Sensemaking of sustainability in higher educational institutions through the lens of discourse analysis

Olga Dziubaniuk (Department of Industrial Engineering and Management, Tampere University, Tampere, Finland and Department of International Marketing, Åbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland)
Catharina Groop (Department of Political Sciences, Åbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland)
Maria Ivanova-Gongne (Department of International Marketing, Åbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland)
Monica Nyholm (Department of International Marketing, Åbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland)
Ilia Gugenishvili (Department of International Marketing, Åbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 2 February 2024

Issue publication date: 3 June 2024

259

Abstract

Purpose

This study aims to explore the range of sustainability-related discourses by the stakeholders within a particular Finnish Higher Education Institution (HEI); interaction between the discourses and the context of the HEI; and the extent to which different understandings of sustainability cause challenges for the implementation of the university strategy for sustainability. Specifically, the paper explores how the employees within the HEI make sense of sustainability in their teaching, research and daily life and the extent to which sustainability-related discourses are aligned with the university strategy.

Design/methodology/approach

This research draws upon collected qualitative and quantitative data. It focuses on individual discourses by executives, teaching and research staff within an HEI regarding their understandings of sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Findings

This paper illustrates the key challenges of sustainability and SDG implementation that may emerge in HEIs due to varied understandings. The results indicate a need for efficient HEI strategic vision communication and consideration of the stakeholders’ multiplicity of sustainability values.

Originality/value

This paper sheds light on the challenges involved in seeking to enhance sustainable development in an academic setting with multiple disciplines and categories of staff guided by academic freedom. The analysis thus advances the understanding of academic sustainability-related discourses and framings as well as mechanisms through which the implementation of sustainability-related efforts can be enhanced in such a context.

Keywords

Citation

Dziubaniuk, O., Groop, C., Ivanova-Gongne, M., Nyholm, M. and Gugenishvili, I. (2024), "Sensemaking of sustainability in higher educational institutions through the lens of discourse analysis", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 25 No. 5, pp. 1085-1102. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-09-2023-0427

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2024, Olga Dziubaniuk, Catharina Groop, Maria Ivanova-Gongne, Monica Nyholm and Ilia Gugenishvili.

License

Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode


1. Introduction

UNESCO’s Declaration for Education 2030 recognizes education as a main driver of sustainable development and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (UNESCO, 2016). The declaration emphasizes the key role of Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) in developing the sustainability-related skills and knowledge of students. HEIs should also take a proactive stance in knowledge dissemination and in supporting stakeholder collaboration aimed at sustainable development. HEIs approach sustainability from different perspectives, including teaching, research, campus operations, as well as involvement of stakeholders in the development of sustainable solutions (Bessant et al., 2015). Aligning the strategies and curricula of HEIs with the principles of sustainability and SDGs is a global trend, which, however, faces many challenges (Mori Junior et al., 2019; Ramísio et al., 2019; Leal Filho, 2020). One of these challenges is contextual differences in the understanding of sustainability by various interest groups. Although sustainability is a known concept, its understanding may differ not only among teachers and researchers but also among other involved interest groups, including students and administrative staff (Reid and Petocz, 2006; Aleixo et al., 2018; Bien and Sassen, 2020).

Differences in sustainability sensemaking may be rooted in the term’s conceptualization according to separate scientific fields and different priorities of sustainability spheres for research or teaching (Dziubaniuk et al., 2022b). For instance, sustainability may not even be recognized as “science” but as ideology and face emotional resistance among university staff (Korhonen-Kurki et al., 2020). In addition, despite the popularization of the SDGs within HEIs, awareness about the SDGs may still not be sufficient across disciplines (Fleacă et al., 2018; Leal Filho, 2020) due to too general descriptions or internal stakeholders perceiving them as politically forced upon the HEIs (Bruns et al., 2019; Dziubaniuk et al., 2022b). Djordjevic and Cotton (2011) indicated that sustainability is a rather difficult concept to grasp due to multiple potential understandings, which, due to selfishness and an inability to associate their own behaviour with sustainability issues, may result in individuals’ resistance to behave in a sustainable way. Thus, universities’ attempts to promote sustainability and SDGs may remain superficial in cases where a common understanding of these concepts is not efficiently framed and communicated.

The variety of voices in academia regarding the meaning of sustainability creates a gap between stakeholders’ individual commitment and the vision of sustainability challenges addressed in the university’s strategy and curriculum. This may result in misunderstandings of sustainability embeddedness in the curriculum (Cebrián et al., 2013) and misalignment of the strategic orientation towards sustainability between the HEI as an organization and its internal stakeholders (Franco et al., 2019). Current research primarily focuses on leaders within HEIs and their discourses on sustainability practices in the organizational contexts (Bien and Klußmann, 2021; Bien and Sassen, 2020), whereas the individual level of meaning-creation among the broader group of internal stakeholders may more accurately reflect the sustainability sensemaking predominant in an HEI. Sensemaking focuses on how “people appropriate and enact their realities” (Brown et al., 2015, p. 267). It has a cognitive and communicative character (Ivanova-Gongne, 2015) in that discourses affect how individuals interpret and produce meaning of the situations they encounter (Brown et al., 2015; Whittle et al., 2023) and consequently put their sensemaking into words. Accounting for the role of wider, macro-level discourses in micro-level sensemaking has been called upon in previous literature (Brown et al., 2015; Ivanova-Gongne et al., 2022b).

