Are higher education institutions equipping grads to be “future-fit” when it comes to sustainability competence?

Published on June 7, 2019

As society hurtles towards two billion more people on the earth by 2050, our consumption and production systems will need re-engineering so all nine billion of us can live well within our planetary boundaries. This will require a major rethink of how our businesses, governments and civil society organizations operate so they can steer us towards this sustainable future. Canada’s workforce, including new grads and established professionals, will need the skills and know-how to foster this transformation. Some of these professional skills include systems thinking, sustainability literacy, social innovation, external collaboration and values engagement. According to this global scan, professionals will need these skills to ensure their organizations are “future-fit”.

But are higher education institutions doing enough to equip our professionals for these roles? Not according to this new study.

The Canadian government sought to understand the current and ideal state of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in university teaching and research and commissioned a study to explore this topic. (For the purposes of the study, CSR and sustainability are used interchangeably, although as revealed in this other study funded by the federal government on strategies to scale CSR in business, companies are starting to abandon the term CSR.)

In February 2019, representatives from 17 “CSR” institutes, programs and centres of excellence at post-secondary institutions across Canada were interviewed for their views and opinions (note that five centres use the term sustainability, four use the term CSR, three use the term social or community innovation, along with other terms in their titles).

The most significant conclusion of the study? Many interviewees say CSR is not well-integrated into the academic curriculum, and that many students lack exposure to CSR. Students should be learning how to navigate organizations, value chains and communities so society can live within a safe and just operating space in future, and yet it appears they are not graduating with this perspective.

There are also diverse approaches to CSR education across the institutions represented in the study. There are mandatory and elective CSR courses at some institutions, others embed CSR in all courses, while others offer CSR specializations. This diversity is fed by a lack of standardization on CSR competencies for professionals to inform academic curriculum.

Interviewees identified several barriers to CSR integration, from inertia to lack of support and incentives from senior administration. In some cases, faculty lack the expertise, standards, materials and time to teach on the topic. The lack of demand for CSR education from accreditation bodies, national occupational standards and employers is another barrier. Until CSR is seen as a core part of business, program directors who shape the curriculum will treat it as optional.

Our institution does not have a cohesive institutional strategy on CSR integration as it depends on the interests of individual faculty members.

To address these barriers, respondents suggested that administrative leadership, incentives and standards are necessary. Top identified ways for the federal government to address this integration gap were to raise the bar for CSR performance through legislation, regulation and mandatory CSR reporting, and to provide additional funding to institutions for curriculum development.

And what about continuing and executive education – where professionals go to enhance and upgrade their skills? While interviewees believe CSR should be a standard component of executive upgrading programs (because this exposure was missing from their original education and CSR trends and approaches keep evolving) it is not routinely offered at institutions. Some provide specialized CSR executive education, but most do not fully embed CSR into mainstream programs. The identified reason for it not being more widely offered was lack of market demand and lack of funding. Another barrier is the lack of agreement on a core set of CSR skills, knowledge and learning outcomes around which schools (e.g. business, science, engineering, law, medicine and trades) can build programs and courses.

On the other hand, while CSR integration in curriculum is incomplete, the study found that all institutions are engaged in CSR research (though notably few use the language of CSR in their research). Top topics include:

  • Social entrepreneurship and social enterprise
  • Sustainable, responsible and impact investment / finance
  • Social innovation
  • Sustainable cities
  • Corporate sustainability strategy

One institution is studying next generation skills in CSR (in collaboration with the author) to help it identify areas where it can upgrade its CSR course offerings to reflect the changing nature of CSR in business.

Institutions were not asked to describe current efforts to revamp business schools or other programs that will increase CSR education and student exposure to social responsibility in business. However, this trend is underway within some universities. Simon Fraser University’s business school, for example, recently updated its mission: “We develop innovative and socially responsible business leaders with a global perspective through education, inspired by research and grounded in practice.”

How can institutions close the gap in CSR education and engage the private sector in impactful CSR? Interviewees offered these ideas as a template for progress:

  • Teaching: Educate future leaders and future management on CSR – teach and sensitize students to the idea that businesses should be about more than just the financial bottom line; broaden the horizon of all students regarding the role of business, science, law and technology in society
  • Research: Conduct research on CSR trends and frameworks – engage in global research on how companies around the world embrace CSR and integrate it right across the company
  • Collaboration: Engage in collaboration with the private, non-profit and public sectors to develop solutions to identified societal problems
  • Institutional Resources: Harness university resources to contribute to the social infrastructure of communities and use their resources as anchor institutions to mobilize social change
  • Thought Leadership: Offer thought leadership on how the private sector can move the needle to address societal challenges in collaboration with post-secondary institutions

Post-secondary institutions are on the front line when it comes to preparing the leaders of tomorrow. Society is counting on these institutions to equip business leaders with the mindsets and skillsets to ensure our organizations operate within planetary boundaries where no one is left behind. This study reveals a gap between the potential and the reality of this aspiration, and sheds light on the path to bridge this gap. Canada’s academic institutions can lead the way, and help Canadians lead the world.

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