Academic journal article Journal of Sustainable Development

Sustainability in Higher Education: Analysis and Selection of Assessment Systems

Academic journal article Journal of Sustainable Development

Sustainability in Higher Education: Analysis and Selection of Assessment Systems

Article excerpt


There is a noticeable increase in interest with regards to sustainability in higher education. As institutions investigate, implement and market sustainability efforts, there is a myriad of sustainability assessment methodologies currently available. Although these assessment systems were created with the intention of helping sustainability in higher education institutions, they have ultimately led to an assortment of standards being used by institutions which do not help students and faculty assess the level of sustainability uniformly between institutions.

This paper combines relevant literature on sustainability assessment with empirical data to suggest an ideal assessment method to be used as the basis for a universal tool. It was found that the STARS system was the most suited system to be used as a basis for a future universal assessment tool.

Keywords: sustainable development, higher education, universities, sustainable education, sustainable assessment

1. Introduction

Over the years there has been an increased focus on sustainability in higher education. Policy makers (UNESCO, 2011) and students (Bone & Agombar, 2011) have placed a significant emphasis on sustainability, while institutions have responded by actively implementing sustainable initiatives. The term sustainability still has not been unequivocally defined; nonetheless, a plethora of universities are claiming to be sustainable in some way, shape or form. This raises the question of how to define and assess sustainability in higher education institutions.

Numerous publications (Ryan et al., 2010; Glasser 2009; Patrick et al., 2008; Perna et al., 2006) have investigated and analyzed the various assessment systems and with inventories of university initiatives currently available. However, none have gone so far as to suggest which assessment system would be best suited for standardized use. This is seen as a controversial step as the choice will have far-reaching implications in theory and practice (Shriberg, 2002).

In general, there has been resistance to standardizing assessments and/or rating institutions on sustainability. AASHE's STARS, among other prominent sustainability tools, clearly makes the delineation that it is an assessment tool and in no way a rating or ranking system. It can be argued that this apprehension for standardizing sustainability within institutions neither benefits sustainable practices nor helps stakeholders (students, academics and administrators) identify the level of sustainability in an institution.

A standard sustainable assessment system would provide the basis for sustainability in an institution while also providing a standard for sustainability marketing. Selby et al. (2009) came to two very important conclusions about sustainability and marketing:

1) Sustainability messaging tends for the most part to treat 'sustainability' as synonymous with 'environment'.

2) Rigorous institutional engagement with marketing sustainability credentials provides a beneficial feedback loop that deepens and embeds the commitment and adherence by administrators, academics and students.

These two conclusions make a clear case that a standard assessment would benefit by assuring that 'sustainability' is not misrepresented as a solely environmental issue while also assisting with the deepening of sustainability within the institutions culture.

Apprehension for standardizing assessment of institutions is directly opposes the needs of some higher education stakeholders. Maragakis & Dobbelsteen's (2013) empirical study showed that 95% of potential or current students, staff and management in higher education agreed that there was a need for a uniform rating system. This demand would explain the rise of certain private initiatives, such as Princeton's Guide to 311 Green Colleges (The Princeton Review 2011). By continuing to not act on creating a standardized system, scholars and practitioners may lose the ability to shape assessment and rating criteria for sustainability and could give rise to popular, yet potentially ineffective, methods of assessment that appeal to institutional stakeholders. …

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