The study aims to answer the following research question:

RQ1.

How does the interplay between the overall context of an HEI and individual sensemaking create multiple discourses that impact on sustainability efforts within the HEI?

Empirically, this research is focused on individual sensemaking of sustainability and the SDGs expressed through the discourses by students, teaching/research and administrative staff within a Finnish university. The study adopts a mixed-methods approach, including qualitative and quantitative methods of data analysis. The context of Finland holds specific interest as Finnish HEIs, actively supported by the Ministry of Education and Culture, are known for integrating principles of sustainability into their research and teaching, (Friman et al., 2018). In addition, Finnish HEIs are committed to a national initiative to upscale the integration of sustainability in university education, research, administration and campus solutions (UNIFI, 2022).

The research findings contribute to the literature on sensemaking about sustainability and its implementation in HEIs and primarily add to the field of education for sustainable development (Leal Filho et al., 2019; Franco et al., 2019). The study also answers a call by Bien and Sassen (2020) regarding the inclusion of various internal stakeholders in research on sustainability sensemaking in the context of an HEI. The empirical part of this study extends the knowledge of discourse analysis as a method for analyzing individual sensemaking on sustainability (Cukier et al., 2009). The country context adds to the knowledge on sustainability and implementation of SDG practices in HEIs at the national level. However, the results may be of broader potential interest to the international educational community and policymakers.

This paper continues with a literature review focused on the role of sustainability in higher education and the conceptualization of individual sensemaking. The review is followed by a section on methodological choices and a results section focused on the analysis of the empirical data. The subsequent section is devoted to discussing the key findings and the interrelation between these and previous research findings. The final section summarizes the main findings, contributions and research limitations and proposes future research avenues.

2. Literature review

2.1 Sustainability in the context of HEIs

Currently, sustainability remains the key driving concept for social change among HEIs and scientific disciplines. The conventional perception of sustainability, grounded on three pillars – environmental, social and economic – highlights a balance between human activities and nature (Purvis et al., 2019), obtains new meanings and trajectories guiding social change. Adloff and Neckel (2019) identified three trajectories reflecting imaginary sustainable futures in the realms of politics, economy, society and science. The first trajectory promotes a “green economy” relying on progress in sustainable technologies, the second emphasizes the fundamental transformation of society to achieve a sustainable economy and adaptation of economic degrowth and the final trajectory promotes resilience supported by sociotechnical advances, political and institutional control and anticipation of environmental and social risks. These interrelated trajectories reflect discourses on development alignment between society, the natural environment and economic viability and how human beings visualize and act towards a sustainable future by developing technologies and knowledge, redefining social structures or promoting collaboration among interest groups for the implementation of sustainable solutions.

The discussion about sustainability perspectives indicates a general alignment of HEIs’ goals to address Agenda 2030. The role of HEIs is to contribute to solving global challenges and offer training for future professionals who will facilitate changes towards sustainability (Mulà and Tilbury, 2009). Research and educational activities within HEIs can be pursued as catalysts for the development of sustainable innovations and for promoting sustainability values in society. However, an increased sustainability focus also poses challenges within HEIs. Among the most common barriers to sustainability implementation across universities are lack of financial support (Aleixo et al., 2018; Leal Filho et al., 2019), lack of a common understanding of sustainability (Albareda-Tiana et al., 2018; Bien and Sassen, 2020), insufficient institutional frameworks to facilitate the implementation of sustainability across a university (Lozano et al., 2015) and lack of concrete rewards for including sustainability in teaching and research (Ávila et al., 2017).

Embedding sustainability in university programmes requires leadership by executives and their dedication to SDGs, which should be reflected in the governance of the organization (Bien and Sassen, 2020; Lozano et al., 2015). Communication with internal and external stakeholders remains the key element in promoting sustainability in universities (Purcell et al., 2019). Stakeholders within an HEI can include leaders steering the change towards sustainability; teaching and research staff within the faculties; administrative staff focused on the implementation of the university strategy and internal relationships; and students as the main receivers of knowledge about sustainability (Aleixo et al., 2018). External stakeholders may include companies, local or international governmental institutions and social activists (Bessant et al., 2015). The university strategy and sustainability reports can also be tools that manifest an HEI’s contribution to SDG implementation (Yanez et al., 2019). The normative strategy may reflect a top-down approach to sustainability values and issues (Ramísio et al., 2019). The identity of an organization is grounded in the link between the internal context and the executives’ perception of the desired image (Gioia and Thomas, 1996). Organizational identity is socially constructed, based on multiple voices and often represents an executive’s interpretation of the pursued image, internal culture and characteristics of internal community (Gioia et al., 2000; Degn, 2018). The individual identity of an organization’s internal stakeholders is drawn on sensemaking of their professional and individual values, attitudes, knowledge and practices (Becher and Trowler, 2001). The stakeholders’ understanding of an HEI’s identity can be expressed by linguistic constructs, institutional practices and stakeholder expectations (Degn, 2015). Thus, the sustainability identity of an HEI can be developed through executives’ values pursued in the institutional framing, including, for instance, SDGs as well as teaching and research practices addressing sustainability (Bien and Sassen, 2020; Degn, 2018).

