Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Metrics for Sustainable Development

  • Elena Pertceva
  • Maria ZyulyaevaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_289-1


Metrics for sustainable development are indicators that allow to measure, compare, and report on efforts toward sustainable development integration.


Many higher education institutions have started to implement sustainability in their activities; this includes in educational process as well as in operation of their facilities. In order to enable the path toward sustainability, sustainability assessment tools have become a crucial element (Lambrechts 2015) as they allow the creation of strategies and planning toward a sustainable university. Shriberg (2002) defined sustainability assessment as a way to measure and compare HEIs to each other in terms of their efforts toward SD integration (through the use of SA tools and frameworks).

As indicated by Lozano (2006a), there are three main approaches for assessing and reporting sustainability in organizations: accounts, narrative assessments, and indicator-based. Each of them has strengths and weaknesses, but “in general, indicator-based assessments have an overall higher performance and are more easily measurable and comparable than the other two approaches because they tend to be more objective.”

Sustainability Assessment Tools

There are many approaches to sustainability assessment in HEIs. Comprehensive reviews of such approaches have been proposed by Shriberg (2002), Saadatian et al. (2011), Yarime and Tanaka (2012), Kamal and Asmuss (2013), and Gomez (Gomez et al. 2015). In-depth reviews of individual tools are very scarce (e.g., Glover et al. 2011). Some tools for sustainability assessment of HEI’s core activities are (Kamal and Asmuss 2013; Shriberg 2002; Yarime and Tanaka 2012):
  • The “Sustainability Assessment Questionnaire” (SAQ) by the ULSF (1999)

  • AISHE, by a Dutch HE working group on quality management (Roorda 2002)

  • HE 21 by Forum of the Future (Shriberg 2002)

  • STARS by the AASHE (2013)

  • The “Campus Sustainability Assessment Framework” (CSAF), by Cole (2003)

Besides these tools, there are a number of other instruments available in the literature offering ways to assess the presence and the extent of SD initiatives within HEIs. Examples of these are:
  • Tools for the assessment of course content (e.g., Desha et al. 2009; Lozano 2010; Moon and Orlitzky 2011)

  • HEI rankings (e.g., Lukman et al. 2010; Spitzeck and Siegenthaler 2007)

  • Other types of composite indicators (e.g., Waheed et al. 2011b, c)

Yarime and Tanaka (2012) reviewed 16 tools and found that they focus mainly on environmental impacts of university operations and issues related to governance, while aspects related to education, research, and outreach were not well addressed by sustainability assessment tools. Fischer et al. (2015) also found an overrepresentation of operational indicators in the 12 tools included in their analysis. Based on their qualitative analysis, the authors found that “education was introduced as a constitutive element of a sustainable university”; thus there is a gap between what is considered to be critical to sustainability in higher education and what the assessment tools emphasize.

Dimensions of Assessments

A model of four interdependent dimensions of sustainability in HEIs, education, research, operations (which includes all institutional activities, including all resource consumption and human resource management processes), and community outreach, was proposed by Cortese (2003) and improved by Lozano who added a fifth dimension “Assessment and Reporting” (Lozano 2006b). Similar dimensions are pointed out by Velazquez et al. (2005) as strategies for fostering sustainability in HEIs.

These dimensions are interrelated (Gomez et al. 2015) and could be rearranged as follows:
  • Operations (implementing SD through campus experiences and move toward more sustainability orientated university operations)

  • Education and research (inclusion of SD throughout the curricula, educating the educators, encouragement of SD research, fostering university collaboration, transdisciplinarity)

  • Public engagement (fostering university collaboration and stakeholders’ engagement and outreach)

  • Administration (assessment and reporting, as well as including SD in the institutional framework)

Although education, research, operations, and outreach are often seen as completely separate activities (Jones 2013), they form a complex web of experience and learning for students (Cortese 2003). This implies that their monitoring or reporting cannot always be separated and that there should also be room for studying their interlinkages.

Therefore, it can be said that sustainability in HEIs encompasses the classic three dimensions of any organization (social, environmental, and economic) also including its main activity: curricular or academic sustainability (Berzosa et al. 2017).

Operations Dimension

According to Shriberg (2002) “campuses require methods of comparison to each other as well as to a vision of a “sustainable college or university” to ensure that they are moving in the right direction.” While many tools have been developed in order to assess advancement toward sustainability in HEIs, they did not permit comparison among campuses (Shriberg 2002; Lukman et al. 2010; Gomez et al. 2015).

Shriberg (2002) states that the “ideal” cross-institutional sustainability assessment tools have the following attributes:
  • They identify important issues: They address relevant and material issues related to campus sustainability.

