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Communicating the sustainability message in higher education institutions
A. Djordjevic
Education for Sustainability Project, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK, and

The sustainability message 381
Received 10 November 2010 Revised 10 March 2011 Accepted 30 May 2011

D.R.E. Cotton
Teaching and Learning Directorate, University of Plymouth, Plymouth, UK
Abstract
Purpose – This paper aims to explore the possibilities and problems with engaging in effective communication about sustainability in higher education (SHE) institutions. Design/methodology/approach – Using a case study of a new (post-1992) university in the UK, the research investigated the ways in which sustainability issues were communicated with staff across the institution, and any barriers encountered. Semi-structured interviews and a focus group with selected staff led to the development of four key themes related to different aspects of the communication strategy, and it is these which are explored in this paper. Findings – This research suggests that there are some particular difficulties with regard to communicating messages about sustainability successfully. These relate to the lack of an agreed definition or shared understanding of sustainability, and also to potential individual differences in values and attitudes which may act as a perceptual filter of the message. Research limitations/implications – This is a small-scale project so findings should be treated with caution. However, the lack of previous research in this area gives this interest as an exploratory study. Practical implications – In the context of a large organisation, the research emphasizes the importance of alignment of institutional strategies, in order to provide a coherent view of what the organisation expects from employees. This needs to be supported by staff at the highest level, in order for it to have the maximum impact. Originality/value – This paper is the first to use a model of organisational communication to analyse and evaluate the effectiveness of communication around SHE context. Keywords United Kingdom, Universities, Communication management, Sustainability, Higher education, Marketing Paper type Research paper

1. Introduction There has been a growing awareness in national and international policies of the need to integrate sustainability into both business and educational arenas. As one of the largest industries in the world, and one in which “ [. . .] the specialists of most industries in this economy were trained [. . .] ” (M’Gonigle and Starke, 2006, p. 36), higher education (HE) clearly has a key role to play. Education for sustainable development (ESD) is an issue of increasing importance in HE, steadily infusing the campus, curriculum, community and culture of many institutions (Dyer et al., 2006). According to UNESCO, ESD is “a process of learning how to make decisions that consider the long-term future of the economy, ecology and equity of all communities” (UNESCO, 2004). Viewed as an institution-wide issue, sustainability has the potential to become “a gateway to a different view

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education Vol. 12 No. 4, 2011 pp. 381-394 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 1467-6370 DOI 10.1108/14676371111168296

and the communication will be ineffective if it is not received or not fully understood. 1993). 2006). sustainable procurement offices to manage the institution’s day to day business. telling the transmitter if the message has been received and how it was decoded. p. may be successful in transmitting information. lack of shared .IJSHE 12. who then decode it. Where the aim of communication is a change in knowledge. Nonetheless. However. communication of sustainability messages (such as campaigns to increase recycling or – more controversially – to include sustainability in the curriculum) is problematic in the HE context – underlying belief structures intrinsic to HE (such as independence of thought and critical thinking) may conflict with the attitudinal implications of the sustainability message (Cotton et al. of pedagogy. A report by Forum for the Future & HEPS (2004) describes communication as “crucial in engaging universities and colleges with the sustainable development (SD) agenda” (p. noting that habits. perceptual filters are a key element in the communication process. and this can be explored using a model of the interpersonal communication process offered by Huczynski and Buchanan (2007). communication is essentially a social affair (Corner and Hawthorn. effective organisational communication – conveying meaning from sender to receiver – is a key part of the move towards more sustainable universities. Specific changes which have been made in successful sustainable universities include: teaching and learning and research policies with sustainability as a key theme. This model positions the message-sender as a transmitter who encodes the message.. It is clear that whilst awareness-raising campaigns. 1999. In a potentially contested area such as sustainability. Barriers to effective communication include lack of clarity in message formulation. 2004. messages cannot be seen as defined entities. which then travels through communication channels to the receiver(s). changes to core processes such as course validation and monitoring to enhance sustainability content. which are commonly used in the public sector. 15). drawing together campus changes. social norms and environmental factors may intervene between attitudes and behaviours. curriculum development and pedagogic reform.4 382 of curriculum. 2007). scanty and predicting an individual’s behaviour from their knowledge or attitudes is unreliable – leading McGuire to describe low attitude-behaviour correlation as “the scandal of social psychology” (McGuire. paper use and recycling. If we apply the communication model by Huczynski and Buchanan (2007). p. In this sense. However. The attitudes of both sender and receiver play a central role in influencing the message and its reception. Arbuthnott (2009) echoes this finding in the context of sustainability. the evidence in support of this link is. communicating information effectively is an essential first stage. The process is completed by feedback travelling in the opposite direction. a shared understanding of the message is even more important. of organizational change. of policy and particularly of ethos” (Sterling. and campaigns to change behaviours of staff and students regarding electricity. Yet. attitude or behaviour. perceptual filters can distort the meaning of the message. 50). then the reality is that these “perceptual filters” continuously intervene between sender and recipient. they often fail to make a difference to behaviour (McKenzie-Mohr and Smith. inaccurate preconceptions on the part of the sender about the recipient. at best. An underlying assumption of much research into communication is that receiving new information leads to changes in attitude or behaviour. separate from the context and the worldview of the recipient. During both coding and decoding. 326).