2.2 Understanding sustainability by HEI stakeholders

Several studies have indicated that the vision of sustainability held by an HEI’s executive can differ from the understandings of administrative, teaching staff and students. This can cause conflicts when integrating sustainability into educational programmes and research (Amaral et al., 2020; Djordjevic and Cotton, 2011; Cebrián et al., 2013). Different conceptualizations of sustainability and vague perceptions of the SDGs among internal HEI stakeholders may cause misalignment between teaching and research practices and the sustainability-related goals outlined in the university strategy (Albareda-Tiana et al., 2018; Reid and Petocz, 2006). In some cases, sustainability may be embraced as a concept that researchers are forced to mention in grant applications (Dziubaniuk et al., 2022b) or as a politically imposed ideology rather than a scientific discourse (Korhonen-Kurki et al., 2020). The absence of a joint understanding may lead to poor integration of sustainability-related topics and miscommunication of sustainability if these practices are not supported by the HEI’s administration (Amaral et al., 2020).

It is important to consider the understanding of sustainability by internal stakeholders from the point of view of curriculum and strategy development, as the way stakeholders make sense of sustainability can be reflected in their acceptance of change, as well as their teaching and research. For instance, the findings of Reid and Petocz (2006) showed that, from the personal perspective of teaching staff, sustainability can be understood as social justice, sustainability of natural resources, cultural identity and longevity of development processes. Aleixo et al. (2018) stress that even if university teachers and researchers are aware of the most common definition of sustainability, they may not be fully aware of how sustainability is integrated into their HEI’s programmes. Another study on university leaders responsible for sustainability implementation highlighted their focus on curriculum changes to include more sustainability-related subjects and the sustainability of campus operations (Leal Filho, 2020). The study also indicated major challenges, including lack of funding and support from administrative staff, lack of a joint understanding of sustainability, absence of a clear sustainability mission or vision of the university and resistance of the HEI’s personnel to change. Students’ attitudes towards sustainability concepts also tend to vary according to their personal interest, but a majority prioritizes environmental concerns as a main aim of sustainable development (Dziubaniuk and Nyholm, 2020). This shows a need for interconnectedness of different sustainability aspects in the curriculum by linking environmental, economic, social, cultural and intergenerational aspects to illustrate the complexity of sustainability. In addition, according to previous research from different countries, students’ general awareness of the SDGs remains surprisingly low despite efforts from university teaching, media and social networking to spread this knowledge (Weybrecht, 2021).

2.3 Individual sensemaking and wider/macro-level discourses

The article at hand adopts a constructivist approach to sustainability (see, e.g. de Graaf, 2007), focused on how the concept of sustainable development is constructed socially in a particular context. Thus, the point of departure is that no objective truth exists when it comes to defining sustainability. Rather, the understanding of sustainability remains a product of deliberation and discourse in a particular setting. Discourses, therefore, are powerful tools through which understandings of sustainability are upheld and changed (Groop, 2021). Individuals are active participants in the construction of sustainability meaning through the process of sensemaking (Ivanova-Gongne et al., 2022a). Colville and Pye (2010) metaphorically described sensemaking as the “way people make bets on what’s going on and what to do next”. As per the classic definition of Weick (1995), sensemaking has seven properties, including retrospection, social, ongoing, enactive of the environment, plausibility, extracting cues and identity construction. Thus, sensemaking is an ongoing process that is grounded in identity and contingent on individuals’ interactions with others, is about extracting cues that make plausible sense and is affected by previous experiences and the context in which the individual is embedded (Weick et al., 2005; Helms Mills et al., 2010).

The term discourse refers to “any instance of signification, or meaning making, whether through oral or written language or nonverbal means” (Weninger, 2012, p. 2). Discourses both affect and are affected by individual sensemaking. Thus, individual sensemaking is shaped by wider discourses: institutional, political and cultural (Ivanova-Gongne et al., 2022b). From this perspective, discourse “refers to the collection of linguistic and social practices that comprise a system of thought which shapes how people make sense of themselves and the world around them” (Whittle et al., 2023, p. 1826). At the same time, the communication of individual sensemaking and social interaction between individuals may give birth to new or changed discourses. Discourse-focused studies can be conducted by means of, for instance, critical discourse analysis (CDA), which delves into discourses within a particular context that interacts with those discourses. Such analyses approach discourses as a means to dominate, exclude or challenge existing norms (Fairclough, 2004; Groop, 2021). As such, discourses can be approached as a means of power to “impos[e ones] definitions of reality” (Berger and Luckmann, 1967, p. 1034).

3. Methodology

3.1 Empirical context

Empirically, this study analyses a particular Finnish HEI. The Finnish context is of interest due to Finland’s aim to build an economically, ecologically and socially sustainable society based on competence and inclusion. With a point of departure in Agenda 2030, the Finnish Sustainable Development Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, has developed a roadmap for implementation of the SDGs connected to the national sustainable development work (Government Sustainability Roadmap, 2023).

