to international assessments); the USAT by the UNEP programme, known as Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in African Universities Partnership (MESA); the AISHE by the Dutch Network for Sustainable Development in Higher Education (DHO) (which is being implemented beyond this network); the AUA project by the ProSPER.Net, sponsored in the Asia–Pacific region by UNU-IAS; and, last but not least, the CADEP-CRUE on environmental sustainability implemented in Spanish universities.

The rest of models and tools have been proposed by higher education institutions or, rather, by their researchers, although three of them have been designed and implemented to exceed the scope of research: GASU, by Rodrigo Lozano (Lozano, 2006); the UI GreenMetric by the Universitas Indonesia; and AMAS, proposed by researchers from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. The first two have been implemented at an international level; in the case of the GASU, no recent references have been found, but the UI GreenMetric is increasingly used. In the case of AMAS, there is no evidence of its implementation in Chilean universities, for which it has been designed. The remaining four should not be considered as systems but research models: the Three-Dimensional University Ranking (TUR), the Framework–Level–Actors (FLA) model, the Graz Model for Integrative Development (GMID) and INDICARE. Although some have been implemented in universities, there is no evidence of their institutionalization or official use by universities.

Most systems or tools are similarly structured, according to a hierarchical model, generally including areas, fields and, finally, indicators (some of them with several levels). The number of system indicators used varies greatly, from 15 in TUR to 174 in GASU. The areas tend to vary between three and six and generally match the three dimensions of university activity: teaching, research and extension. Usually, a specific area for organization or governance of institutional sustainability policy is added in models such as CADEP-CRUE or INDICARE. Teaching and research are sometimes included in the academic dimension in models such as USAT. Environmental management is a fixed area in systems such as AISHE or GASU. TUR includes only three areas, two corresponding to the most prominent university functions (education and research) and a third related to the environment. Beyond this framework, the FLA, GMID and INDICARE models are contemplated; these consider the integration of sustainability into university activities with an integral approach. INDICARE, besides, takes participation into account. FLA is structured around three areas corresponding to (1) the agents involved, (2) the framework (including the evolution of structures and institutional culture to incorporate sustainability principles) and (3) the degree of transition towards a sustainable university-society (three levels for each area) (Ferrer-Balas et al., 2008, 299). GMID is more instrumental than FLA and aims to measure processes of transition to a sustainable university, primarily through the active involvement of interest groups (staff, students and social agents) according to five areas that match the following principles (Mader, 2012, 82): (1) leadership and vision, (2) social network, (3) participation, (4) education and learning and (5) research integration. The model considers three degrees of sustainability integration in each area. INDICARE in particular is aimed at evaluating participation in university sustainability initiatives, based on the fact that the social and transformative learning of these actions facilitates the university’s contribution to sustainability (Diesterheft et al. 2015, 761). This model divides indicators into three groups: context indicators, process indicators and transformative indicators, each of which measures in different ways: presence/absence, gradual and qualitative. This model can be applied either on a university-wide scale or to particular initiatives (Diesterheft et al., 2016, 179–183).

The mechanisms for weighting and/or aggregation of the tools’ several levels are diverse and, in general, not fully explained. In some cases, such mechanisms are not considered, beyond the required groupings for graphical representation in ternary or radial plots (depending on the number of areas contemplated). Weights given are usually justified by expert advice at the area level but not at the indicator level. In the cases of TUR and AMAS, weights have been developed following a hierarchical analytical process (Saaty, 1987). Weighting mechanisms are not useful, however, in transformative models, because indicators are usually gradual or keep an equivalent evaluation among themselves.

Results: Approaches to Evaluating University Environmental Sustainability

Evaluation of university environmental sustainability should improve the implementation of environmental initiatives and help meet goals and get results. The approach to evaluation in the analysed articles is discussed below. We have identified three main types of evaluation, which match three depth levels. The first level, assessment, implies a basic evaluative system at an internal level to identify key issues to act upon. In the second level, evaluation, an external focus emerges, and internal assessment is compared with the assessment in other educational institutions: good practices (benchmarking), ratings and rankings are therefore contrasted among several universities. Besides, the need of reporting is acknowledged, i.e. dissemination of results and accountability on actions through public reports. Finally, a third level, known as appraisal, is described. This is an advanced-level assessment, which seeks a global transformation of the educational institution towards sustainability. Its goals and organization go beyond the classic aspects of both university life (teaching, research and extension) and environmental, economic and social sustainability. Moreover, links between universities and society are highly considered in this level.

