Seven years later, Canadian universities still have a lot to learn
Aside from degree programs designed around social or environmental issues, sustainability is often a secondary subject in academia. While a few distinct universities are beacons of promise,working social and environmental issues into their degrees, the majority typically fall short.
For seven years, Corporate Knights has been tracking Canadian universities in an attempt to measure how well they integrate sustainability. We have looked at undergraduate business and Masters of Business Administration (mba) programs, law schools, teacher’s colleges, industrial design programs, public policy schools, and engineering degrees. Trends in our analysis point to things slowly improving, but there is still an overwhelming need for better integration of social and environmental values into our academic programs.
This year, in addition to re-visiting undergraduate business, mba, and engineering programs, we expanded our horizons into the mathematical realm of insurance and risk analysis with an evaluation of Canadian actuarial science programs. The results were disappointing, and emphasized a disconnect between the financial sector and a world facing many environmental and social risks as a result of a growing population and a changing climate.
The results are not all bad. Certain university programs emerge as clear leaders; others are making notable progress towards more sustainable curricula, moving significantly up in the ranks from previous years.
Still, these select few are outliers in a mob that otherwise maintains the status quo. If our societies are going to achieve sustainability, then Corporate Knights believes the education paradigm needs to shift. There are barriers to the implementation of a more sustainable curriculum—shrinking funding and resources at the post-secondary level are clear examples—but there is also great opportunity in the integration of sustainability into the mainstream.
Asaf Zohar, Associate Professor and Chair of the Business Administration Program at Trent University, puts it simply, “If we recognize the magnitude of the opportunity that exists, we will reframe the nature of the barriers.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Too often, businesses operate with short term vision. Value is measured in quarterly reports, driven by the mandate of increased profits, and appeasing the boardrooms and investors who only seek a healthy bottom line.
Purely short term and profit-based thinking not only leads to widespread environmental degradation and social injustice but also to economic disaster, as we have witnessed during the sub-prime mortgage fuelled recession. The current model is problematic, and if we continue to use it, hope for a sustainable society will almost certainly be lost.
But what if business leaders moved beyond the myopia of their individual company or industry and expanded their vision to the well-being of broader society?
Corporate Knights believes that Canada’s academic institutions should be shaping students into both experts and stewards who understand their responsibility to respect and maintain environments, cultures, and economic prosperity.
Undoubtedly, this is easier said than done, but there are feasible ways to move forward.
Permeate Don’t Isolate
In order for sustainability to move from the periphery to the mainstream, it needs to be woven into the core of all academic programs. Moving beyond an isolated course on ethics or corporate social responsibility, sustainability needs to permeate the teachings of the majority of courses in the university calendar.
Topple the Silos
A common criticism of academia is its tendency to be inward thinking, self-referential, and more or less unable to effectively communicate its rich and diverse knowledge with society at large. As information becomes more and more specialized within a discipline, columns or “silos” of communication are created. These silos do little to further the kinds of dialogues that need to take place between disciplines, institutions, and society to bring about a more sustainable future.
Many schools have worked diligently to promote breadth-based education that requires students to take myriad courses from different faculties. This allows students to gain a more holistic understanding of the role of their respective disciplines in society, by allowing them to engage with different perspectives and ideologies that will later inform the way they interact and perform in the real world.
Researching for the Common Good
In order to mainstream sustainability in academia, environmentally and sociallyfocused research and innovation is crucial. Interdisciplinary research groups, centres, and institutes are incubators of some of the most talented minds in the country, and their work is essential to progressing beyond current social, economic, and environmental policies. The more environmental and social research being carried out by faculty members, the greater the chance that this expertise will trickle down to core courses, enriching the student experience with practical and up-todate case studies in the classroom.
Our surveys do show an adequate level of sustainability-based research through faculty publications, institutes and centres, and research chairs; 66 per cent of business schools, 78 per cent of engineering schools, and 64 per cent of actuarial science programs had sustainability-themed research institutes or centres, for example. These statistics are encouraging, and we are hopeful this capacity will continue to expand.
Are You Experienced?
A sure-fire remedy to the insular nature of academia is engaging the inspired student body with the surrounding community. Corporate Knights has been impressed every year by the number of environmental and social student initiatives we see in our surveys across the board. The kind of experience-based learning that is achieved through student organizations like Net Impact or Engineers Without Borders is arguably more pivotal than any textbook or lecture could hope to be.
While student-led initiatives are indeed promising, experiential learning could be better encouraged. Partnerships between research centres, faculty, students, and the broader community are needed, and would offer a rich educational experience to both students and society. Out-of-the-classroom learning bridges the gap between the ivory tower and the local community, and forges links between organizations and the inspired minds that can set them on a path to sustainability.