Agenda 2030 is incorporated at all levels of Finnish education policy. According to the Universities Act of 2009, Finnish HEIs remain autonomous entities under the Ministry of Education and Culture. As such, they are responsible for their own administration, research and teaching. Most of them have systematically integrated sustainable development into all three areas. The aim of these efforts is to create solutions to sustainability challenges and to provide students with the competences required in the labour market (Voluntary National Review, 2020). In addition, Finnish universities have united their efforts by creating a Universities Finland (UNIFI) network, aimed at promoting cooperation between universities and developing a shared framework for sustainability approaches (Unifi.fi).

The university in focus, although rather small, covers a variety of disciplines. The topic of sustainability is integrated into the university strategy, adopted in 2020. The strategic vision for the years 2021–2030 emphasizes international research and education to support a healthy and sustainable living environment, as well as an inclusive and open society. The strategy promotes research that addresses global challenges and the achievement of SDGs through social and environmental spheres. The university is also an active member of the above-mentioned UNIFI network.

3.2 Data collection

Considering the complexity of the research objective, both qualitative and quantitative data were gathered through interviews and surveys. Qualitative data were useful for investigating sensemaking of sustainability among internal university stakeholders (see Weick et al., 2005). Textual evidence was collected on how the respondents make sense of the sustainability-related concepts and the SDGs within the scope of the university context and their individual discourses on sustainability. The specific themes in focus, apart from the overall sensemaking of the sustainability concept, included: personal reflections on and engagement in promoting sustainability, the role of sustainability in each respondent’s teaching and research and discourses on the HEI’s strategy and embeddedness of sustainability in the HEI’s activities. These themes were also used to structure the data analysis (see Section 3.3). A total of 13 semi-structured interviews were conducted in October–December 2020. The interviews were conducted remotely via Zoom and recorded with permission from the respondents. The interviews lasted from 45 min to 1 h. Informed consent was obtained from the interviewees and anonymity granted. Given the four strategic research profiles (SRPs) of the university, interviews were undertaken with two representatives of each SRP. These representatives are responsible for research collaboration and aware of the thematic direction of the research profiles. One interview was conducted with an HEI staff member in a leadership position responsible for collaboration and communication regarding sustainability. Finally, four faculty leading executives shared their attitudes and concerns regarding sustainability and the SDGs. Their participation was crucial due to their leading positions within the HEI and their involvement in teaching and research activities at the HEI. Table 1 summarizes the research participants and their roles.

The quantitative data were collected from students, teachers/researchers and administrative staff in March–April 2020. The questionnaire was built in Qualtrics XM. Administering it via email allowed participation from familiar surroundings, ultimately eliminating researcher- and laboratory-related biases (Catania et al., 1996). As the purpose of the quantitative data collection was to explore the descriptive information, some of the questions were generated by the researchers, such as the participants’ perceptions of the importance of SDGs; others were adopted from previous literature, modifying the wording to make it suitable to the context of this study: action (Leal Filho et al., 2019), injunctive norms (Ajzen, 2002), descriptive norms (Ajzen, 2002), societal injunctive norms (Park and Smith, 2007) and societal descriptive norms (Park and Smith, 2007). The participants were asked to choose their responses from different options or indicate their preferences on a seven-point Likert scale with 1 indicating “not at all important” and 7 signifying “extremely important”.

3.3 Data analysis

Quantitative method. The data were analysed using IBM SPSS Statistics 27. Before the primary analysis, Cronbach’s alpha was computed for each variable (Ajzen, 2002; Park and Smith, 2007). Given the exploratory nature of this analysis, descriptive statistics were calculated in the form of frequencies, means (M), minimums/maximums and standard deviations (SDs) to extract the descriptive information (see Table 2).

Qualitative method. The analysis of the obtained data followed the steps for CDA outlined by Cukier et al. (2009). As a first step, the entirety of the data to be analysed was defined. The second step relates to the actual analysis of the content of the data and coding (Cukier et al., 2009). Whereas the survey data focused on descriptive information, the interview questions delved into perceptions and understandings of sustainability. Data coding was performed using NVivo qualitative data management software. The codes are summarized in Figure 1. First-order codes were assigned to the concepts and expressions about understanding sustainability, application of its principles in professional life and daily routine and acknowledgement of the HEI strategy and approaches to sustainability promotion across the organization. The assigned codes were grouped according to themes that reflected the explored discourses. The final step included re-reading the coded claims, interpreting them and explaining the findings to the reader (Cukier et al., 2009). In particular, the analysis reflected on the interrelation between the separate coded themes and how the sustainability understandings of our interviewees were linked to the wider context of the HEI system in Finland, as well as the broader understanding of sustainability as outlined by the UN (see Sections 2.1 and 3.1). The understanding of the context was thus based on secondary data, such as reports and scientific articles, as well as previous experiences and works by the authors of this paper.

4. Results

4.1 Individual priorities of SDGs

The survey received a total of 687 responses. Of the respondents, 57% were female and 16 chose not to disclose their gender. The average age of the participants was 37, ranging from 19 to 74 years, with the most frequent age being 20–21. The SD for age in this study was 13.72. Table 2 provides descriptive statistics for both the measured constructs and the items.

