A systems approach to mainstreaming environment and sustainability in universities : the case of Rhodes University, South Africa

Togo, M. (2009) A systems approach to mainstreaming environment and sustainability in universities : the case of Rhodes University, South Africa. PhD thesis, Rhodes University.




This study is influenced by the objectives of the Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in African Universities Partnership which aims to enhance the quality and relevance of university education through implementation of Environmental Education and sustainability across university functions and operations. It contributes to Education for Sustainable Development through the development of tools to assess sustainability in higher education, investigating sustainability practices in universities and proposing strategies for improving mainstreaming of sustainability. It also contributes to systems approaches in mainstreaming contextual sustainability challenges in university functions and operations. The aim of the study was to investigate how universities can mainstream sustainability in their functions and operations in response to contextual sustainability challenges in a changing environment using a systems approach. The research was a case study of Rhodes University in South Africa, which is situated in the impoverished Eastern Cape Province. The study involved 12 teaching departments (representing all faculties at the university), four research units and institutes, five managements units, the Estates Division and the Student Representative Council. The theoretical framework of the study draws from a critical realist ontology and systems thinking epistemology. Systems thinking emphasises the interdependencies of phenomena, thus providing the methodology and tools for a systems view of relationships between education and the environmental context in which it is embedded. Critical realism was employed as an underlabourer to systems thinking as it provides for some of the dimensions absent in systems thinking including its depth ontology which facilitates isolating causal factors influencing empirical reality. It recognises that explanation of phenomena can be embedded in history and acknowledges the fallibility of knowledge. The data collection methods employed in the study include a sustainability assessment using a Unit-based Sustainability Assessment Tool developed as part of the study, interviews, content analyses and observations. Data analyses were performed through employing morphogenetic analysis, and inductive, abductive and retroductive modes of inference. The morphogenetic analysis of social transformation/reproduction was employed to trace the historical emergence of sustainability initiatives at Rhodes University. Induction facilitated reorganisation of the data into themes which particularly represent the main sustainability activities at Rhodes University. Abduction, through recontextualising data in a systems thinking framework, enabled further insights into the phenomena. In the study, it enabled use of systems lenses as a framework and led to identification of systemic issues affecting mainstreaming and later, the development of systems thinking approaches in mainstreaming sustainability. Retroduction enabled identification of causal mechanisms which influenced the emergence of sustainability initiatives at the university. The study established that the emergence of sustainability initiatives at Rhodes University followed the 1990 Talloires Declaration and paralleled international institutional developments in relation to environmental and sustainability challenges. Since then, sustainability initiatives have continuously been emerging in various operational dimensions of the university in line with emerging sustainability challenges which resulted in a morphogenetic cycle. The study revealed that Rhodes University has mainstreamed sustainability across the functions and operations of most of the departments/divisions/units forming part of the study, especially in functions like teaching, research, community engagement and operations. There were a few exceptions like the Human Resources Division and to an extent the Research Office/Management Division which are not yet considering sustainability in their operations. While most of the teaching departments had sustainability initiatives in teaching, research and community engagement, there was diversity in the dimension(s) of sustainable development that the departments addressed and this seemed to relate to the disciplinary content of their subjects. In the Estates Division sustainability initiatives included sustainable landscaping, campus environmental management, water and energy conservation initiatives, waste recycling, use of biodiesel, to mention a few. Students were also involved in various sustainability activities especially through voluntary community engagement initiatives. Sustainability initiatives at the university were also discovered to be embedded within and responding to sustainability challenges of the immediate university environment of Makana District. The study unearthed the causal mechanisms enabling and constraining mainstreaming activities at the university. These were found to be embedded in the history and context within which the university is operating, and other factors related to university structures and agency of lecturers, other employees and students. Examples of these factors are unsustainable patterns in society, policies and the need to redress past inequalities. The study noted the existence of systemic issues at the university which need to be addressed to enable and enhance the promotion of a systems approach to mainstreaming: notably, complexity owing to diversity of approaches employed in mainstreaming, the absence of clearly defined university sustainability goals, problems of institutional support and in some cases, disciplinary governing rules which do not leave room for mainstreaming sustainability. The study established the possibility of improving mainstreaming of sustainability through the adoption of more explicit systems approaches. It suggests use of systems models including the systems-environment model, the functions/structure model and the motion picture model in the process. It recommends making the goal of mainstreaming more upfront, developing a shared understanding of sustainability and mapping out/defining contextual sustainable development issues to grapple with. The study also recommends adopting a holistic approach in mainstreaming, making it a campus-wide initiative, involving all students and developing interdisciplinary curricula. It suggests setting up of supporting mechanisms to strengthen, extend and spearhead mainstreaming and enhancement of collaborative work in sustainable development issues.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Uncontrolled Keywords:sustainability; environment; Rhodes University; environmental education; sustainable development; higher education; universities; South Africa
Subjects:L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher Education
Divisions:Faculty > Faculty of Education > Education
Supervisors:Lotz-Sisitka, H. (Prof.)
ID Code:1708
Deposited By: Nicolene Mvinjelwa
Deposited On:22 Jun 2010 11:31
Last Modified:06 Jan 2012 16:21
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