Sustainability at the University of Technology, Sydney

The Declaration, Volume 3, Number 3 : February 2000  [Curriculum]

By Kim Walker

The University of Technology (UTS), in Sydney, Australia, has made sustainability a priority. Achieving the aim of an integrated sustainable university requires a process of critically evaluating the policies and practices of the university, creating a vision for a more sustainable institution and committing the will and resources to such a vision. In recent planning and development of sustainability initiatives at UTS, it was understood that the implementation of sustainability would require coordination that bridged the operations, teaching and research of the University. That is, the challenge was, and is, how to bring together 1- those responsible for the buildings and grounds, 2- those responsible for the teaching and research, and 3- the students. This article reports principally on progress with the latter two groups.

UTS is the fourth largest university in the state of New South Wales, Australia. There are nearly 23,000 students enrolled in the University and 2,100 staff. Students study in the faculties of Business, Law, Mathematical and Computing Sciences, Design, Architecture and Building, Nursing, Midwifery and Health, Engineering, Science and Education. The University occupies three distinct campuses: the main campus is located in the Sydney’s central business district; the other two campuses sit in the northern suburbs, one surrounded by native bushland and bordering a National Park. The diversity of these campuses, both in their curriculum and location, allows for unique opportunities to incorporate sustainability into the functions of the University.


In 1996, UTS made its first university wide commitment to sustainability by establishing the Institute for Sustainable Futures. The Institute focuses on transdisciplinary research and consulting relating to sustainability. Since the establishment of the Institute an increasing number of students and staff have felt that sustainability should become central to the operations of UTS. A small core of committed people from various constituencies within the University, including faculty and the Environmental Health and Safety Unit of the University, began creating opportunities to link with other enthusiastic staff and students, which eventually reached the larger UTS community. Crucial to the core group activities was endorsement from key decision makers and some provision of resources.

The University’s second major step toward integrating sustainability on campus came in 1998 with the formation of a Sustainability Task Force, supported by the Vice-Chancellor and the Academic Board. The Task Force included two working groups: one in teaching and learning; the other in operations. The Task Force immediately drafted a Sustainability Strategy that outlined the University’s commitment to sustainability, its aims and objectives, and detailed an initial coordination approach. The draft Strategy listed the following key objectives:

  • To integrate sustainability into teaching and learning, research, consultancy and community service and institutional practice with the aim of:
    • producing graduates who are environmentally literate and able to provide leadership in sustainability and environmental citizenship in business, industry, government and the community;
    • establishing UTS as a leader in sustainability research;
    • minimizing UTS’s impact on the environment; and
    • developing a culture of environmental awareness and action throughout the University community.
  • To establish UTS as a leader in the adoption of an integrated, transdisciplinary approach to environmental management and the exploration of sustainable futures.
  • To advance UTS as a socially just organization concerned with issues of social equity and committed to community service. A number of important groups and positions were established in conjunction with the Sustainability Task Force.

These included an Academic Manager of Sustainability in Teaching and Learning, appointed to implement sustainability across the University curriculum; and an Environmental Officer, appointed within the Environmental Health and Safety Unit to coordinate sustainability initiatives in operations. Primarily, the Task Force gave people from different areas of the University opportunities for sharing ideas, discovering synergies and establishing working partnerships that span disciplines and organizational divisions.

The Task Force was replaced by a Sustainability Action Group earlier this year to signal the next phase in UTS’s evolution toward sustainability. The Action Group comprises a small group of the University’s senior management and faculty with overall responsibility for directing the teaching, research, and operations of the University.


J. C. Van Weenen (1999: 9-10), in his study of a range of approaches to sustainability taken by various universities around the world, outlines levels of university engagement. The first level involves the physical operations of the university (materials and energy, facilities and spaces). Van Weenen claims that this is the easiest level to change. The second level involves the university’s core interest in education and research. He sees that levels one and two can be a combined approach i.e. researching the operations of the university. Level three involves university management, and specifically, the role of management in reformulating policies and establishing the mechanisms for meeting the challenge of sustainability. Level four incorporates the use of powerful outside advisory bodies, a sufficient number of engaged staff and demanding students that can convince the university to adapt or rewrite its mission statement.