Using Likert-scale responses, a ranking of the SDGs was established, highlighting their perceived importance to the participants. In the context of defining sustainability, three SDGs emerged as particularly crucial: responsible consumption and production, affordable and clean energy and climate action. In addition, importance was placed on clean water and sanitation. Teaching and research mostly focused on quality education, gender equality, good health and well-being and reduced inequality. In daily life, the three most addressed SDGs were gender equality, good health and well-being, and responsible consumption and production.

4.2 Definition of sustainability and its role in daily life

Most of the interviewees had a basic understanding of the meaning of sustainability. The level of understanding, however, was divergent and depended on involvement in, for instance, projects related to sustainability or personal interests. Almost half of the interviewees (5 of 13) conformed to the classic definition of sustainable development by the Brundtland Commission (Schaefer and Crane, 2005), referring to the needs of future generations. In addition, several interviewees mentioned the 2030 Agenda and the triple bottom line:

Sustainable development is how our work can contribute not only to the better future but also to the future that sustains itself. What can we do to help make progress in a way that it can progress on its own as well with less and less of our own intervention? (I.4)

Some of the interviewees defined sustainability in relation to their specific fields rather than in general terms. However, a few had to clarify with the interviewer what they mean specifically and overall did not feel that sustainability is at the core of their life in general and research in particular:

It is hasty to answer the questions that do not belong to my expertise, but if we talk about sustainable development in a narrow scope of chemistry, it’s easy for me, like sustainable materials. (I.1)

I am really into medicine, nanomedicine, and this field. Sustainable is kind of not my subject. (I.2)

To make sense of sustainability/sustainable development, the interviewees resorted to sensemaking elements such as “enactive of the environment” and “social”, where certain rules, routines and language of an organization or wider society affect the individual’s sensemaking (Helms Mills et al., 2010). Overall, the interviewees focused on field-specific aspects of sustainability when discussing their own research and teaching.

The interviewees also reflected on the various ways in which sustainability is present in their daily lives. Their ways of dealing with the issue were very much linked to their professional identities. For instance, the interviewee specialized in pedagogics emphasized the importance of teaching sustainability to their children, whereas the interviewee whose professional focus was on physics emphasized the energy aspects of sustainability.

For a few years now, I have, completely unnecessarily, postponed the acquisition of a heat pump, which I believe would be one of the biggest useful things that I personally can do for the environment […]. So again, this is a bit focused on these energy aspects that are closest to me thanks to my teaching and my interest in energy theory in thermodynamics. (I.1)

Another example is a researcher within organic chemistry with their view on sustainability in daily life being linked to waste sorting. Such a view can, however, also be linked to general societal discourses on how sustainability plays a role in our daily lives. For instance, topics such as travelling, food waste, garment reuse and sustainable heating were mentioned by the interviewees.

4.3 Sustainability in research

The research of the HEI at hand indicates a focus on sustainability from the perspective of various research disciplines. The interviewees work on a wide range of projects and one can find links both to a specific profile or to several of them. Some of the sustainability-related research has also developed over a longer period and has only recently started to be discussed with sustainability terminology.

Four interviewees defined their research as explicitly dealing with sustainability. These cases concerned governance of sustainability, business models for sustainable transport and energy as well as green technology. In addition, most of the other interviewees also recognized considerable links between their research and the strive for sustainability. Examples range from studies on how values change in society and the processes around otherness to improved living conditions through better inclusion of minorities in society or improved health by developments within medicine.

Both environmental and social sustainability were discussed, and in most cases, one or the other was emphasized, depending on whether the interviewee’s research was done within a field of science or a field closer to humanities. Based on the analysis, economic sustainability was not the focus of these interviewees’ research. All interviewees, however, pointed out the need for funding for sustainability-related research. However, the links between, for instance, better living conditions, inclusion and improved income levels were discussed on a general level.

In addition, the interviewees pointed out the importance of research practices. This includes research ethics and environmental effects such as risks for contamination and use of more environmentally friendly materials in testing procedures. The interviewees also discussed a general feeling that the SDGs are “artificial” and needed mostly for funding applications (Interviewee 10). In most cases, however, this was not seen as a problem. Only one interviewee commented that it might be done just to fulfil the application criteria (I.2) without the intention of including sustainability in the actual research.

4.4 Sustainability in teaching

All the interviewees confirmed that their research was closely interconnected with their teaching themes. According to the representatives of natural sciences such as medicine or chemistry, their teaching is closely interrelated with work in the laboratories and teaching students the practicalities of research conduct. Sustainability is sporadically covered in related courses but not emphasized as an individual subject. In their case, sustainability is taught in connection to the research projects, however, framed differently compared to the humanities:

We teach that to improve the quality of the environment we need to measure and define the problems. […] If we would not be able to measure carbon dioxide in the air, how could we know that this is causing the problem with climate change for example? (I.7)

In addition, representatives of natural sciences must follow ethical guides or lecture about safety including “teaching good practice to students who come to our lab […]. One of the main aspects that we must deal with is the way we do our work and how we can minimize an impact on the environment” (Interviewee 13). Interviewees implied that sustainability is not approached from the general perspective of balancing environmental, social and economic concerns but rather as a practical approach to treating colleagues in a fair way, responsible handling of laboratory materials according to environmental regulations and developing educational programmes to sustain quality education.

