Canadian higher education institutions that have undergone a sustainability assessment also incorporate sustainability into their strategic plans in a more significant way, according to a new study by the Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN).

SEPN examined strategic plans from a cross-Canada sample of 50 post-secondary institutions to determine the extent to which colleges and universities are prioritizing sustainability in their long-term visions. The study is part of a larger study examining sustainability uptake across the Canadian formal education system.

A key finding from the study was that institutions affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) were more likely to have higher quality sustainability responses in their strategic plans. AASHE is an organization that empowers students, faculty, staff, and administrators in higher education to drive sustainability uptake in their schools.

“SEPN’s findings point to the advantage of having clear targets for sustainability in universities and colleges,” said Meghan Fay Zahniser, the Executive Director of AASHE. “AASHE provides a lot of resources, including our STARS sustainability assessment program, that help institutions identify what they’re doing well and what they can improve on. Figuring out where to start can be pretty overwhelming. Our resources can help institutions focus their often limited resources.”

SEPN’s research also points to some significant gaps and opportunities for improvement. SEPN found 1 in 5 institutions did not discuss sustainability in their strategic plans at all. In plans where sustainability was discussed, half dealt with sustainability superficially, lacking specific sustainability-related goals and mostly focusing on institutional operations. As strategic planning helps higher education institutions envision their goals and outline the actions needed to achieve them, the lack of clear sustainability targets is concerning. While AASHE members were more likely to include progressive sustainability actions in their core missions, goals, and policies, none of the 50 institutions examined exhibited “transformative responses,” in which higher education institutions integrate sustainability into all their activities so everything they do becomes more sustainable.

“One thing we see quite often is higher education institutions doing a great job with their facilities management—improving building efficiency, changing light bulbs, installing low flush toilets—but sustainability needs to go beyond one area of institutional activity,” said Dr. Marcia McKenzie, Principal Investigator for SEPN. “Transformative strategic planning creates a culture of sustainability throughout the entire institution. When sustainability is integrated successfully into all areas of institutional activity— governance, curriculum, operations, research, and community outreach—sustainability becomes a core property of the institution’s activities.”

SEPN’s research shows that having specific goals with measurable outcomes can be a powerful tool for improving sustainability uptake in higher education, and that sustainability assessments such as the AASHE STARS program can be effective tools for helping higher education institutions become more sustainable.

Visit to read the paper, research brief, and infographics for this research project.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Marcia McKenzie
SEPN Principal Investigator
marcia.mckenzie@usask.caNicola Chopin
SEPN Project Manager
Meghan Fay Zahniser
AASHE Executive Director
1-888-347-9997, ext. 20
meghan@aashe.orgAndrea Huggins
AASHE Marketing & Communications Coordinator
1-888-347-9997, ext. 123

About SEPN

SEPN is an international research-based partnership that is examining the relationship between sustainability education policies and practices in K-12 and post-secondary education across Canada. SEPN is the first large-scale, national-level research collaboration to collect comparable data at all levels of education in Canada and is internationally recognized as being on the cutting edge of educational policy research. Our partners include the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, David Suzuki Foundation, Learning for a Sustainable Future, and Sierra Youth Coalition. For more information, visit


AASHE is the leading association for the advancement of sustainability in higher education by empowering higher education faculty, administrators, staff and students to be effective change agents and drivers of sustainability innovation. They enable members to translate information into action by offering essential resources and professional development to a diverse, engaged community of sustainability leaders. AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) program is a transparent, sustainability assessment framework that allows colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. Established in 2005, AASHE comprises over 900 members across 48 U.S. states, 1 U.S. Territory, 9 Canadian provinces, and 20 countries. Visit for more information.