How can the operating model of a university become more sustainable and what is the role of higher education institutions in becoming more sustainable? These were among the topics discussed at the workshop “Sustainability Challenges in the Transformed Hungarian Higher Education”, organised by the Public Service and Nonprofit Marketing Working Committee of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Department of Sustainability Management and Environmental Economics of Corvinus University of Budapest.
Social orientation is at the heart of the mission of the fourth generation, or state-of-the-art, universities according to the university development model, said Dr István Piskóti, Institute Director of the University of Miskolc, when presenting the social and business dimensions of the responsible university model. This means that the higher education institution is a responsible integrator of the socio-economic development of the region, and must therefore become a proactive player in sustainability issues.
For this to happen, however, it is essential that the institution also sets an example in its operations, which first requires a responsible university model, from which the strategy and regulation of operations can be derived. Today, universities are increasingly focused on entering the competitive market, and the emergence of sustainability is a competitive advantage. However, the professor said that what is needed is not just competition, but “coopetition”, or competing together, which can be the basis for social innovation.
In addition to the theoretical background, student experience is also important when it comes to involving students in sustainability efforts, as Dr. Balázs Révész, Associate Professor at the University of Szeged, has already mentioned. Student experience is built around the student journey, which includes the application, the academic experience, the campus experience and the graduate experience. Newer models have added new elements to this, such as the role of lecturers and the physical environment.
Closely related to this is sustainability, which is an increasingly important aspect and demand for students. For example, when selective waste collection was first introduced at the University of Szeged, there was no public system in place, and students brought their waste to the university. This also indicated that the university’s move was well-founded in terms of student needs.
Nándor Palotai, a physical education teacher at the University of Pannonia, has launched a research project called “Don’t just watch, play”. Within its framework, they work with sports coaches and sports economists to find out why amateur sports teams disappear and why the number of football licences issued steadily falls. The results of research on sport motivation and consumer activity can also be useful in sustainability efforts. Not to mention that sport and recreation can have a positive impact on mental health as well as physical health, and can also play a role in developing a connection with the natural environment.
Internationalisation was also highlighted at the workshop as an important pillar of sustainable models. Zsófia Kürtösi, Associate Professor at the University of Szeged, presented projects that help to promote internationality in education through integrative learning.
These include synthesis courses, which help to systematise previously acquired knowledge, but also teaching partnerships and linked courses. In addition, community volunteering and courses built around the issue are also key areas of sustainability in education. The problem is that these opportunities are only known to a limited extent by lecturers and are resource-intensive in terms of communication with partners.
Dr. Anita Kéri, Assistant Professor at the University of Szeged, highlighted the dilemmas of lecturer-researcher mobility in her keynote speech. She said that green travel principles are also increasingly being promoted in Erasmus programmes, with many places encouraging travel by train, for example. The emergence of virtual collaboration can also reduce the carbon footprint of mobility, and the organisation of local excursions for international students can provide a better understanding of local social and ecological systems.
There are differences between the missions of universities in Eastern and Western Europe in the way the SDG targets are presented, as Katalin Ásványi, Head of Department, Associate Professor at Corvinus, has already mentioned. In the West, the direct social impact of universities is given a more prominent role, and in many cases, this is a declared aim of the institution. The Eastern universities tend to have a stronger link with the public sector, through which they influence society. Responsible, critical leadership training is present on both sides, but environmental responsibility is missing from the objectives of many institutions in the West and in the East.
As a summary, participants identified four key areas that institutions need to work on to contribute more effectively to sustainability efforts. One of these areas is education, from which the consumers, employees and even managers of the future will emerge, and this is linked to research, in which sustainability principles and values are increasingly being reflected. The third area is the external impact, the way in which the institution can influence its public, corporate and civil partners. And the fourth area is how the institution can operate more sustainably as an organisation, be it in terms of infrastructure or the involvement of the university’s civic community.