since messages are more easily misread than in face-to-face communication. they aim to remove barriers to behavioural change and at the same time to offer incentives for the desired behaviour. as a way of enhancing employee commitment. 2007. and use of “jargon” or symbolic language which is open to differential interpretations (Rollinson. such as perceptions. provide feedback (show effectiveness of new behaviour). segmenting the target audience and designing communication strategies for target audiences. When developing a strategy for social marketing. emphasize personal contact (provide opportunities for people to talk to one another). 1991. use captivating information (grab attention by using vivid. p. 181). p. Similarly. Use of electronic communication channels may add to the problems of noise. as in other organisations. . and . electronic communication is increasingly prevalent in organisational settings. “interactive processes are an essential feature of sustainability communication”. due to its flexibility and efficiency. and a reduction in the capacity of recipients to decode even those messages which are relevant and important (an issue identified and discussed in higher education institutions (HEIs) by Conroy (2007). . Franz-Balsen and Heinrichs (2007. information overload in many organisations leads to incoming e-mail traffic being widely ignored. p. performance. internal communication is an important tool in enhancing the understanding of corporate strategy. The sustainability message 383 . 623). Nonetheless. effective internal communication is present in organisations where employees are well-informed about the future directions of the organisation and at the same time have influence on decision-making processes. integrity and trustworthiness” (Rollinson. Suggestions for effective communication include: . and are less effective at conveying “honesty. . 2008. p. This is a point of major importance in communicating issues relating to sustainability. beliefs and the behaviour of the audience). since it does minimum harm to the environment and saves paper use. given the democratic ideals of many sustainability advocates. 212). It may also be valued from the sustainability point of view. Brassington and Pettitt. use a credible source (trustworthy transmitter of the message). In addition to these basic functions. Literature on communication about sustainability is mostly found in the area of social marketing. motives and emotions (Huczynski and Buchanan. face-to-face communication around sustainability is recommended as a primary approach by Sharp (2002). Effective internal communication is a key issue for HEIs. motivation and empowerment. strengthening corporate culture and enabling change (Fowler. This “combining of upward and downward communication is especially important during processes of organisational change in order to get employees to commit to the change and to make the change happen” (Cornelissen. mission and values. For this reason. McKenzie-Mohr and Smith (2006) apply the standard marketing strategy of analysing target behaviour. provide personal or community goals (or targets to help with motivation). make your message easy to remember and focus on action.understanding between sender and receiver. . personal and concrete information). Moreover. 435) note that. According to Cornelissen (2008). know your audience (research attitudes. 2007). . 2002). 2002. Noise in the channel is another widespread communication barrier: the message changes while travelling from sender to receiver because of intervening influences.

