Around 400 institutions of higher education exist in Germany. A study conducted by Remmer Sassen, Dominik Dienes and Caroline Beth from the University of Hamburg found that 14 of them reported on their sustainability performance through a publicly available sustainability report in 2014. That is only 4%! What did these institutions report about and why did only so few institutions have a sustainability report?
The study was already published in 2014. It is nonetheless very insightful, because very few systematic analyses of the German higher education sector exist. Sustainability reporting is an important topic for us and Green Offices. For instance, we already wrote about the importance of reporting or how to use a prezi to communicate your results. This is why, we were curious about the study. We consulted the paper and talked to one of its authors, Dr Remmer Sassen.
Dr Sassen explains that there are many reasons why so few institutions had a sustainability report: “One reason might be that there is very little pressure from important stakeholders – like the government, funding bodies or accreditation organisations – to report on sustainability. Until now, sustainability reporting is voluntary and institutions may prefer to invest their money into education and research, rather than a report. Right now, very much seems to depend on the initiative of intrinsically motivated students, staff and faculty.”
And the few institutions that reported, what did they actually report on? The research team scanned the reports they identified using a set of 130 indicators to assess the social, economic and environmental performance of an institution. The study found that the overall reporting level on these indicators was very low. Here are the results:
- Institutions achieved a reporting level of 39% for the economic dimension, including disclosure of the funding that institutions got from the government and their annual budgets.
- 31% of ecological indicators were reported upon, most notably the disclosure of energy, materials and water consumption, as well as waste generation,
- Information on 27% of education, research and governance indicators were disclosed, including most prominently the percentage of courses, research projects, faculties with sustainability focus, partnerships with community organisations, student initiatives, and support of students with children.
- Only 11% of social indicators were reported upon, including the numbers, age or gender of employees.
Dr Sassen mentions some potential reasons for this overall low level of reporting on these indicators: “Again we are not sure what the exact reasons are, but one cause could be that institutions of higher education might not be so systematic in gathering data, compared for instance to companies. Some information might also be difficult to quantify. How do you measure the sustainability content of courses and research projects?”
What does this mean for you? Despite the low level of reporting, I see something positive in these findings that can inform the structure of your own sustainability report: Writing a sustainability report that discloses information on 130 indicators might be too ambitious for the first version. The 30 or so indicators that most institutions reported upon can provide a first yardstick you in case that you want to get started with reporting. The study also shows that your institution can be one of the few universities actually reporting on sustainability and in this way (still) differentiate itself.
The study also shows that if sustainability reporting remains voluntary, then only few institutions will continue to disclose the social, economic and environmental impacts of their work. But this is important for stakeholders to judge what the institution does with regards to sustainability and if progress is actually made. So what policy mechanisms would we need to reach reporting of 70%, 80%, or 100% of all institutions?
Dr Sassen also has some ideas on this: “We need clearer reporting guidelines, especially on how to report on sustainability in education, research and governance. Then changes in laws are necessary to show institutions of higher education that their funding bodies, i.e. the governments of the 16 federal states care about their sustainability performance. Then external funding can provide incentives, since collecting and analysing the data for a report is very time intensive and can take up a full-time position over a couple of months.”
This is why it is not enough if students, staff and faculty just write a sustainability report at their own institutions. In the long run, we also need to lobby for more system-wide changes and engage in (inter)national initiatives to develop common guidelines, present those to policy makers, create incentives and support for institutions to report. For instance, the EU now obliges companies larger than 500 employees to disclose information on environmental, social and employee-related, human rights, anti-corruption and bribery matters.
By the way: Germany is not alone in a very low reporting level for institutions of higher education. A recent study commissioned by Maastricht University Green Office found that only three out of 13 Dutch universities (23%) had a publicly available sustainability report. Still 10 out of 14 (77%) had a separate chapter on sustainability in their annual report 2014, and all mention sustainability as a term in their annual report 2014. We will report on these findings in another post.
Text by Felix Spira. Many thanks to Remmer Sassen for sharing the paper with us and joining the interview. Photo by, Sebastien Wiertz, Flickr, Creative Commons
References: Sassen, R., Dienes, D., Beth, C. (2014) Nachhaltigkeitsberichterstattung deutscher Hochschulen, Zeitschrift