Gauging Universities for Sustainability: Action Research as a Tool for Assessing and Influencing Organisational Transformation

Alex Baker-Shelley*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademic


    This contribution presents how the novel social scientific methodology of Action Research (AR) can assess campus-driven initiatives to see how to enhance governance for sustainability at Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s). Maastricht University (UM) in particular has a unique form of maintaining the student-driven, bottom-up component, and has pioneered in recent years in student activism for sustainability. Its Green Office’s (GO) mandate is to manage the sustainability portfolio of UM in the areas of research, education, operations, governance and community engagement, in a student-driven staff-supported manner. The drive was to see how AR can be used as a tool to assess and influence organisational transformation towards sustainability at an HEI. Other theories and lenses used included an organisational change management approach to embedding sustainability, assessment strategies from CSR, and insights from behavioural change. AR provides a moment for reflection after a full cycle—diagnose, plan, act, and evaluate action—has taken place. This paper represents the outcome of the reflection of this continuous process of transformation after one year of engagement by the researcher, with the focus on the internal causal mechanisms from which an organisational transformation gains traction and propagates. It was chosen as the approach best-suited for answering the primary research question of “how do universities manage their organisational transformation towards sustainability and how can this be effectively achieved”, especially against the backdrop of university’s unsustainability so as to enable the co-production and design of solutions at the organisational level. AR also requires a lot of ‘conventional’ research—such as the construction of an analytical framework, interviews with key stakeholders and a content analysis of documents produced by the GO and UM—before any meaningful reflection on interventions, the core of AR, can take place. In the context of organisational transformation towards embedding sustainability at UM, AR has enabled the researcher to come closer to seeing how operational, social, and governance processes take place up close, which conventional ‘desk’ research might not have otherwise gained access to. The researcher and the participants/co-researchers of the study have been able to learn from each other and from the initial findings of interventions and conceptual framework used to analyse organisational transformations towards sustainability. The AR ‘team’ therefore functions at the interface of the internal properties of the university and its external environment at the societal or regime level, using this approach to forge collaborative partnerships within organisations and with local stakeholders. It is hoped valuable lessons can be gleaned for others seeking to use the AR approach to study transformational processes that enhance the role of universities for sustainable development against the global imperative created by UNESCO’s Global Action Programme of Education for Sustainable Development and the UNSDG’s.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Contribution of Social Sciences to Sustainable Development at Universities
    Subtitle of host publicationPart I
    ISBN (Electronic)978-3-319-26866-8
    ISBN (Print)978-3-319-26864-4
    Publication statusPublished - 7 Jan 2016


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