and HE is no exception. . Target audiences are predominantly staff. 793). and effective communication in this area is likely to be complex. p. 2006. Communication is clearly essential to effective change management and organisational learning.). Change towards sustainability requires buy-in from a wide range of individuals and groups within the organisation. education. is maintained by students on industrial placement in the team. 310) uses the auditing instrument for sustainability in higher education to show that “communication about sustainability is. and between the university and its students.” (Lozano. etc. a main point for improvement”. The web site is dynamic. Context This research was carried out at a new university (designated post-1992) in the UK. providing personal contact and feedback. and by making the message motivating. communicating about sustainability is a tricky business: “Sustainability is a complex field so it can be very difficult to frame messages so they don’t just confuse people” (Hitchcock and Willard. Nonetheless. It is significant that . 2. with content being updated regularly in-house. content-management based and therefore more rigid. His recommendation is that organisations provide “the necessary information and skills to all the stakeholders through different media (such as internet. which is a proprietary (closed-source) system. on-line and in paper form (available on campus and on request). 200).4 384 Applying the Huczynski and Buchanan (2007) communication model to this concept. and enable the use of interactive approaches. with a special focus on educating the educators. It is clear that many organisations stumble at this hurdle. 2006. developed by a team of staff and students. p. but contents are relevant to present and prospective students. A web site based on open-source web 2 technology. with occasional external partners or visitors. alumni. the local community and HE sector generally. easy to remember and tailored to the audience. . The institution is widely regarded as having strong sustainability credentials and communication of the sustainability agenda is undertaken using a range of strategies: . This study grew from a desire to investigate further the potential communication issues in a HE setting. it is noteworthy that these suggestions are aimed at the removal of communication barriers: the message is likely to suffer less distortion through encoding and decoding if it is captivating.IJSHE 12. Contributors are mostly staff and students. It is loosely linked to the main university web site. Particular issues identified include poor communication between management and staff. It is available electronically. noise in the channel will be minimised by using a credible source. Lozano (2006) uses innovation theory to help understand the process of incorporation of SD into HE. without any exception. This is problematic given the key role played by staff and students in embracing sustainability and integrating it in core activities. Sustainability Staff Development Courses are offered to university staff via a Development Activities Programme in order to explore the concept of sustainability in a university context. Roorda (2004. A newsletter about sustainability at the university and across the HE sector distributed three times per year. p. An Occasional Paper Series presents research about different aspects of sustainability in the university and HE sector in general.

since it is considered a leader in this area. Within the case study institution. definitions. This is an innovative way for a university to communicate with its staff. A “purposive sampling” approach (Patton. to capture the “essence and ambience” of the context. 1995) to explore the issue of communication about sustainability in a single HEI. in particular. featuring guest speakers from different disciplines committed to sustainability study and action. noting the advantage of the additional weight this would carry. An annual conference attracting a wide range of speakers and delegates across the public and private sector. and a further seven members of staff with less close connection to the centre took part in a focus group discussion. in order to explore their understandings of sustainability and. One of the recommendations in this study was that the university should review the internal marketing of sustainability and ensure it went hand in hand with external marketing. a mixture of focus group and individual interviews were conducted with a range of stakeholders. the first issue in this series looked at how the university could use its sustainability credentials in its marketing policy. and . Methodology This study used an instrumental case study approach (Stake. 2005) were selected for interview. including the director of a centre for ESD at the university. symbols and descriptions of things” (Berg. characteristics. of the kind that is normally used for commercial purposes. The case study approach. . multi-layered issue such as sustainability. a range of staff who had strong or weaker links with the Centre for ESD. Whilst this is not a large . . 3). metaphors. students and the local community. 3. p. A Seminar Series with an interdisciplinary approach. a mix of academic and professional services staff. using qualitative methods. a centre fellow and a steering group member). The Green Screen: a large urban permanent screen located on campus. a mix of genders and disciplines. concepts. The HEI selected was considered to provide strong possibilities for exploring sustainability. The sustainability message 385 It is clear that a range of communication strategies have been piloted involving both one-way and two-way communication methods.. the “meanings. . their views on the effectiveness of different communication methods in this area. members of staff at the university with some experience or interest in sustainability. In total 25 staff with different connections to the ESD centre were invited to participate. Key informants ( Jankowicz. and ten staff ultimately took part in the research – three key informants with close links to the ESD centre were interviewed (the director of the centre. Criteria for selection of respondents included the following: . was felt to provide strong potential to explore a complex. It is powered by low energy LEDs. 1990) was taken in order to maximize the opportunity to learn from a wide range of respondents. 2001. therefore this provides an interesting context in which to investigate the effectiveness of communication around sustainability. . and has been nationally recognised for its achievements in sustainability.

