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An exploratory study of sustainable development at Italian universities

Emidia Vagnoni (Department of Economics and Management, University of Ferrara, Ferrara, Italy)
Caterina Cavicchi (Department of Economics and Management, University of Ferrara, Ferrara, Italy)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 2 March 2015




This paper aims to outline the current status of the implementation of sustainability practices in the context of Italian public universities, highlighting the strengths and gaps.


Based on a qualitative approach, an exploratory study design has been outlined using the model of Glavič and Lukman (2007) focusing on the Deming Cycle. The Plan–Do–Check–Act components of the model were used as a framework for collecting and analyzing data from the official Web sites and other related Web pages of Italian universities.


The results of this exploratory study allow one to depict a university system addressing the challenge posed by international agendas in a fragmented way, even if many universities are showing a strong commitment to the sustainability challenge. Sustainability is mainly detected at the “Do” dimension, when referring to training programs and research projects associated to the sustainability issue.

Research limitations/implications

Limitations of the data collection method are addressed when the timeliness of update of Web sources and the different emphases that universities can put on Internet disclosure are considered. However, the study contributes to the debate on sustainability by providing findings at a national level, which were derived from the official Web sites of Italian public universities. Furthermore, the study could have implications for policy makers and universities’ decision makers.

Practical implications

The study points out the importance of managing the sustainability process in all its phases (planning, activities, monitoring, further actions), and highlights the elements that are relevant for measuring and monitoring the process of implementation of sustainability in the specific context of higher education.

Social implications

The paper can contribute to increase the academics’ awareness of the sustainability actions, and stimulate them to fill the gaps.


This study explores sustainability issue in the Italian university system, and it is based on a Web-based method of data collection, whereas other contributions are based on case studies.



Vagnoni, E. and Cavicchi, C. (2015), "An exploratory study of sustainable development at Italian universities", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 16 No. 2, pp. 217-236.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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