How Swedish HEI:s work in promoting sustainable development

Summary of The Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) evaluation on how Swedish HEI:s work in promoting sustainable development in higher education:

In March 2016, the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) was tasked by the Swedish government to conduct an evaluation of efforts by universities and university colleges to promote sustainable development, pursuant to the provisions of the Higher Education Act (1992:1434). Sustainable development means that the present and future generations are ensured a healthy and good environment, economic and social welfare, and justice. UKÄ has completed the assignment in the form of a thematic evaluation that focuses on the educational part of the efforts by higher education institutions (HEIs). The purpose of the evaluation is to contribute knowledge and national comparisons of how the HEIs work with sustainable development and present the results that have been achieved so far in this area. The evaluation may hopefully also be of importance for the HEI’s development work.


The evaluation is based mainly on self-evaluations in which the HEIs describe their efforts to promote sustainable development, their procedures for monitoring and feedback, and how they systematically contribute to securing and developing sustainable development in education (SDE). An assessment panel has reviewed the self-evaluations and has provided the HEIs with feedback that has highlighted good examples and has identified potential areas of development. Based on the assessment panel’s opinion, UKÄ has given an assessment for each HEI. The two assessment levels are that the HEI either has a well-developed process for the work on SDE, or the HEI’s process for work on SDE is in need of development.

The assessment will not lead to any penalties for the HEIs. The assessment panel summarises its general observations and reflections on the HEI’s efforts on sustainable development and makes recommendations in a national context.

Main results and outcome

The provision in the Higher Education Act that HEIs should promote sustainable development was introduced in 2006. Now that the HEI’s work has been evaluated, approximately ten years later, the assessment panel concludes that the quality of the work varies. On the positive side, most of the HEIs can give examples of courses or degree programmes in which sustainable development has been integrated. It is more worrying that about half of the HEIs do not have local overall targets for sustainable development in place and that even fewer perform systematic follow-up of these targets or work with continuing professional development for their teachers.

Following this evaluation, several HEIs have begun work in these areas. Although this is a little late, it should, of course, be regarded as positive that the work has begun. In total, only about a quarter of the HEIs have received the assessment of ‘a well-developed process’ for their work on SDE. The assessment panel therefore feels that the HEI’s efforts to promote sustainable development need to be clearer and to take on a higher pace. Because sustainable development is regarded as a continual, ongoing process, it can also be noted that all HEIs have continued development needs, regardless of the cumulative assessment that they have received in this study.

Governance and organisation

The assessment panel was able to establish that the HEIs chose different times and approaches to begin their work, and also partly proceeded from different assumptions. Several HEIs discussed various definitions of the concept sustainable development, describing it as a challenge but sometimes also inspiring. UKÄ’s assessment of sustainable development in higher education encompasses different aspect areas to be examined based on associated assessment criteria. The first aspect area, Governance and organisation, concerns whether the HEIs have established overall goals for sustainable development. These goals are to include all levels of education and be accepted throughout the HEI, which approximately half of the HEIs were able to demonstrate. A positive assessment by UKÄ often coincides with a leadership demonstrating a clear responsibility for action within sustainable development in addition to policy documents showing the HEI’s visions.

The Governance and organisation aspect area is also about how systematic follow-up and development of the work for sustainable development are conducted. Here, the assessment panel identified the overall weakest point of the evaluation, with three fifths of the HEIs considered in need of improvement.

Environment, resources and areas

The aspect area Environment, resources and areas concerns such aspects as how the HEI actively works to ensure staff competence in issues related to sustainable development, which just over a third of the HEIs were judged to be able to demonstrate. In their self-evaluations, approximately one quarter of the HEIs state that courses related to teaching and learning in higher education are held for teaching staff, but that these courses are not always mandatory. Nor do all of them deal with sustainable development to a significant degree. At a couple of the larger HEIs, online “tool boxes” are described as examples of material available for motivated instructors within education for sustainable development. Other examples that are given include seminars, training days and networking. In isolated cases, sustainable development skills are said to have been expressly required when recruiting new staff to the HEI. Smaller HEIs that offer a narrower range of programmes sometimes describe the lack of resources and time as posing a special challenge. At the same time, smaller HEIs offer many examples of good practice, quoting the importance of open dialogue among colleagues. Organisational challenges in integrating and gaining acceptance for sustainable development is also mentioned in several of the self-evaluations, not least in connection with the existence of a decentralised organisational structure.