  • They are calculable and comparable: They must be based on measurement methods that are “flexible enough to capture organizational complexities and differences.

  • They move beyond eco-efficiency: A focus on eco-efficiency is common, but it is just one dimension of sustainability (triple bottom line). Assessing sustainability requires a broader approach that covers environmental, educational, and social issues.

  • They measure processes and motivations: Considering that sustainability is a process of continual improvement, sustainability assessment tools should cover “dynamic processes and motivations including direction, strategy, intent and comprehensiveness as well as present impacts.”

  • They stress comprehensibility: They must be comprehensive to a broad audience. It is important that methods and results are presented in a clear manner, enabling both the verification and effective communication of results.

According to (Lozano 2006b) “From the available tools, the GRI guidelines offer one of the best options to assess and report sustainability.” So GRI indicators could be used to measure impacts in operations dimension. These includes:
  • Economic performance

  • Energy consumption

  • Consumption of materials and raw materials

  • Water consumption

  • Waste production

  • Greenhouse gas emissions

  • Environmental investments

  • Number of complaints received from the community

  • Employee turnover rate

  • Wage discrimination, etc.

The best to assess and report sustainability is “From the available tools, the GRI guidelines offer one of the best options to assess and report sustainability.”

Education and Research Dimensions

HEIs are faced with increasing requests to disclose how they integrate and contribute to sustainability, for example, from quality management systems (Wals 2014) or by participating in voluntary initiatives such as the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME 2016). Institutions that participate in the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) are required to report on their activities, including how sustainability is integrated in educational programs (PRME 2016).

Curricular assessments give insight as to the extent sustainability is integrated into study programs, which can offer university leaders a starting point for change (Lozano and Young 2013). However, consensus has not been reached on how exactly to assess the integration of sustainability in curricula (Shriberg 2002), as evidenced by the varying assessment tools available to higher education.

Lozano (2006a) proposed the following metrics to assess sustainability education dimension
  • Number and percentage (in respect to the total) of courses related to SD concepts

  • Number of students enrolled in SD-related courses

  • Number of courses with some content on SD themes

  • List with core titles and SD theme contained

  • Specific course to “Educate the Educators” in SD

  • Course structure, goals, and duration

  • Management procedures to monitor incorporation of SD themes into curricula

  • Management structure and incorporation follow-up procedures, continuous improvement methods, etc.

  • Administrative support (with a detailed plan and budget)

  • Number and percent of departments and colleges including SD courses and curricula

Other indicators relevant to this dimension are (as listed in Ceulemans et al. 2015):
  • Number and percentage of SD/CSR programs or specializations (Lozano 2010; Ceulemans et al. 2011; Moon and Orlitzky 2011; Yarime and Tanaka 2012)

  • Proportion of multi-/inter-/intradisciplinary programs (Waheed et al. 2011b, c)

  • Proportion of programs involving community and university (Waheed et al. 2011b)

  • Importance of course credits of SD courses as compared to total number of credits (Ceulemans et al. 2011; Setó-Pamies et al. 2011; Yarime and Tanaka 2012; Lozano and Young 2013)

  • Distinction between regular courses and stand-alone SD/CSR courses (Beringer 2007; Ceulemans et al. 2011; Setó-Pamies et al. 2011; Wright and Bennett 2011; White and Koester 2012)

  • Distinction between compulsory and elective courses (Ceulemans et al. 2011; Moon and Orlitzky 2011; Setó-Pamies et al. 2011; Wright and Bennett 2011; Waheed et al. 2011c)

  • Presence of SD definition within curriculum (White and Koester 2012)

  • Student/staff feedback of SD courses (Glover et al. 2011.

  • Presence of SD issues within course competencies (Ceulemans et al. 2011.

  • Pedagogical approaches used to teach SD issues (Lukman et al. 2010; Ceulemans et al. 2011; Glover et al. 2011; Lozano and Young 2013)

  • Doctoral studies on SD (Beringer 2007)

  • Presence of extracurricular activities within HEIs (Glover et al. 2011; Shi and Lai 2013; Yuan and Zuo 2013)

  • Presence of continuing education on SD (Lozano 2011)

Lozano (2006a) proposed the following metrics to assess sustainability research dimension:
  • Presence of research in the area of SD

  • List issues addressed: renewable energies, ecological economics, urban planning, etc.

  • List of knowledge field involved

  • Percentage of graduate students doing research in SD issues

  • Percentage of faculty doing research in SD issues

  • List of faculty members and departments or centers to which they belong

  • Institutional support and management procedures for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research in SD

  • Type of support provided: budget allocation, office and personnel especially dedicated, etc.