Van Weenen’s model is useful as a starting point in evaluating a university’s engagement in sustainability. UTS has found it difficult to achieve the first level and I would argue that it is not necessarily easy to achieve this level. A combination of economic imperatives, long established physical structures and entrenched practices combine to make this a very challenging step. In fact, UTS is well on its way to achieving levels two and three. Van Weenan’s model is used below to describe the changes taking place at UTS.

Level 1: Institutional practices

As explained above, changing institutional practices is a challenging process. UTS is currently exploring systems for changing practices and systems to monitor the changes. The issue about whether to become ISO14000 compliant is a serious one given the size of the institution and the financial investment required to become compliant. One solution is to use ISO14000 as a self-reporting framework. Other indicators of sustainability are also being explored. Student involvement is an important issue. Operations staff is currently identifying projects that could be implemented by students, such as research on building design. Ideally, students will be able to take responsibility for some of the operations of the University, such as a composting process.

Level 2: Teaching and learning, and research

There is a great deal happening in sustainability in teaching, learning and research across all the departments of UTS. The challenge is to make links between these activities both within departments and between them. It is becoming clear that a project focus is the most effective means of implementing sustainability across the University. One project that offers such possibilities is the development of twenty-five hectares of rainforest as a sustainable site in an area south of Sydney. The site consists of original rainforest and an unused coal mine. It is an ideal project for involving several departments (science, humanities, design and architecture, education, business) and the local community in creating a model of sustainability. It also provides an opportunity for these faculty members to work together on a practical endeavor. This project is in its early stages at present.

Level 3: University management

Significant support for sustainability from management at UTS is a critical and positive feature of the progress being made. UTS became a signatory of the Talloires Declaration in 1998. Management has created committees to coordinate the change process and positions have been created specifically to enhance sustainability at the University.

Level 4: Powerful external and internal stakeholders

The use of powerful outside advisory bodies is a strategy being explored at UTS but not yet implemented. Clearly, employers play a key role in influencing the nature of teaching programs in universities. The evidence also suggests that while companies and organisations are increasingly adopting sustainability in their practices they are not using sustainability as a criterion in recruitment. Other outside bodies also potentially have a key role to play. The New South Wales EPA, for example, is a partner in many research endeavours at UTS, but is playing a minimal role in bringing about changes in sustainability at UTS.

A number of staff are committed to sustainability at UTS and it is these people who have influenced the decisions being made by the University. Similarly, there are demanding students who have influenced the University in adapting its new mission.


The Level 2 changes explained above are further elaborated here. Changes in curriculum are still evolving but to date the process has involved:

  1. Appointment of a person responsible for implementing sustainability across the teaching and learning of the University (Academic Manager of Sustainability in Teaching and Learning). An important aspect of the appointment is that it is not connected to a research center which means that there is only one focus, that is to work with academics to implement sustainability in their teaching.
  2. Identifying best practice within the University. It is important in implementing change to start with what is already happening. There were already many practices at UTS which supported sustainability. The task was to highlight these practices and use them as a model for change. Those already involved in sustainability work appreciated the support and were eager to link with other people who were engaged in similar practices.
  3. Acknowledging that different faculty members are at different stages in implementing sustainability and working on strategies to best support their efforts. There is no best way to implement sustainability in higher education. It is important to acknowledge the different disciplines and work within these disciplines to implement change that compliments existing practices. At UTS one faculty member chose to make sustainability a key theme in his undergraduate course; another chose to concentrate on an external project and linked sustainability issues to the project; yet another investigated indicators of sustainability in her course.
  4. Providing support for faculty and their research. This has involved making links between their current work and how they might incorporate issues of sustainability. UTS is very much a practice-based institution. Therefore, one particularly successful initiative has helped students become involved in community projects related to sustainability. This has required brokering projects between University operations staff, teaching and research faculty and members of the community outside of UTS.
  5. Providing professional development for faculty. This has brought positive results when faculty were genuinely interested in taking on sustainability as part of their teaching. The important point is that they need to have made the decision that sustainability is an issue that will compliment their current teaching and research.
  6. Providing forums for discussion. Various forums have been initiated to encourage discussion about sustainability. A sustainability expo (see photographs) was held at UTS in 1999 to showcase and debate sustainability at UTS. Since then other forums have been established to enable staff to discuss sustainability issues. This year, the Academic Manager started a “brown bag” lunch series, modeled on a similar series at George Washington University, to promote informal discussions among all staff, both academic and operations, concerning sustainability throughout UTS.
  7. Working on strategies to incorporate sustainability in a manner that does not increase the load of already overworked staff. An important concern in implementing sustainability was that it was yet another ‘add on’, something else to be done in an already overcrowded curriculum. Our challenge was to show that sustainability can be incorporated in existing practices and fits well with other initiatives such as flexible learning, internationalisation and quality of teaching and learning.
  8. Improving the profile of sustainability through the University media. It is important to highlight new initiatives through existing media. This has been achieved through the sustainability expo, competitions and other student events. The aim is to draw faculty, student and administrative attention to sustainability. It is also important to capture media attention outside the University. Here the aim is to attract prospective students and industry partners.
  9. Identification of faculty/student projects within and outside the University. One of the goals here is to make sustainability ‘real’, that is, to make it practical and attractive to students and faculty alike. Several projects have been identified at UTS. Given the complexity of ‘sustainability’ both in concept and practice, it is probably best understood in terms of practical projects. This strategy may be the most effective in fostering change in teaching and learning at UTS.
  10. Involvement of key groups such as the Institute for Sustainable Futures, Shopfront, and the Center for Teaching and Learning. It has been critical to make connections between groups at the University. Shopfront is a cross faculty group which negotiates community projects and for which sustainability is a priority. The Center for Teaching and Learning also has an obvious interest in improving teaching and learning across the University in areas which include sustainability.