There are differences between the HEIs in how they interact with students when working with sustainable development. Here more than two fifths were rated with the higher assessment. It has been difficult for the assessment panel to clearly relate these differences to the size of the HEI. While a smaller HEI may offer closer contact and continuous informal discussions with students, the larger HEIs often have better opportunities to allocate resources for specific types of collaboration, in addition to student representation in the various councils and committees required by the Higher Education Act and the Higher Education Ordinance.

Just over half of the country’s HEIs have collaborated with the labour market in their work on sustainable development. This takes place, not least, through collaboration with representatives of the labour market in various centres, including development centres. Adjunct professors with experience in sustainable development and who are actively working in the private sector teach in certain professional programmes and subject areas. HEIs with a limited range of subjects often describe significant industry influence and that collaboration often occurs as a direct result of this. Collaboration with the labour market may also occur within the framework of graduate schools, but it is not always clear to what extent this addresses sustainable development.

Subject-wide and HEI-wide functions, for example centres, are also given as examples of interdisciplinary cooperation, as are multiprogramme courses and special resource allocation for multidisciplinary projects in sustainable development. The assessment panel regards collaboration with students, the labour market and, not least, between different disciplines as crucial for promoting sustainable development. At the same time, this type of cooperation is often regarded as being an untapped teaching resource at many HEIs. Many of the HEIs appear to have a good understanding of the complexities that can be addressed by interdisciplinary subject teaching. However, the data shows that approaches to teaching and learning at the HEIs primarily need to be developed to become more process-oriented when dealing with issues of sustainable development.

Design, implementation and outcomes

Design, implementation and outcomes aspect area: More than two thirds of HEIs are judged to have a well-developed process, which could be the result of being asked for examples of programmes that integrate sustainable development and that the HEIs were allowed to select any examples they liked. The HEIs were not asked to provide information about the proportion of students who are offered these programmes, so this is mostly not specified. In contrast, the HEIs were asked to describe whether and how this work is developed and followed up and to give examples when there is actual research. Few of the HEIs gave specific descriptions, for example if and how different lecturers collaborate on course content or how different subject perspectives are left to the students to synthesise. The evaluation becomes, therefore, focused on describing educational content rather than teaching approach. Pedagogical research, as well as the HEIs self-evaluations, demonstrate that the implementation process from research findings and policy to teaching practice can be complicated. The assessment panel notes that several of the large and medium-sized HEIs give examples from teacher education and engineering programmes, in particular, where sustainable development is included in the national qualitative targets. Regarding systematic follow-up, the assessment panel noted that half of the HEIs need to improve this as their reports often revolve around quality assurance and follow-up activities in general and not specifically around integration of SDE. However, the self-evaluation material indicates that more informal communication routes may also lead to valuable quality development within the area.

The significance of clear management and systematic follow up

International research points to the importance of management in the integration of sustainable development in higher education. Many of the HEIs express the importance of clear, continuous support, and the management driving the integration of SDE, for it to be successful. This requires both knowledge and commitment, and it is primarily the HEI’s management that can choose to allocate resources, set up overall goals for the HEI and link these to a follow-up system. There are examples of when activities start or stop when transitioning to a vice-chancellor or other staff who may or may not have an interest in sustainable development. In this evaluation, the HEIs who have been assessed as having a ‘well-developed process’ often have central bodies responsible for sustainable development.

This provides support for already involved staff and can serve as a catalyst, which may be a necessity if the process is not to stop at a policy document. There is also a link to the implementation of an environmental management system intended to improve the organisation’s environmental performance and contribute to national environmental goals and to the achievement of UN global goals for sustainable development. A majority of state HEIs with environmental management systems rated highest in the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency’s ranking also received the higher assessment in UKÄ’s evaluation. The existence of systematic follow-up would seem to be decisive to the success of the processes. Regarding sustainable development, this has posed a challenge for many HEIs.

Diversity in HEI:s SDE strategy

There are several large universities and university colleges among the HEIs that have been judged to have a well-developed process in all aspect areas. A large HEI may, in many cases, offer greater diversity in subject areas and several programmes to provide positive examples. At the same time, the shorter decision-making paths at a smaller HEI can facilitate the process of incorporating SDE, especially if this is noted in the programme’s qualitative targets, and there are also some smaller HEIs judged to have a well-developed process. Smaller HEIs focused on nursing as a subject area have, in part, related sustainable development to social sustainability, which results in a limited interpretation of the Higher Education Act, while certain HEIs specialising in the fine, applied and performing arts have instead chosen to relate sustainable development in social change to the role and responsibility of the designer. The teaching of sustainable development is based (however) on integrating three dimensions: economic and social dimensions as well as environmental conditions.

All the HEIs will be invited to a national conference at the beginning of 2018 to follow up the evaluation and to communicate the results and lessons learned from the process.