and (4) needs and expectations of staff members. and their communication management. followed by introductory questions about the centre for ESD. It could be argued that what the project lacked in breadth. The director noted: . and specific references to communication strengths and weaknesses. 1998). 2005). whilst the last two themes are concerned mainly with perceptual filters at work in this context.4 386 number of respondents. looking for similarities and differences between accounts. Findings When answering questions participants talked about their perceptions of the sustainability team. an iterative process of reading and re-reading data. by using “theoretical inference” (Hammersley. The project conformed to the ethical principles and procedures of the university.1 Theme 1: the contested definition of sustainability This issue was of concern to the sustainability team right from the start.IJSHE 12. and the tension between imparting a simple message. Clearly. Four themes emerged across all interviews: (1) the contested definition of sustainability. The questions were developed following recommendations by Krueger (1998). but without oversimplifying to the point of making the concept entirely meaningless was a matter of some debate. their activities. They also discussed the integration of sustainability messages with communication about other university agendas. (3) resistance to change. Data were analysed using the constant comparative method to draw out cross-cutting themes (Silverman. They were also told that their names would not be used in this project. The first two themes focus primarily on the message content and how it is encoded and decoded in the light of “noise” in the communication channel. those selected offered a range of different perspectives on the effectiveness of communications around sustainability. The interviews started with an opening question about the background of the participant. 4. The participants had an option to withdraw from the research at any time and request that their data be removed from the data set. All participants were informed about the purpose of the research and that interviews would be digitally recorded and transcribed. concluding with an open-ended question eliciting further suggestions or any points missed. Any theoretical understanding thus produced should be considered provisional in nature and would benefit from further investigation. the degree of generalisation which can be made from such a sample is limited. 4. it made up for in depth. However. The key questions about effectiveness of communication and behavioural change followed. and participants in individual interviews were offered the opportunity to read transcripts of their interviews and check them for accuracy. and the discussions were lengthy and wide-ranging. These themes are discussed below in relation to different aspects of communication. (2) conflict with university mission. and also included a question about evaluation of the centre’s communication. it is possible to use the data collected to theorise about the possible wider applicability of the findings about communication of sustainability issues. The key-informant interview was more comprehensive and in-depth.

However. . It is clear that the longstanding failure to agree on a definition of sustainability limits the potential for successful communication. .2 Theme 2: conflict with university mission This theme was concerned with the way in which sustainability was embedded (or not) in the mission. contested field. There is some evidence that the interpretation of sustainability by the core team was simply too complex to be easily understood by the majority of recipients. Without a clear delineation of the content of the message. since he also comments that: Despite our holistic rendition of sustainability. 4.] It became strategically important to diversify understandings and messages about sustainability [. awash with controversy and difference of opinion? [.] and [.] pique the interest of different groups. Gough (2002) notes that: “[. . it is unlikely to be acted upon. difficult. it should also be noted that previous research indicates that strong .” My [. It is interesting to note these responses. “definition dementia” to describe the varied range of understandings of sustainability. That is a turn-off. I am sure there are thousands of people across this University who have not bothered to listen because they think sustainability is about the environment and that’s not for them. . if the sender and receiver are not clear about the content of the message. in some cases. what it meant: As a one word entity it’s – it’s too inaccessible for somebody who isn’t involved to kind of get hold of it.] a field incapable of establishing agreed definitions of its most basic terminology seems unlikely to make any other sort of progress”. The sustainability message 387 However. A number of respondents felt that there was a lack of commitment from the top: the perceived low priority given to sustainability by senior managers (and. almost sound bite definition. the success of this approach was somewhat questionable. and were not told. It [uncertainty] is something that’s high level institutional at the moment.] Head of Department appointed me to deal with it. This issue has been noted in much previous research. One focus group discussion offered a clear account of how difficult it was for individuals to engage with the concept of sustainability if they were not certain. . . with a general consensus that in such conditions staff could not be expected to engage with the issue deeply: It [the team’s message] hasn’t been given the institutional authority. given the university’s apparent – and widely publicized – commitments to sustainability. The lack of definition doesn’t help. . leading Reid and Petocz to coin the phrase. One would anticipate that this might be even more of a limiting factor in universities where sustainability is not seen as a key issue. . . the communication between sender and receiver is unlikely to be effective. vision and organisational culture of the university.Do we go for precise. This illustrates an underlying difficulty with communicating the sustainability message itself. . departmental heads) was a common theme across all interviews. or do we convey this as a diverse. Irrespective of communication channels.