Representatives of the humanities referred more to the formal terms, as in the UN definition. They were also more aware of the SDGs, as were the employees holding managerial positions. The teachers within the humanities were more concerned about social sustainability that is interconnected with environmental issues – as “Man is a part of nature” (Interviewee 2) – and economic sustainability that impacts the two other dimensions. The most frequently taught sustainability related themes included social justice, migration, law, sustainable business models and politics. Teaching about climate change was mentioned by I.10 and I.11, whose perspective is social science covering themes of climate change – caused refugees and its impact on legislation and states.

Most of the interviewees agreed that more basic knowledge of various sustainability challenges needs to be communicated to the students. Developing an appropriate curriculum should involve incentives for education and leadership. In addition, pedagogical practices that address sustainability could be included in the annual teachers’ evaluations. However, this evaluation may be challenging due to an ever-changing variety of sustainability issues, as one interviewee explained:

You are never going to be able to fully measure whether someone is competent. And I don’t think any one of us is ever going to be fully competent, because […] the whole idea of sustainability is that you continue building your competencies throughout life. (I.5)

4.5 University strategy

The strategy and its (sustainability-related) goals were surprisingly poorly known among the interviewees. A number of interviewees (I.12, I.13) had not come across the document, highlighting that they associated themselves with their own strategic research area rather than with the HEI as a whole. Certain interviewees failed to see the role of the university strategy in everyday work:

I am not sure what kind of a role this strategy plays in reality […]. Those strategies are often full of nice words, and they […] seldom have […] real impact on what […] happens. (I.8)

Opinions were divided regarding the actual implementation of the university’s sustainability-related targets. Interviewee 8 regarded the overall implementation as rather good, others provided positive examples, including studies on minorities in relation to sustainability (I.10). More critical voices, however, pointed to the absence of a coordinated and strategic approach regarding sustainability (I.5), risks of “sustainability-washing” (I.10) and challenges related to university infrastructure and its energy efficiency (I.9). The absence of monitoring was also brought to the fore, highlighting that it is difficult to say whether progress is being made (I.7).

It was clear that the university’s activities in the field of sustainability were lost on some interviewees due to poor visibility and communication (I.4, I.5, I.10) and interviewees underscored the importance of improved dialogue and collaboration:

We need to work with the feeling of co-involvement on the part of the staff, that they feel that they can really come up with initiatives that go further, that it will not be a top-down, non-democratic way. (I.3)

To increase awareness of and ability to promote sustainability, several interviewees (I.3, I.6, I.7, I.12) called for courses and workshops. Some wished for events of a more general nature, others called for subject-specific sessions: “It should not be something general. If it is something general, people can just watch YouTube videos online” (I.12).

Many interviewees touched on the topic of motivation to engage in sustainability-related activities. Reflections related to leadership engagement (I.4, I5), peer inspiration (I.6, I.9) and the need for incentives (I.5, I.11, I.13) in the form of rewards or funding. However, lack of motivation to engage in sustainability-related activities was also linked to shortage of time.

5. Discussion

5.1 Challenges of aligning sustainability discourses and an HEI strategy

The discourses show that the HEI grapples with aligning its activities with the principles of sustainability, as also found in previous research (see, e.g. Mori Junior et al., 2019). However, the study at hand differs from previous studies, according to which, discourses on sustainability within HEIs have focused on resilience to global challenges, contribution to SDGs and HEI’s position as societal agency for transformation (Ruiz-Mallén and Hera, 2020). Instead, this study illustrates how sustainability discourses are formally communicated through SRPs and university strategy. This indicates a top-down approach to sustainability implementation in organizational activities and image construction, which may cause tension between internal stakeholders if the strategic aims are not clearly communicated (Bien and Sassen, 2020; Ramísio et al., 2019).

Previous research emphasizes the need to align the top-down and bottom-up approaches of an HEI’s sustainability identity construction to embrace a multiplicity of voices in decision-making. In this manner, sustainability is not pursued as a forced ideology embedded in the curriculum (Bien and Sassen, 2020; Degn, 2018; Korhonen-Kurki et al., 2020). The results of the study at hand indicate some success in embedding sustainability in teaching and research but also remaining challenges. From a strategic angle, discourses point towards not just weaknesses in terms of sustainability-related alignment but challenges ensuring that different actors are aware of the overall strategic approach of the HEI and work towards the same broad academic goals. Furthermore, the analysis points to pockets of weak university identity, which affect staff members’ allegiance to strategic targets as well as low awareness regarding sustainability-related activities within the HEI. Previous research has addressed these issues through increased communication and collaboration among internal stakeholders with the help of external experts and activists (Bessant et al., 2015; Purcell et al., 2019). Other research also emphasizes the importance of sustainability-related staff training and engagement, as well as management support and leadership (Bien and Sassen, 2020; Lozano et al., 2015). Sustainability reports are useful for university sustainability performance assessment in addition to improving stakeholders’ motivation to participate in decision-making processes and shaping a strategic vision for the HEI’s future development (Yanez et al., 2019).