Figure 5 shows the occurrences of the approaches to assessment included in the reviewed articles, taking into account that any article may include different approaches. Assessment is the most common, appearing in almost 90% of articles. The second level, evaluation, appears in 29 articles, slightly less than 50%. Benchmarking is included in this level, the most frequent of the three types of evaluation [fourteen occurrences, including Lozano (2006) or Kamal and Asmuss (2013)]; rating/ranking appears in seven articles (including Lukman et al., 2010; Shi and Lai, 2013; Suwartha and Sari, 2013; Lauder et al., 2015); reporting is mentioned in eight articles, such as Ceulemans et al. (2015) and Alonso-Almeida et al. (2015). Finally, the advanced assessment level, or appraisal, occurs in ten articles dealing with the FLA evaluation model by Ferrer-Balas et al. (2008, 2009); Mader’s GMID (2012); and Diesterheft et al.’s INDICARE (2015, 2016), as systems aimed at evaluating processes transforming university sustainability.
Figure 5

Distribution of articles according to evaluative approaches to university environmental sustainability.

These twelve cases present a variety of model, tool and system features and also provide a general overview of current evaluation of university environmental sustainability. Table 2 shows the analysis of these cases, highlighting their most remarkable weaknesses and strengths. Among the strengths, we may highlight the support provided by higher institutions in order to design and develop systems and models, and the combination of simplicity and solid design to convey a well-defined model for sustainable universities. Among the weaknesses, we may emphasize the need to focus on some aspects of university sustainability, such as academics (AISHE and GASU) and, particularly, environmental management (CRUE, STARS and UI GreenMetric). Other weaknesses relate to the difficulty in completing models, for three reasons: the number of indicators, the fact that they work only when programmes have been implemented for some time, or because they represent a complete sustainable university model (such as the models set by FLA, GMID and INDICARE).
Table 2

Strengths, weakness and evaluation approaches

Assessment tool/system

Main strengths

Main weakness

Assessment

Evaluation – benchmarking

Evaluation – rating/ranking

Evaluation – reporting

Transformative

STARS – Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System

Detailed information for measuring indicators. AASHE support. User’s guide. Certifications

Not too suitable for beginners. Accreditation costs

+++

++

++

++

+

USAT – Unit-Based Sustainability Assessment Tool

UNEP-MESA support. Graphical design for better comprehension/suitable for centres and campuses/user’s guide

Social responsible issues not included

+++

++

+

+

UI GreenMetric

Indonesia Universitas support

Eco-efficiency oriented

++

++

+++

+

AISHE – Assessment Instrument for Sustainability in Higher Education

Part of a participatory process for planning

Curricula oriented

+++

+

+

AUA – Alternative University Appraisal on Education for Sustainable Development

ProSPER.Net support/it is complemented by qualitative self-assessment/user’s guide

Social responsible and management issues not included

+++

++

++

++

+

TUR – Three-Dimensional University Ranking

Simplicity, complement for rankings/graphical design for better comprehension

Only 5 indicators to measure sustainability/not institutionalized

+

+

++

GASU – Graphical Assessment of Sustainability in Universities

Comprehensive/graphical design for better comprehension

Requires too much data/difficult application without GRI report/not institutionalized

++

++

+++

+

AMAS – Adaptable Model for Assessing Sustainability

Simple and comprehensive

Combine performance and impact indicators

++

+

++

+

+

FLA – Framework, Level, Actors

Comprehensive model/whole institution approach/graphical representation

Without indicators

+++

+

+

+++

GMID – Graz Model for Integrative Development

Comprehensive model/whole institution approach

Without indicators

+++

+

+

+++

Environmental sustainability evaluation tool for Spanish universities

CADEP-CRUE support/user’s guide/beginners oriented

Requires too much effort/environmental management oriented

+++

++

+

++

+

INDICARE

Whole institution and hard sustainability approach/suitable for universities of particular initiatives

Different ways to measure indicators, in some cases with complex techniques

++

++

++

+++

Different approaches to the evaluation of university environmental sustainability are also studied, regarding the use of systems. The great majority of systems are used for self-assessment and for the development of internal methods of acknowledgement both initial situations and the different roads to follow. Given the limited structure of most systems, only models proposed as transformative (FLA, GMID and INDICARE) are useful when evaluating the holistic incorporation of sustainability into the university. As for the three external evaluation approaches, they complement each other, although some of them focus mainly on TUR or UI GreenMetric for ranking and GASU for reporting. In fact, once the hierarchical structure has been completed and the weighting/aggregation process has been established, the comparative setting of good practices, the awarding of scores or positions and the publishing of reports may be directly done.

Some veteran systems are included (AISHE, TUR and GASU) that, beyond their particular use by different universities, and given their recurrent presence in reviews, have served as an inspiration for subsequent instruments. In general, they are relatively easy to use and most of them provide user’s guides. Their difficulty increases with the number of indicators. When this happens, it is often necessary to collect data about the participation of different people involved in university sustainability actions.

