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Sustainable institutions: an evidence informed review of good practice

09 Mar 2023 | Dr Iain Cross and Dr Alina Congreve Sustainable Institutions, a new project, supported by Advance HE’s Collaborative Development Fund and managed by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), will critically explore how whole-institution approaches to sustainability are developed and implemented.

Universities have been addressing sustainability since the term first emerged in the 1980s. What has changed now is the recognition that all the different projects and initiatives need to join up at an institutional level.

The Sustainable Institutions project will draw on the strategies that cut across key higher education activities including learning and teaching, estates management, research and civic engagement. It will unpack what it means for a university to be a sustainable institution. How does a university go about embedding sustainability across all its activities? What are the challenges for universities strategically aligning sustainability across their organisational vision and strategy? There are several ways for you to engage with the project, and share your insights into institutional approaches to sustainability.  

A plant starting to grow in a forest

It’s not all about heat pumps and geography classes 

Sustainability is no longer just a matter for the energy officer in the estates team and the curriculum in environmental studies courses. We are seeing teaching about the climate emergency and biodiversity loss across many disciplines, from business and law, to through to chemistry and fashion. Sometimes these are framed in terms of the Sustainable Development goals. The outreach and engagement work universities undertake can also make positive contributions to sustainability issues in their local communities.  

In this project, we are looking to identify where universities move beyond fragmented cases of good practice, seeking examples of more joined-up and holistic approaches.  

How we are doing the research 

The project has two strands. Firstly, we are carrying out a systematic review of academic research and grey literature to identify these more holistic, institutional approaches. We are looking for examples that cut across two or more university strategic activities. For example, fitting a heat pump to a university building would not count as a strategic or holistic approach. Opening that same building to the community in the evenings and weekends as a warm bank; connecting the work of the estates team to its civic engagement would. 

Carrying out scientific climate change research per se is not a strategic approach. Using that research to inform a city-wide climate action plan and the retrofitting decisions of the university estates team cuts across research, engagement and estates. These are the kinds of examples we are looking for - of a university moving towards being a sustainable institution through joined-up, innovative thinking.  

We will also develop some in-depth case studies, based on our literature review. The case studies will be selected to be broadly representative of the Advance HE membership. As well as finding out what universities have done so far, we are interested in how they have gone about it. Do sustainability assessment tools (SATS) help universities on their journey? We are mindful that universities, and countries, are at different places in their sustainability journey: what is cutting edge and innovative in one location may be mainstream in another. We are committed to being pro-active in seeking out the work of universities which have not been widely shared before, and recognise innovative practices may be found outside of traditional spaces of publishing and academic debate.   

How you can get involved 

There are several ways you can get involved with the Sustainable Institutions project:  

  • Share your experiences of developing a whole-institution approach to sustainability in a workshop at Advance HE’s Sustainability Symposium on 29-30 March.   

  • Complete a very short (two-minute) survey to share examples of sustainable institutions. 

  • Take part in the #LTHEchat on Twitter on 29 March – we look forward to hearing your thoughts.  


Dr Iain Cross is Associate Professor, Education Development at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). He leads the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching and has wide interests in higher education including teaching about climate change, authentic learning and decolonisation. Connect with Iain on LinkedIn Twitter or   Orcid.  

Dr Alina Congreve is an independent researcher, with interests in including sustainability in higher education. Alina develops and delivers training and professional development to a wide range of higher education and professional organisations including universities and Vitae.  Connect with Alina on LinkedIn or Orcid.

To find out more about the project and to share your case study, visit the Member Benefit Project Page: Collaborative Development Fund 2022-23: The Sustainable Institutions Project: An Evidence Informed Review Of Good Practice


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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