.4 388 institutional support in this area can be a double-edged sword: Cotton et al. 4. structure and institutional culture – despite the potential for linking the sustainability agenda with other current issues such as employability. Another view was that humans focus on problems at hand and find it difficult to relate to problems that might affect future generations: It’ll be somebody else’s [future generations’] problem. The director of the sustainability core team described such attitudes as forming part of a wider “disassociation from nature”. and resistance to change. The university is on loads of initiatives all over the place. Previous studies including Dawe et al. yet this clearly illustrates the gulf in understanding between the sender and receivers of the sustainability message: A lot of the sustainability problem [. The [university] strategy documents do not talk to each other – they are saying different things. It’s the way that evolution works. . “noise” from other strategic documents and statements appeared to be a key element in reducing the impact of communications about sustainability. its policies.] the change in their behaviour. They see these kinds of things as [. Alongside the perceived lack of support from senior managers. In this environment sustainability messages were seen as tokenistic and lacking credibility.IJSHE 12. It was felt that the concept of sustainable behaviour might be too aspirational and that. participants also expressed concerns about the apparent limited alignment of sustainability with other institutional priorities: . Again. humans would choose not to behave in a sustainable manner for reasons of pure selfishness: We are all greedy selfish people. this idea of academics as somehow “resistant” to embedding sustainability has been noted in previous research.] is the product of a process of disassociation. People resent [. Crucially. inter-disciplinarity and internationalisation. it ain’t going to affect us.] restrictions. (2005). . . . and disassociation from self. participants talked about human nature. . of disassociation from nature. In addition. The message about sustainability was seen by many staff as being “disjointed” from the university mainstream.3 Theme 3: resistance to change On numerous occasions during interviews. staff felt overloaded with trying to respond to different strategic agendas. . by default. . (2009) state that. It is evident that these were widely held views and enabled receivers of the message to believe that they did not have to respond. “one risk arising from strong leadership is that sustainable development may be viewed as another imposed agenda” and that resistance to change may actually be increased in these circumstances. of disassociation from reality. and in this context sustainability was frequently not viewed as the number one priority.

Again. 4. as described by Becher and Trowler (2001). with students passing through in cycles and moving on after relatively short periods of time: It [the population of the University] is a shifting thing. and therefore interpret it in different ways. and the divide between those two groups is well known within the sector. whilst it has some benefits in apparently enabling diverse interest groups to converge (Stables and Scott. If they are targeted with messages that do not relate to their needs. However.Velazquez et al. staff members fall into different groups in many other ways: those who teach and work with students and those who do not. this illustrates some specific difficulties concerning communication around sustainability. Subject-specific groups and their associated “territories” are another area of staff division. Theme 3 illustrates quite clearly the potential impact of perceptual filters on the message received. The sustainability message 389 Sustainability. and they engage with different aspects of sustainability. and this will clearly influence the way in which messages are perceived by the receiver. Each of these groups has their own specific needs and expectations. To what extent these two aims can be reconciled is unclear. Whilst the search for an agreed definition remains a seemingly unattainable goal. those who work in faculties and those who work in central services. (2005) and Lozano (2006) have identified lecturers’ beliefs and attitudes as barriers to implementation of sustainability initiatives in HE.4 Theme 4: needs and expectations Another example of perceptual filters at work arose in relation to sending out messages to different groups of staff in the organisation. Transience is a key characteristic of the HE population. 2002). however. Participants had very concrete suggestions about what kind of communication and initiatives they thought would be welcome. Another issue which arose from this research concerned the dominance of short-term thinking in HE. employees generally fall into two categories: academic and professional support staff. Deep-rooted values and less visible manifestations of behaviour can be easily overlooked by some of “transient” population of a university. It is clear that the sender and receiver in this context place different value on the message transmitted. [In one of central departments] if you use the word sustainability they would think about sustainable bottom line. is a long-term concept in which immediate visible results are uncommon. tensions may arise: They [academic staff from specific subject groups] basically wanted this to be a project which fitted in with their view of sustainability (Director of the sustainability team). They expressed a need for messages which took into account the difficulties they faced at work on a daily basis. also raises some problematic issues for communication. what . The notion of sustainability has developed a rhetorical ambiguity which. recipients of sustainability communications express a need for tailored messages which recognise their individual context. [In one of Faculties] whether you like it or not you adhere to the principle and it’s got to be the same with this. In HE. However. and this may infiltrate thinking more widely.