Discussion and Conclusions

The evaluation of university environmental sustainability is presented as a per se field of action in higher education institutions, in all its dimensions. In the academic dimension, Vaughter et al. (2013) categorize the evaluation of environmental sustainability as one of three emerging areas of research in university ESD and indicate its growing presence in the scientific literature. At the institutional level, the evaluation of environmental sustainability is becoming increasingly important in both sustainability policies and university management, helping to overcome obstacles and barriers to real contribution to sustainability (Leal Filho et al., 2017; Blanco-Portela et al., 2017). The reviews of instruments and tools aimed at evaluating university environmental sustainability (Shriberg, 2002; Yarime and Tanaka, 2012; Fischer et al., 2015) prove their usefulness in identifying the steps towards the strengthening of actions, but also in disseminating the efforts and action results. Grindsted (2011) directly calls them branding and marketing instruments. These draw the attention of institutional managers to their development and surpass in visibility and popularity either official declarations or statements of intent.

The use of these instruments within institutional policy makes the evaluation of university environmental sustainability a useful tool to modify the design and development of evaluated programmes. However, there are several uncertainties that need to be approached in future researches and implementations. For example, it is as important to know what to evaluate as it is to know how to evaluate, since apparently there is not a consensus in the scientific literature (Vaughter et al., 2013, 2265). Both issues will be determined by the goal of evaluating. Five different approaches to the use of university environmental sustainability assessment emerge from the meta-analysis carried out in this article: self-assessment, monitoring or follow-up (assessment), evaluation for the recognition of good practices (benchmarking), rating or ranking, the selection and dissemination of progress and achievements of sustainability policies (reporting) or evaluation of the design and implementation of a holistic model of institution-wide sustainability (appraisal). Thus, different types of instruments are available for different evaluating purposes (Jenssen, 2012), although it has been found that some of them may serve different purposes, particularly those considered as evaluation: benchmarking, rating/ranking and reporting. However, it is necessary to fine-tune the features of the analysed tools, so they are truly useful for each purpose, especially in appraisal approaches. New trends need to be considered in this case, linked with the notion of organisational change management for sustainability (Lozano et al., 2016; Baker-Shelley et al., 2017; Lozano, 2018).

While there is a tendency to use quantitative parameters for comparative studies on the attainment of university sustainability goals, flexible evaluation frameworks and designs (regarding timescale and other aspects) are needed to account for differences among universities, such as size and location (Vaughter et al., 2013, 2265). We must, therefore, balance the universal nature of tools with the use of contextual indicators (Ramos and Moreno Pires, 2013, 92) such as those included in INDICARE’s first set of indicators. This can be quantitatively reflected in the design of the instruments: their comparability decreases as the number of indicators increases. However, the particular diagnosis becomes more complete, making it easier to design new actions. Yarime and Tanaka (2012) reflect the variety of tools regarding the different types of questions and indicators included. They confirm a tendency towards the use of quantitative indicators versus questions with several closed-ended questions (Yarime and Tanaka, 2012, 73), which result in more detailed and subtle information, reflecting the diversity and complexity of sustainability.

The pre-eminence of environmental management field is confirmed in all the analysed reviews, although a tendency is found to include the organization of actions in sustainability, through the creation of policies, strategies, plans, initiatives and visions (Yarime and Tanaka, 2012, 73–74). Sustainability management and policies are easily observable and therefore may be evaluated, and they even start with quantitative goals. On the contrary, systematic assessment of sustainability in education and research is difficult and needs to be contextualized (Vaughter et al., 2013, 2265) including the fifth dimension of sustainability in the university: community outreach. We find some specialization and diversification of tools that closely analyse operations, education and participation; besides, education indicators are incorporated in tools that did not initially consider them (e.g. UI GreenMetric). The models proposed by Ferrer-Balas et al. (2008), Mader (2012) and Diesterheft et al. (2015, 2016) allow to evaluate both the university’s relationship with the rest of society in terms of sustainability and the integration of sustainability throughout the institution.

Another important aspect of instrument design is the promoting agents involved. Tilbury (2012) acknowledges that, although the commitment to sustainability exists in universities, it does not reach all members of the university community and does not influence institutional culture. Assessment tools are designed and proposed by experts and technicians usually working for sustainability departments, so their potential to affect decision-making is often compromised, since no decision-makers get involved (Ramos and Moreno Pires, 2013, 93). These bottom-up mechanisms run a risk of producing empty indicator systems, which are useless and do not fulfil the function for which they were designed. Governance-oriented mechanisms are needed, and the different actors in sustainability policies should take part in instrument design, prioritizing them and, at a technical level, selecting the information to be considered. In that respect, the relationship with the community is even more necessary, since it will make results meaningful, beyond the efforts undertaken by the universities to promote sustainability.

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Copyright information

© International Association of Universities 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Alba-Hidalgo
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Javier Benayas del Álamo
    • 2
  • José Gutiérrez-Pérez
    • 3
  1. 1.Association for Ecology and Education for Sustainable Cities-TransitandoMadridSpain
  2. 2.Autónoma University of MadridMadridSpain
  3. 3.University of GranadaGranadaSpain

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