Asian universities promote learning through environmental and sustainability assessment
Akin to small-scale cities, university campuses can reflect society at large. In addition to occupying large areas of land, many campuses also consist of sizeable populations and numerous buildings amply equipped with facilities for their residents. This means that, just like cities, higher education institutions have significant environmental impacts both on campus and in the surrounding community.
In order to ensure that such impacts are more helpful than harmful, an increasing number of universities are integrating sustainability into their operations and infrastructure in what many refer to as “green campus” initiatives. Addressing environmental and sustainability-related issues is now high on many universities’ agendas, from boosting rigorous waste-management practices to enforcing stricter energy conservation measures and executing Greta Thunberg-inspired advocacy campaigns.
Some universities are employing environmental and sustainability assessment tools that provide standardized approaches for analyzing the impacts of their institutional practices. This leads them to revise their existing operations, which then in turn improves their environmental performance.
While an environmentally conscious campus can improve the quality of education, it also raises the question: how can the assessment process also provide opportunities to enhance learning for everyone – students, staff and communities alike? As campus-greening efforts continue to gain traction, it is crucial to promote education and learning for sustainable development for the whole community within and beyond the campus grounds.
A variety of environmental assessment tools are used by universities across Asia, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14001 standard on environmental management systems and the Eco Action 21 certification developed in Japan. One of the most prominent tools is the UI GreenMetric World University Ranking, an initiative of the University of Indonesia. It was launched in 2010 to draw the attention of higher education institutions to address sustainability issues, including establishing relevant university-wide policies and bringing about behavioural change in the academic community.
To participate in the UI GreenMetric ranking system, institutions are asked to provide numerical data based on criteria that comprehensively indicate their commitment to greening their campuses and enforcing sustainability-related policies. The criteria include not only physical information about the campus such as size, population and the amount of green space, but also information on education and research, water and energy use, transportation, and recycling and waste management.
In any assessment process, many institutions are apprehensive for various reasons, including competition. Chanita Rukspollmuang, professor emeritus and Vice President of Siam University, an institution that has participated in UI GreenMetric’s annual ranking since 2017, said just the sheer volume of applicants made university staff hesitate at first.
“At the time, we saw that around 600 universities had joined the UI ranking,” Chanita said. “I thought our university would be at the rank of about 200, but I couldn’t say. I told my colleagues that, okay, we’ll do our best.”
That first year, Siam University ranked 168th in the world ranking and came in 7th nationwide, the highest among private Thai universities. After the institution received their scores in each criteria, Chanita and her colleagues were able to identify what they were lacking and areas that required more attention.
Under the direction of the current president, Prof Pornchai Mongkhonvanit, Siam University set out to become a sustainable university, putting into place policies and measures that enabled them to improve education and learning on campus. These new initiatives included curriculum development, revision of academic and quality assurance policies, and sustainability awareness campaigns and activities for student and community engagement. In addition, in order to ensure students’ understandings on sustainable development, Siam University also revised the general education programme to include courses related to sustainability that are mandatory for all students, offering subjects such as “King Rama IX’s Sufficiency Economy Philosophy for Sustainable Development”.
Chanita does admit, however, that it has been an uphill battle at times. “Some people still don’t understand sustainability,” she said. “They don’t understand SDGs. They don’t understand sustainable development. So, I think campaigns for awareness-raising are very important.” She added that the most important thing in education was the mindset of those involved, whether staff, students or the surrounding community.
Despite the challenges, in the following year Siam University was able to improve its status from 168 of 619 participating institutions to 162 out of 712. It maintains its place as the 7th most sustainable Thai university out of 32 institutions.
Chanita recently shared Siam University’s experience at a panel on “Education and Learning in and through Environmental Assessment: Experiences from Higher Education Institutions in Asia”, a side event organized by UNESCO Bangkok during the 10th World Environmental Education Congress (WEEC) held in Bangkok. In addition to Chanita, Riri Fitri Sari, chairperson of UI GreenMetric, Gliceria Arlyn G Garancho, from Philippine Normal University (PNU) Visayas, and Arun Kansal, from TERI School of Advanced Studies in India, discussed how environmental assessment could contribute to promoting campus-wide environmental and sustainability education and learning.
They also deliberated on why some universities are hesitant to undergo environmental assessment. One of the reasons is that some have an aversion to rankings. Universities today are in a seemingly never-ending race for students, status, and resources, both human and financial. Institutional leaders and staff may see environmental assessment and ranking as just another consideration they have to worry about.
A question from the audience during the session inquired: how are environmental assessments different from the usual academic rankings, and how can we convince higher education institutions to take part in them?
Siam University holds a different perspective on this issue. Although the university did not see a large leap in its ranking from the first to second year, staff remain undeterred in their sustainability assessment journey. If anything, Chanita sees the process more as an opportunity for learning and self-improvement than a competition.
“UI GreenMetric is more than a ranking,” she said. “To me, it’s a learning process. It’s the whole institution continuously working together on sustainability, including the environment, economy and society, from the individual to the international level.”
Ms Garancho, Executive Director of PNU Visayas, agreed that the university’s ISO 14001 certification was not just about maintaining standards. “We don’t only focus on whether we’ve obtained the objectives,” she said. “Our main purpose is that there should be environmental literacy as well as advocacy.”
It is clear that environmental and sustainability assessment goes beyond simply “greening the campus”. The process triggers the transformation of education and learning in and around the university, leading to a change in mindsets and behaviours for the whole institution.
Higher education is an important platform to serve as the catalyst of change for sustainable development. While there is no such thing as an education panacea to make societies more sustainable, it is also up to all of us to follow the lead of these institutions in pursuing progress and action for our collective sustainable future.
To read the report of the WEEC 2019 panel discussion, click here.
By Chariya Chiumkanokchai, Programme Assistant for Future of Learning, UNESCO Bangkok.
* A version of this article was first published in The Bangkok Post.