It is clear that the impacts of the sustainability message were constrained. 390 They should have people alongside us and to actually engage and see what we do on a day-to-day basis. staff did report a range of behaviour change outcomes that had come about at least in part because of the communication around sustainability.4 they actually received was. More people turning their computers off at night. as well as getting the University through the process of obtaining the ISO14001 Quality Assurance Certificate. inaccessible suggestions for action: I need some guidance as to which of these things do I do because I’m either going to miss this target or miss that target and I can’t decide with my limited decision making capacities and freedom for movement. really accessible documents. However. Reported impacts The themes described above and the reported barriers to communication give an insight into the difficulties of communicating sustainability messages within a large and complex organisation. . The organisation was seen as effecting policy change on the institutional level by bringing about the university Sustainability Policy and Strategic Action Plan. and that messages should be adapted much more specifically to the intended audience. More people recycling and using recycling bins. and the changes that were made were often related to resource use rather than changes to the curriculum or pedagogies. 5. others are of potentially wider concern within organisations. Participants generally felt that staff in the sustainability unit were not in touch with the reality of their daily work. influencing individuals’ behaviour is an on-going challenge. in the main. This suggests that communication about sustainability should be much more of a two way process. People starting to challenge the way “things are done”. These included: . intended for all staff and frequently containing utopian. They also felt that they needed their voice to be heard and listened to as they could offer a contribution towards solutions: Some of the environmental things that we’ve had imposed upon us have been bad for us and difficult for us to deal with.IJSHE 12. Really brief. There is no one place where everybody feels welcome and interested and curious [about sustainability] to come along to. and this had an impact on the way in which messages were decoded. Nonetheless. yet I’ve got to choose. Whilst some are specific to the HE context. owing both to factors relating to the message itself and also to the channels of communication which were used. . and how some colleagues have started to openly question this approach. . generic communication. Empowerment of some staff members to change their work practices. . An example was given of the research practice which encourages academics to “fly around giving papers”.

or where they hold strong views. Applying the model of communication by Huczynski and Buchanan (2007) to sustainability. In the context of a large organisation. This may be exacerbated where the sender is very knowledgeable about the topic. this should be supported by staff at the highest level. .6. the message senders (largely originating from the ESD centre) tended to have rather complex multi-faceted views of what changes with respect to sustainability might look like (for example in terms of curriculum or pedagogic transformation). . as did the perceived lack of institutional support. failure to engage in dialogue with staff. whereas recipients often viewed appropriate changes to be more along the lines of turning off lights and using less paper in printing. Whilst a survey of senior staff in European universities by Leal Filho (2000) indicated strong support for sustainability in general terms. . Perceptions of the ESD unit in some cases reduced the impact of messages. it is less clear how this engagement led to action in many contexts. and this will limit the impact of any intended changes to behaviour. while the process of decoding the message is also problematic. the research also identified the following key communication barriers: . the lack of an agreed definition or shared understanding of sustainability. . The sustainability message 391 . it is clear that the process of encoding the message is difficult due to the complexity of the issues. Message sent is too complex and is not sufficiently contextualised for the recipient. which may not align with their intended audience. Excessive focus on electronic communication channels. Overly top-down approach to communication by the institution. The integrity of the message is likely to suffer significantly in these circumstances. Our research also suggests that. The sender lacks authority with a group of recipients (perhaps due to differing disciplinary origins). associated with the sheer number and range of messages coming from the university leading to information overload. In these circumstances. rather than face-to-face interactions. Noise in the channel. Recipient therefore perceives that the message does not apply to him/ her. Conclusions Although there were a number of examples of successful communication of messages and ensuing behaviour change. in order to provide a coherent view of what the organisation expects from employees. together with the individual differences in values and attitudes are problematic. For example. Sender and receiver do not share the same understanding about the meaning or value of sustainability. selectivity and perceptions of the receiver can result in distorted messages or communication failure. meaning that the recipient will not act on the communication. Arguably. . in this context. The research findings indicate that there are many barriers to effective communication around sustainability in HE. the research also emphasizes the importance of alignment of institutional strategies. in order for it to have the maximum impact – although the difficulties of imposing organisational change top-down within an academic context should not be under-estimated. due to the perceptual filters of the receivers. In particular.

