Dean Forbes


Corporate Social Responsibility 2007 Summit

State Library of NSW, Sydney

31 October-1 November 2007

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)

Flinders University

Few Australians love our universities.  Some call them ivory towers, or sheltered workshops.  They do not win votes for political parties.  University alumni associations struggle for support, and look with envy at the gifts and bequests lavished on American universities by their alumni.

Despite ambivalent community support, public universities have demonstrated their resilience over centuries.  But the challenges of the 21st century are different.  Australian universities are grappling with an increasingly competitive global knowledge economy, while trying to remain sources of world class research.  Both are done on shoe-string budgets.

At the same time, community expectations of universities are increasing.  Federal and state government stakeholders demand more for their dollars.  And students, most of whom pay fees, are more forcefully expressing their rights as customers. 

I will talk about how sustainability issues are being approached in universities, based on two case studies. 

•    The first is about how universities have responded to sustaining the major commercial activities associated with international students.

•    The second will look at how universities have responded to heightened community interest in environmental sustainability.


The term ‘sustainable development’ was first used in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth.  The authors applied the computer technology available at the time (think Fortran!) to model global development.  They concluded that rates of growth would last about 100 years before the ‘limits’ were reached.  However, they said, it should be possible to fashion ‘a condition of ecological and economic stability that is stable far into the future’ (p 24)

The Brundtland Report definition of sustainability sets the tone of the current debate:

‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987).

We hear it often, with variations.

The United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development spans the period 2005-2014.

‘The goal…is to integrate the principles, values, and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning’.

While I can’t recall any discussion of the UN Decade by Universities Australia, the peak body, a number of Australian universities are addressing issues of sustainability.


Last month I visited St Petersburg State University.  It claims connections with eight Nobel Prize winners.  Vladimir Putin is a graduate.  St Petersburg is ranked second in Russia, and is globally ranked in the top 400 world universities (a similar ranking to Flinders University). 

St Petersburg State was 283 years old in January.  It was established by Peter the Great in 1724.  It has survived through turbulent periods of Russian history, including the siege of Leningrad (1941-42).  The main campus is on Vassilievsky Island in the heart of the city.  The University is a prize asset of a city that regards itself as the educational heartbeat of Russia.

St Petersburg State University has demonstrated its sustainability by the ultimate measure of sustainability.  Its survival through a long period of history. 

Australia’s oldest institution, the University of Sydney, was established in 1850.  Most of our universities have been formed since the 1950s.

Sustainability for a 21st century university is somewhat different.  Universities in general, and Australian universities in particular, cannot afford complacency.  Survival alone is an insufficient measure of sustainability. 

Changing expectations of the modern university have meant the last two decades has been a period of significant restructuring in higher education.  It is likely to continue.  The sustainability of universities will be judged not just by their survival, but by their ability to simultaneously form new, productive partnerships with their stakeholders and communities.


One of the most profound changes since the mid 1980s is that modern Australian universities have become hybrid institutions.  Part public institutions, part commercial entities.

Universities brought in revenue of $13.9 billion in CY 2005.  Government funding has reduced to 56% of university revenue, if HECS is included in the government component, or around 40% if it is not.  The rest comes from fees, charges and competitively sourced funds.

Most Australian universities are accountable to the public via two governments: the Commonwealth for the bulk of their public funding; and state governments because they were established under state Acts of Parliament.  But the shifts in their revenue sources means they are also accountable to the people via the marketplace.  To be sustainable universities must adapt to the particular demands of their hybrid structure.

The core business of universities is research and education.  Commonwealth funds, and the majority of their other revenue, support these two missions.  The sustainability of universities is dependent on sustaining their sources of income.  There are significant risks associated with the funding from government, and for their commercial revenue streams. 

Universities response has been to focus on building and maintaining the links with the communities that support them.  Just as corporate social responsibility is well established in the corporate world, in universities there has been comparable significant growth in what is labelled community engagement (and sometimes third stream activities).  It is defined as:

‘The generation, use, application, and exploitation of knowledge and other university capabilities outside academic environments’ (Molas-Gallart, Salter, Patel, Scott and Duran 2002)

University staff have created AUCEA, the Australian Universities Community Engagement Alliance, to provide a forum to share strategies, seek critical assessment and benchmark activities. 

A number of Australian universities have signed the Talloires Declaration on the Civic Roles and Social Responsibilities of Higher Education.  An international Talloires Network provides a global forum for discussing and sustaining community support.


The single largest stream of commercially generated revenue for Australian universities is through international student income.  Universities as businesses derived $2.14 billion in international student fees in 2005.  It represented 15% of total sector revenue (DEST 2007 pp 99-101). 

The Australian economy is also a major beneficiary of the presence of international students in Australia (and not just in universities). 

•    In 2006 international education earned export income of $10.7 billion (Truss 2007 p 15).

•    Education is Australia’s fourth largest export industry, and second to tourism in terms of service sector export income.

