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Failing the future: key factors affecting the management of sustainability programs in universities in the Sydney Basin and region
thesisposted on 2022-03-28, 02:50 authored by Lorne Butt
Universities in Australia have been engaged in sustainability initiatives for at least the last 25 years. They have a critical role to play in learning, teaching and research around sustainable practice, and a key responsibility as large organisations to exercise stewardship over the resources they manage. However, progress towards becoming sustaining organisations – whereby sustainable practice is embedded in all areas of core business – remains variable across these institutions. In some cases programs have stalled, or significantly regressed. This situation is costly in terms of investment of time and resources. It also means that universities are not meeting their moral obligations and business commitments to students in relation to delivering sustainability education. Sustainability education has been consistently identified as critical in assisting business, industry and communities to deal with the increasingly serious nature of sustainability issues of all kinds. This thesis examines internal and external factors affecting the development, implementation and management of sustainability programs in universities in the Sydney basin and regions in Australia. The research examined the operational and educational aspects of the universities’ sustainability programs, with a focus on the interaction between the types of change management and leadership practices that tend to characterise higher education institutions, and the success (or otherwise) of different types of sustainability initiatives. The extent of student, staff and other stakeholder involvement in the universities’ sustainability programs was also investigated. The research involved desktop audits of participating institutions’ sustainability programs, and qualitative, semi-structured interviews with 34 executive, academic and non-academic interviewees from four universities. Gap analysis of desktop data and Abstract content analysis of interview data were undertaken to identify factors affecting the development, implementation and management of university sustainability programs. Key factors identified included lack of leadership and change management capability around sustainable practice; failure to incorporate sustainable practice into the business operating model, risk management framework and cultural/behavioural norms of the organisation; a lack of professional development opportunity for those with sustainability performance accountabilities; and failure to incorporate sustainability performance accountabilities into role requirements, position descriptions, job contracts and performance accountability structures; failure to mainstream Education for Sustainability in course offerings and across discipline areas from a perspective of sustainability education as business innovation and value add; and a lack of performance monitoring and reporting systems. The hierarchical and siloed nature of universities’ organisational structures, and their change-resistant cultures, were also identified as significant contributing factors that contribute to universities failing to implement sustainable practice as a key component of organisational change and renewal. A governance architecture is proposed for university sustainability programs, underpinned by the theory and practice of strategic leadership and consultative change management. Central to this proposed architecture is the need to view sustainable practice as a core management discipline in its own right, alongside established disciplines such as risk management and corporate governance. Recommendations are included for improving the development, implementation and management of university sustainability programs based on these research findings, and their testing in practice. Areas of ongoing and future research are also identified.