we would recommend that further research into this issue is conducted. (2009). . and Pettitt. high level support is necessary – but not sufficient. 34 No. J. M. We would recommend avoiding the approach of simply adding sustainability to current communications. it is still necessary to provide a working definition of sustainability in order to enable staff and students to understand the concept. “Skills for the information age”. S. pp. . (2001). Pearson Education. Sustainability messages must be clear. Needham Heights. (2001). Recommendations The key practical recommendations arising from this study can be outlined as follows: .E. Studies in Higher Education. In order to promote wide-scale changes. Cotton. 719-33. Sage. (2007). (Eds) (1993). T.. Warren. F. 2nd ed. 152-63. Berg. J. Allyn and Bacon. Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences. “Education for sustainable development beyond attitude change”. Corner. Edward Arnold. there needs to be a highly consistent and clear communication strategy in order to engender change. J. 7. Vol. in order to see whether the opportunities and barriers identified here are more widely applicable. Harlow. 7. Bailey. precise and coherent. Dialogue and a democratic approach are also essential. yet tailored to the different contexts of recipients.4 despite stringent attempts to engage a wide range of stakeholders. and Bissell. and the need for a democratic approach. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. 1. Vol. 11 No. (2009). I. The limited scope of this project means that its findings and recommendations are necessarily tentative. Communications which are supportive (offered help or guidance) and work from an understanding of the contextual issues are more likely to be successful than attempts to impose changes. Corporate Communication: A Guide to Theory and Practice. Brassington. London. (2007). Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education. 392 . MA. London. We would strongly recommend that a larger-scale study be undertaken.L.. Buckingham. and Hawthorn. pp. K.IJSHE 12. P. (2008). Conroy. In a context where work pressures are increasingly severe. 2. Cornelissen. Despite its widespread use. H.D. sustainability was rarely seen in the light of a dialogue.. 10 No. Further consideration of how staff in widely differing contexts can be engaged in sustainability discussions seems to be needed. References Arbuthnott. S. and a message for university managers appears to be that developing a distinctive niche for their institution rather than trying to communicate and embed a wide range of strategic agendas is more likely to be successful. In addition. This seems crucial in respect of the potential diversity of views on sustainability. Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines. Communication Studies: An Introductory Reader. Becher. pp. B. Essentials of Marketing.R. and Trowler. Vol. D. 18-24. Open University Press/SRHE. “Revolutions and second-best solutions: education for sustainable development in higher education”.

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383-91. Higher Education. sustainability. M. W.. and Wals. and Scott. 53-60. She has subsequently published widely on environmental and sustainability education. D. (2002). Oxford. United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-2014: Draft International Implementation Scheme. A. Stables. Cotton has a doctorate from St Anne’s College. 2nd ed.R. (2006). She is currently Head of Educational Development at the University of Plymouth.emeraldinsight. Paris. 4. A.IJSHE 12. and Petocz. D. Sterling. in Corcoran. N. Djordjevic worked for the University of Plymouth as Centre Manager in the Centre for Sustainable Futures from 2005 to 2010. 51. P.J. Environmental Education Research. pp. About the authors A. and Practice. where she researched environmental education in UK secondary schools.E. P. where she is involved in several interdisciplinary student-facing projects. “The quest for holism in education for sustainable development”. (2004). (Eds). and the role of systemic learning”. as well as on e-learning and student experiences of fieldwork. (1995). 6 No. Stake. pp. 1.4 394 Silverman.E. “University lecturers’ understanding of sustainability”. During her time in Plymouth. (2005). London. Vol. The Art of Case Study Research. “Higher education. she researched sustainability communication as part of her Master in Business Administration course. and Sanchez. She is currently Education for Sustainability Project Co-ordinator at the University of Exeter. 47-70. Kluwer Academic. where she is responsible for educational enhancement and pedagogic research across the institution. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. London. Munguia.ac. (2005). Further reading Reid. S. 105-23.R.com/reprints . “Deterring sustainability in higher education institutions: an appraisal of the factors which influence sustainability in higher education institutions”. UNESCO (2004). L. 8 No. D. Vol. A. pp. Sage. Promise.E. Vol. UNESCO. Sage.uk To purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: reprints@emeraldinsight. Cotton is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: dcotton@plymouth. pp. Higher Education and the Challenge of Sustainability: Problematics. Velazquez. Dordrecht.com Or visit our web site for further details: www. R.B. Doing Qualitative Research.E.