•    All the indications are that when the 2007 figures are released education will be the biggest services sector export, and third overall behind coal and iron ore.

•    Education is the main export of Victoria, the second main export of NSW and the ACT, and fourth major export of SA and Queensland.

International education is a new business.  The legislation which enabled universities to charge international students was brought in a little over 20 years ago.  Sustaining the the business into the future has been a significant concern.  It is vital that it is addressed in a coordinated fashion, and at three main levels: university, city and nation.

International students at Flinders University account for 20% of students and over 10% of total revenue.  Sustaining this income is prominent in the university’s Risk Management Framework.  Key sustainability initiatives include:

•    Projecting and protecting the University’s reputation and brand across the major market regions

•    Diversifying markets to reduce risk and ensure a mix of students on campus

•    Addressing the on-campus needs of international students, and building the international alumni network, knowing the significance of word-of-mouth communication

•    Building links between international students and the local community, including, for instance, supporting international students involvement in voluntary community service activities

At the next level, international students live, shop, and entertain themselves in the city and mix with the community.  It is therefore important that this experience, which is beyond the reach of a single university, is also carefully nurtured. 

The SA universities joined with the state government, and the City of Adelaide, to form Education Adelaide in 1998.  Since a refocusing of the organization in 2004, one of the three main goals has been to foster and improve the links between students and the residents of Adelaide.  Education Adelaide’s ability to bring together people from the universities, local authorities and students proved particularly helpful in 2006 when there were a number of attacks on Indian students in the northern suburbs. 

Moreover, it is vital that the local community understands the benefits that international education brings to the city.  Some in the community find the influx of young foreign students confronting.  Concerns that international students are squeezing local students out of universities, or that universities are dumbing down, sometimes surface.  Education Adelaide has a strategy to build connections with residents, and to explain through the media the contribution these students make to the city’s economy and the vibrancy they add to the city.

Nationally, maintaining Australia’s overall reputation as an education provider is crucial to sustainability.  The universities maintain a regular dialogue with Australian Education International (AEI), within the Department of Education, Science and Training.  The international network of science and education counselors in Australian Embassy’s provides both important intelligence and a voice in intergovernmental dialogues.  AEI has devised and recently refreshed the Study in Australia brand. 

Brand management, and the science and education counselors face-to-face role, are critical factors in the overall sustainability of international education.  They reinforce the idea of Australia as a quality education destination. 

Australian universities compete fiercely with one another, and with their overseas competitors.  However, the ability to link their individual strategies with state and national initiatives has been very important to their overall success, and critical to their ability to sustain their success in international education.


The commercial challenge is not universities only sustainability issue.  As major institutions in the community, often occupying large campuses, universities have a significant environmental footprint.  Moreover, they invariably employ staff who research and teach on sustainability, and exhort business and governments to take these issues seriously.  They therefore must themselves engage in environmentally sustainable practices to avoid charges of hypocrisy.  Environmentally sustainable practice in universities is a moral imperative. 

Universities are responding.  A Google search of ‘sustainable universities’ came up with 1,290,000 items.  For comparison, there were 6,700,000 items on sustainable companies.

The University of Ballarat has produced and published its 2006 Sustainability Report.  The Victorian universities have been encouraged by the state government to reduce their energy consumption by 20% over the next three years.

The 120 UK universities have been ranked according to their environmental friendliness by a student group called People and Planet (Education Guardian, 15 June 2007).  The Green League 2007 measures centre on waste recycling, renewable energy levels, carbon emissions, green travel plans, fair trade status and environmental staff employed.  The new British universities did best on the ranking.  Leeds Metropolitan, Plymouth and Hertfordshire filled the top three places.  Another new institution, Bradford University, announced in 2005 it was ‘England’s first ecoversity, a campus where sustainability comes first’ (Education Guardian, 15 November 2005).


I will look again at Flinders University.  It is located on an 180 hectare campus in the southern foothills overlooking Adelaide.  The green campus environment is a major attraction for students.  It was not always so.  Prior to the commencement of building in the early 1960s, the site was described by Don Dunstan as a mere ‘suburban paddock’ (Hilliard 1991 p 9). 

Now a University with around 16,000 students, it offers a range of undergraduate and postgraduate environmental courses in Environmental Management; Environmental Health; Environmental Science; Biodiversity and Conservation; Ecotourism; and Wildlife Photography

Since 2001 a strategic goal has been to ‘be a good corporate citizen’.  Specifically, we have planned to ‘engage in environmentally responsible practices’, ‘improve the environmental management of the University and work towards an environmentally sustainable campus’ (Flinders Way.  Strategic Planning and Quality Assurance). 

The University has phased in a range of practices to improve its environmental management and reduce its impact.  These include:

•    A 20 year land management plan to improve the local environment and enhance the biodiversity of the campus.  This includes, for instance, the reduction of introduced species, such as olive trees, and, in due course, the planted forest on campus.

•    The Green Transport Office advises on car pooling, use of bicycles etc for staff and students.