Areas of high awareness of and familiarity with the HEI strategy could also be identified. The results show that sustainability-related principles could be found in the strategy, although sometimes in a rather “hidden” fashion, lacking detail, clear definitions or action plans. However, awareness of the normative sustainability perception in an HEI may be important not only to inform internal stakeholders about the organization’s sustainability strategy but also to create awareness of (inter-)national level directives such as the Government Sustainability Roadmap (2023) or UN Agenda 2030. Lack of this knowledge may hinder international collaboration with other universities or other external stakeholders, hampering the formulation of funding applications. An institutional framework that is linked to the principles of sustainability implementation can be an answer (Lozano et al., 2015), as long as it does not limit employees’ creativity and the variety of approaches in incorporating sustainability in HEI activities. Freedom of research and teaching should be guaranteed, as many university employees have expressed their passion for sustainability and connected it to their professional and daily lives. However, the general framework should lead those who are the least interested in sustainability teaching and research towards common strategic goals.

5.2 Making sense of sustainability and SDGs

Previous research to some extent covers how the lack of a comprehensive institutional framework leads to the challenge of different understandings of sustainability among interest groups (Reid and Petocz, 2006; Aleixo et al., 2018; Bien and Sassen, 2020). Employees in leading positions may understand sustainability principles differently from the rest of the internal stakeholders, causing misalignment of strategic goals within an HEI (Amaral et al., 2020). This is also visible from the study at hand, where executives demonstrated more conventional approaches to sustainability, grounded in Agenda 2030 or the Brundtland report (Schaefer and Crane, 2005). However, the study shows that research and teaching personnel understand the concept of sustainability through the lens of their professional focus. Such understandings can be assumed to be acquired through faculty-internal processes or the interviewees’ own research, teaching or personal interest. The discourses also showed that stakeholders within the HEI applied the principles of sustainability to their personal lives, often with a point of departure from their own teaching or research. Thus, the sensemaking of sustainability was, in part, shaped collectively by the context of institutions and in part by a personal understanding of sustainability issues which corresponds to the literature on macro-level discourses and individual sensemaking (see Brown et al., 2015; Ivanova-Gongne et al., 2022b).

The findings show that staff members, in their sensemaking, are influenced by surrounding discourses, including international (Agenda 2030-related), national (Unifi-related) and local (project- and discipline-related) discourses and that sustainability-related sensemaking continues to be in flux. The analysis also shows the extent to which powerholders in an organization can differ with regard to framing (the promotion of) sustainability. Illustrating “discursive struggles” (for a discussion, see Groop, 2021) aimed at moulding and fixing the concept of sustainability within an HEI highlights the importance of not bypassing the concept of sustainability, assuming that it is a concept understood and framed similarly by everyone. Efforts to promote sustainability within an HEI would benefit from some level of joint understanding with regard to key concepts to ensure that key targets and indicators are interpreted in the same way. In the absence of such a joint understanding, the HEI runs the risk of multiple interpretations and, at worst, targets not being achieved at all.

Many of the interviewees were either directly involved in research on sustainability or regarded their research as sustainability-focused or indirectly linked to promoting the SDGs. However, the need for funding for more sustainability-focused research, as discussed in previous studies (Aleixo et al., 2018; Leal Filho et al., 2019), was also highlighted. The same trend could also be discerned within teaching, where the dimensions of sustainability that are incorporated vary between faculties and disciplines. The results of this study show that the teaching personnel express an interest in and awareness of sustainability-related principles and, at least sporadically, include sustainability-related topics in their courses. Obviously, there is a need to upscale the sustainability-related efforts in teaching through interdisciplinary events such as seminars or workshops or place more focus on sustainability and SDG lectures. However, incentives and lack of time may remain a challenge (cf. Ávila et al., 2017).

Regarding the SDGs, the teaching and research staff gave priority to quality education, gender equality and good health and well-being. An emphasis on educational quality is obvious, as an HEI’s main responsibility is knowledge dissemination, including sustainability-related insights (UNESCO, 2016). Awareness of SDGs across universities is a common issue (Fleacă et al., 2018; Leal Filho, 2020; Bruns et al., 2019; Dziubaniuk et al., 2022b). This study illustrates that many staff members had a positive attitude regarding sustainability and SDGs in research and teaching, whereas others referred to sustainability as a forced agenda (cf. Korhonen-Kurki et al., 2020, regarding Finnish HEIs).

6. Conclusions

The study at hand explores sustainability-related discourses among stakeholders within a small Finnish university, as well as individual sensemaking regarding sustainability, its role in stakeholders’ daily and professional lives and the strategic approach of the HEI to promote sustainability. The discourse analysis showed linkages between the teaching and research stakeholders’ sustainability-related professional activities and their individual sensemaking of sustainability. However, the lack of a strong institutionalized framework of sustainability implementation in the organization points to misalignment of the understanding of sustainability and SDGs with the HEI’s strategic goals towards sustainability. The study finds that the HEI has a strategic vision for sustainability and that it refers to the SDGs in its normative documents but the vision should be better communicated to internal stakeholders to improve their understanding of the formal approaches framing sustainability. Furthermore, a sustainability strategy is needed to direct the HEI’s activities and to increase its sustainability impact, but its structure should take into consideration the internal stakeholders’ sustainability values.

