For the centuries that tertiary education has been part of society, further education was a privilege afforded those who could afford it. But with the advancement in recent years of communication technologies and speeds, the battle for the student dollar is now being waged online. Whether researching unis or shopping for a MOOC, it has never been easier to choose an institution or course of study. Every education consumer represents an opportunity for universities across the globe to establish their credentials not only in what they offer as education service providers, but what they can contribute to the overall customer experience.
Annual international university rankings are watched almost as keenly as corporate earnings reports, although the range of choice is still so overwhelming that even venerable indexes such as the Times Education Supplement hosts a subjective 'reputation' category and separately grades universities that have been around for less than 50 years. More than anything else, this shows just how hard it can be to set competitors apart.
Global best practice
More prospective undergrads are showing interest in sustainability and letting it guide their choice of schools: Among 7,445 college applicants Princeton Review surveyed in 2012 for its "College Hopes & Worries Survey," 68% said having information about a college's commitment to the environment would impact their decision to apply to or attend a school. Now sustainability education indexes such as the University of Indonesia's GreenMetric World University Ranking give the enlightened consumer the opportunity to compare like with like, with institutions ranked according to their performance across criteria including infrastructure, energy and climate change, waste, water, transport and education.
This is enhanced through the collegiate approach of flourishing professional sustainability associations such as the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in North America; the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) in the United Kingdom; and the Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS). As well as supporting more than 1000 member institutions across the globe, these businesslike associations have initiated cooperative resource-sharing initiatives and annual awards for excellence in forums such as the International Green Gown Awards. It is here that the transition to sector-wide marketing of sustainable education brands can be seen.
The upside of Down Under
To tighten our focus, let's look at Australia. Here, education is big business, delivering some $20 billion to the national economy and trailing only mining and agriculture in exports. Some 20% of Australian enrollments are international, with all but one of the top 10 national intakes from Asian neighbours. With a high Australian dollar, education providers need to work even harder to recruit and retain students and staff. As this market evolves, so too does the integration of sustainability. "Our sector is definitely moving towards understanding where sustainability sits at a strategic level, with most institutions successfully engaging staff and students to some degree," says Leanne Denby, ACTS President.
Students at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) would hardly disagree. They won a 2012 International Green Gown award for Bluebird Brekkie, their free pop-up breakfast cafe for students. As this great little video shows, engaging, practical connections are made between a campus commitment to sustainability and the need for students to have a good start to the day. This healthy initiative highlights a thriving culture of creative collaboration and brings concepts such as local food production, fair trade and waste-free consumption right into the everyday (and no doubt into student and staff kitchens off campus!). This wildly popular attraction is now an important facet to the UTS sustainability brand. And when it comes to consumers, popularity is the only contest!
Embedding sustainability in education brands
Way across the oceans in Colorado, Paul Rowland, executive director of AASHE concurs, "For several years, surveys in the US have indicated that about two-thirds of prospective students consider the 'greenness' of higher education institutions when they decide where they will invest their tuition dollars and time. Colleges and universities have been responding with new programs, new practices, and branding and marketing that reflects this consumer demand." Paul points to big education brands such as Yale University successfully embedding sustainability in their corporate culture. The lesser-known Green Mountain College is one of the "most advanced, revising their entire strategic plan around sustainability." This is evident in Sustainability 2020, an ambitious plan towards what they call 'authentic sustainability.'
This has to be seen in how universities report sustainability performance; although many are in the process in Australia, only La Trobe University has thus far issued a report that meets Global Reporting Initiative Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. University of Melbourne Research Fellow and corporate social responsibility practitioner Sara Bice offers, "Because culturally we see universities as public institutions, we tend to think very differently of them than we do of corporations. Given the size of their budgets and the public interest, it might be worthwhile to consider greater transparency in the reporting side of sustainability."
There's little doubt that most universities provide the right environment for people to gain sustainability inspiration and information, though as Stephen Johnson so rightly points out, inspiring and informing is not enough. Universities and colleges have unique influence over how we broaden our campus experiences, relationships and learnings and, with a bit of luck, how we take them into the wider world — or as some would call it, ‘the university of life.’