•    Recycling of cardboard, paper, plastic bottles, cans and fluorescent tubes.  A dedicated arrangement is in place for the recycling of old computers.  And a new waste control contract requires the contractor to report on how the waste is disposed.

•    The progressive installation of energy efficient lighting, and more energy efficient air conditioning

•    The purchase of green electricity, commencing with between 10% and 20% of the current electricity supply.

Lowering water usage has been a priority (On Campus, 17-30 September 2007).  Flinders is one of the 20 largest water consumers in South Australia, and significant savings can be achieved.  Measures include:

•    Reducing lawn areas and replacing spent vegetation with drought tolerant species

•    Significant changes to irrigation systems used throughout the campus

•    Academics from the Centre for Groundwater Studies, a research centre of national and international significance, have been commissioned to determine how to eliminate the need to top up the lake with mains water during the summer.

The environment program is managed through the Buildings and Property Division, supported by an Environmental Management Sub-Committee.  To provide transparency, the Flinders website has data showing measures of per capita consumption of gas, electricity and water, and CO2 emissions.  Comments on environmental aspects of the campus can be emailed to a dedicated address.

A program has recently commenced to prepare a comprehensive audit of the environmental footprint of the University.  The 12 month study will identify key aspects of the Flinders environment, and methods to reduce the environmental impact.  Greenhouse gas emissions will be central, but not the only factor to consider.  The audit has three main components. 

First, the analysis of activities on campus that have a significant environmental impact.  For example, the impact of the motor vehicle fleet of around 100 on CO2 emissions.

Second, an analysis of the supply chain to determine the impact of significant university purchases.  The assessment of purchased electricity is already being done, but is illustrative of the focus of this part.  The university’s procurement staff will assist in this, and the study will assess the costs associated with purchasing goods and services with reduced environmental impacts.

Third, an examination of all the other activities contributing to the environmental footprint of the university.  For example, the embedded carbon in travel-related matters.  Air travel, particularly international air travel, will be very important.  Some 2,200 international students study on campus, and staff travel on several hundred overseas trips per year.  We want to identify the full range of environmental impacts.

Flinders has several regional campuses including the Lincoln Marine Science Centre in Port Lincoln, the Centre for Remote Health in Alice Springs, and rural and remote health facilities in Darwin, Katherine, the Riverland in South Australia, and through the south east of SA and western Victoria.  It also has transnational education programs in several cities in China, along with Malaysia, Singapore and Norway.  It is not intended to include any of these in the current audit, because, compared to the main campus in Adelaide, they are quite small.

Expertise associated with the University will be the primary source for the study.  For example, we will draw on the skills within Flinders Bio, a University bioremediation company, and other forms of environmental practice.  It is important that academic staff and students are involved in the study.  They have lobbied for it in the past, and it will be important that they contribute to its production, and see the study as being an organic strategy of the University.

Some will say we should use independent auditors to ensure objectivity and to get Australian Greenhouse Office recognition.  However, we will deal with that in the next phase of work.  In the current phase we want to give staff and students the opportunity to bid for, and undertake, the work required.

In the second half of 2008 a comprehensive environmental strategy and sustainability report for the University will be prepared.

Finally, Flinders University is also a part of the southern Adelaide community.  In 2006 a program to support the environmental needs of local businesses was established, modeled on an initiative we had seen at the University of East Anglia in the UK.  It is called BRASH, which is short for Business and Research Alliance for Sustainable Habitats.  It draws on staff and student expertise within Flinders, and it is designed specifically to help small and medium enterprises develop environmental strategies and meet their environmental obligations.  I will talk about it at a session later in the day.


I have focused on just two sustainability issues – the commercially significant international students, and the environment of university campuses.  There remain challenges ahead.  These include integrating sustainability principles into core strategies and then sustaining the current interest in sustainability.  Establishing a culture of sustainability will test University managers, but there is much to gain.

In the words of Dan Quayle: ‘the future will be better tomorrow’.


Department of Education, Science and Training, 2006 Higher Education Report 2005, Canberra.

Giradet, Herbert 2004 Creating a Sustainable Adelaide, Adelaide Thinkers in Residence, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Adelaide.

Hare, Julie 2007 “The bigger picture” Campus Review, 9 October 2007, Vol 17, No 40, p 13.

Hilliard, David 1991 Flinders University: The First 25 Years, 1966-1991, Flinders Press, Adelaide.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W. Behrens III 1972 The Limits to Growth, Universe Books, New York.

Molas-Gallart, J, A. Salter, P. Patel, A. Scott, and X. Duran 2002 Measuring Third Stream Activities: Final Report to the Russell Group of Universities, Science and Technology Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, Brighton.

The Green League 2007 <http:///>

Truss, Warren 2007 Trade Statement, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division 2006 World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision

Wheeler, Stephen M. and Timothy Beatley (eds) 2004 The Sustainable Urban Development Reader, Routledge, London.

World Commission on Environment and Development 1987 Our Common Future.  The Brundtland Commission Report.