The challenge for UTS is to continue the momentum for building a truly sustainable university. Future challenges and associated questions include the following:

(a) To have a more cohesive approach to sustainability across the departments: identifying the links, opportunities for working together and opportunities for student participation. How can a more cohesive approach be achieved?

(b) To work with students to find out more about that how they want to participate and provide opportunities for that to happen. How do we find out what students think? What are the best mechanisms for bringing students together for discussion?

(c) To identify what employers want from our graduates. Research conducted by the New South Wales EPA suggests that industry wants to discuss environmental matters but lacks the skills to do this. Training is an important strategy here. The research data suggests that there is an interest in employing graduates who have an understanding of sustainability related issues. What is the best strategy to find out what industry thinks? How do we educate students about these opportunities?

(d) To help faculty approach sustainability in a variety of ways across the disciplines. Humanities and Nursing, for example, are looking at social sustainability; Business is asking why and how environment and business should talk; and Design and Architecture and Engineering are incorporating ecological, economic and social sustainability into their courses. How do we learn from the different approaches and how do we link these approaches? Faculty are often more able to grasp the notion of sustainability when it is explained in terms of real life community projects. How do we further coordinate such projects?

(e) To foster opportunities for people at UTS to work with the community and local industry. Who or which group should act as a broker for such projects?

(f) To better link University operations with the teaching and learning and of the University. Students are already engaged in research related to operations and opportunities exist to share such research. How do we further these links?


Though still in the early stages of development, sustainability at UTS is now considered a critical theme of the University by the Vice-Chancellor’s Management Group. Securing the support of the Vice Chancellor and other senior managers has been a critical step in ensuring real and lasting change. Similarly, identifying committed staff, involving the student body, and providing new ways of bringing both groups into the process has been important. Additionally, as this article has shown, mechanisms have been established that allow the various constituencies and groups involved to share ideas and establish partnerships and links. It is through this coordinated approach that UTS plans to become a model and learning ground for sustainability. According to Anthony Cortese (1998: 113), education must shift towards perspectives which encompass the interdependence of individual, social, cultural, economic and political activities and the biosphere. UTS has accepted that these are an important part of its activities and is now working to achieve them.


Cortese, A. (1998). Afterword, Academic Planning in College and University Environmental Programs: Proceedings of the 1998 Sanibel Symposium. Florida: North American Association for Environmental Education.
Van Weeden, J.C. (1999). Vision of a Sustainable University. Environmental Management for Sustainable Universities Conference. Lund, 30 May-1 June, 1999.

Kim Walker is Academic Manager, Sustainability in Teaching and Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney. She can be reached at tel: +61-2-9514 5407; fax: +61-2-9514 5556; or email: Acknowledgement: Larissa Grant, the former environmental education coordinator at UTS, has contributed to this article.

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