6.1 Conceptual contributions and notes for educators and policymakers

This research adds to the literature on sensemaking about sustainability explored in the context of an HEI (Bien and Sassen, 2020; Degn, 2018) and expands a general body of literature on education for sustainable development (Leal Filho, 2020; Franco et al., 2019). It explores a multiplicity of voices of HEI’s stakeholders that corresponds to research calls by Bien and Sassen (2020) to explore discourses of the wider variety of university employees. The results of the study extend the discourse analysis approach applied to individual sensemaking exploration regarding sustainability understanding from an individual perspective and highlight how it is contextual to a specific organization (Cukier et al., 2009; Degn, 2015; Groop, 2021). In addition, this research contributes to the general individual sensemaking literature (Ivanova-Gongne et al., 2022b; Whittle et al., 2023).

This study provides insight into the managerial activities of HEIs and points to the need for a mix of top-down and bottom-up approaches to strategy planning and implementation, which remains an issue in many educational institutions (Ramísio et al., 2019). As such, the study continues the discussion of the most common challenges related to sustainability implementation (Aleixo et al., 2018; Leal Filho et al., 2019). The teaching and research staff of HEIs may find this study useful in the evaluation of their own approaches to sustainability. The country context of this study contributes to the discussion of the challenges of implementing an institutionalized sustainability framework across universities, which, however, may face challenges due to the different understandings and different strategic expertise of the universities. Hence, it is imperative for university leadership to dedicate additional time and resources to comprehend the individual-level sensemaking of sustainability among both employees and students. Furthermore, effective communication of the strategic perspective and the broader national discourse should be conveyed more explicitly to both employees and students. While integrating such a top-down and bottom-up approach is a complex endeavour, embracing this integrated approach is crucial for fostering sustainable practices, as it relies on the interrelatedness of sensemaking and (organizational) action (see Ann Glynn and Watkiss, 2020).

6.2 Limitations and future research suggestions

This study is delimited to the discourses explored within a specific HEI in Finland. Further international comparative case studies are needed to investigate broader discourses on sustainability understanding that may vary due to cultural specifics and national priorities concerning sustainability challenges in different countries (Friman et al., 2018; Korhonen-Kurki et al., 2020; Ivanova-Gongne et al., 2022a; Dziubaniuk et al., 2022a). The research endeavour takes an interest in executives, teaching and research staff of the HEI, highlighting that the holistic understanding of sustainability could be articulated better if all stakeholders were given a voice regarding sustainability and the SDGs (Bien and Sassen, 2020) (i.e. through participation in the research by students, administrative staff and external stakeholders). This study is mostly focused on discourses of sustainability understanding and has only partly touched upon the theme of a university’s sustainability identity and image. This can be an important departure point for future research, as many educational institutions struggle to change their identities to showcase their societal impact (Degn, 2018).

Figures

Structure of data codes

Figure 1.

Structure of data codes

Empirical qualitative data outline

Academic position Role in the HEI No. of respondents
Teacher and researcher Representative of SRP on chemical engineering and material technology 2
Teacher and researcher Representative of SRP on medical diagnostics, IT in health and drug development 2
Teacher and researcher Representative of SRP on minority positions, identities and rights research 2
Teacher and researcher Representative of SRP on marine and maritime research 2
Staff members in leadership positions Responsible for sustainability collaboration and communication 1
Faculty executive 4

Source: Authors’ own work

Items measuring key constructs

Variables and items α if the item deleted M SD
Injunctive norms (Ajzen, 2002)
Cronbach’s α = 0.834
4.743 1.281
Most people who are important to me think that I should follow sustainability principles in my life 0.736 4.69 1.444
It is expected of me that I follow sustainability principles in my life 0.794 4.51 1.495
The people in my life whose opinions I value would approve of my following sustainability principles in my life 0.78 5.04 1.503
Descriptive norms (Ajzen, 2002)
Cronbach’s α = 0.836
4.6839 1.137
Most people who are important to me follow sustainability principles in their lives 0.724 4.43 1.323
The people in my life whose opinions I value follow sustainability principles in their lives 0.752 4.8 1.306
Many people like me, follow sustainability principles in their lives 0.837 4.81 1.301
Societal injunctive norms (Park and Smith, 2007)
Cronbach’s α = 0.896
4.571 1.207
A majority of people in my country approve of following sustainability principles in their lives 0.855 4.67 1.337
A majority of people in my country endorse following sustainability principles in their lives 0.818 4.66 1.352
A majority of people in my country support that individuals follow sustainability principles in their lives 0.88 4.57 1.29
Societal descriptive norms (Park and Smith, 2007)
Cronbach’s α = 0.869
4.06 1.146
A majority of people in my country follow sustainability principles in their lives 0.821 4.11 1.337
A majority of people in my country have expressed their wish to follow the sustainability principles in their lives 0.8 4.19 1.2287
A majority of people in my country engage in sustainability principles in their lives 0.825 3.88 1.237

Source: Authors’ own work

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the Marcus Wallenberg Foundation that have funded this research.

Corresponding author

Olga Dziubaniuk can be contacted at: olga.dziubaniuk@tuni.fi

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