  • Number of research projects that are multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary in the area of SD

  • List of departments and centers involved

  • Total revenues from grants and contracts specifying SD-related research

  • Published research with focus on SD-related issues

  • Number and function of centers on campus providing SD-related research or services

Other indicators relevant to this dimension are (as listed in Ceulemans et al. 2015):
  • Presence of definition of SD research (White and Koester 2012)

  • Research on SD involving students (Beringer 2007)

  • Ethical treatment of research related to SD (Yarime and Tanaka 2012)

  • SD research projects (Madeira et al. 2011; Yarime and Tanaka 2012; Shi and Lai 2013)

  • Endowed professorships or chairs on SD (Beringer 2007)

  • Proportion of research support for SD (Waheed et al. 2011b)

  • Distinction between internal and external grant opportunities on SD (Beringer 2007)

  • Presence of research center(s) focused on SD (Waheed et al. 2011a)

Community Outreach Dimension

Lozano (2006a) proposed the following metrics to assess sustainability community outreach dimension:
  • Student, faculty, and staff contributions to community development and service

  • Partnerships for SD with educational, business, and government entities at the local level

  • Quantity and composition of student groups focusing on one aspect of SD

  • Total faculty, staff, and students involved in service learning projects

Other indicators relevant to this dimension are (as listed in Ceulemans et al. 2015):
  • External awards or recognitions on SD (Beringer 2007; Shi and Lai 2013)

  • Presence of collaborations with other HEIs to advance SD on campus (White and Koester 2012; Koehn and Uitto 2014)

  • Number of involved stakeholders in collaborations (Dlouhá et al. 2013.

  • Number of different types of institutions involved in collaborations (Dlouhá et al. 2013.

Sustainability reporting in higher education is a voluntary activity derived from a sustainability assessment (Berzosa et al. 2017). Lozano (2011) defined sustainability reporting as a voluntary activity with two general purposes: a means to assess the current state of progress toward sustainable development and a way to communicate SD efforts to stakeholders. Fonseca et al. (2011) stated that “the process of assessing and making periodic public disclosures of such [sustainable development] information is becoming known as “sustainability reporting.” These definitions of sustainability reporting refer to sustainability assessment as a part of the sustainability reporting process but do not equate them. Furthermore, they link the topic of sustainability reporting with sustainability communication and stakeholder engagement activities and with the assessment of sustainability performance. On the other hand, sustainability assessment stresses the use of instruments and tools for internal sustainable development performance management (which can be communicated afterward), while SR for HEIs mainly focuses on disclosing and communicating the results on sustainable development performance to particular stakeholders (Fonseca et al. 2011; Lukman and Glavič 2006).

The concept of “materiality” has become important when discussing sustainability reporting (Hsu et al. 2013). Applying the GRI’s definition of materiality to HEIs implies the following: as the core activities of HEIs include education, research, and community outreach, these are among the topics that should be reported on by HEIs, linked to their possible (positive and negative) impacts on society (Ceulemans et al. 2015).

Fonseca et al. (2011) stressed that it is not common yet to make information from SA largely accessible to a broad range of external stakeholders. A study (Ceulemans et al. 2015) showed that in 2014 only 35 universities from around the world published their sustainability reports, compared with the total number of HEIs estimated at over 20,000 worldwide.

The literature on sustainability reporting in HEIs rarely mention the importance of stakeholder engagement within the SR process (Disterheft et al. 2014), and sometimes SD reports are developed without the involvement of stakeholders (e.g., in the case of the University of Leeds’ sustainability report (see Lozano et al. 2013). Fonseca et al. (2011) found that no third-party assurance had been performed on the studied sustainability reports (by external stakeholders), while this is considered as one of the key quality elements of corporate SR.

Alonso-Almeida et al. (2015) presented a forecast of the diffusion of sustainability reporting in HEIs, based on logistical curves previously developed for other sectors, such as public agencies. They predict that by 2022, the estimated number of HEIs having adopted the GRI guidelines will be 300, an irrelevant number compared to the total number of HEIs around the world. Other results of this research are that currently HEIs are, in terms of SR, in the early adopter stage.

Final Comments

HEIs’ sustainability performance is a multidimensional concept, which takes into account different aspects of activities. The most significant impacts of HEIs refer to their core activities in education, research, and community outreach, but their environmental impacts should also be evaluated. The complex assessment of HEIs’ sustainability helps to define the strengths and weaknesses of the HEIs.



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Copyright information

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Project ManagementNational Research University Higher School of EconomicsMoscowRussia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Madhavi Venkatesan
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EconomicsNortheastern UniversityBostonUSA