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Building holistic sustainability commitment in Malaysian universities

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Pursuing sustainability should be part of long-term organizational commitment for the global public good. Photo by Dom Fou - Unsplash

By: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mohd Azree Idris

Global university rankings are published annually by organizations like QS and Times Higher Education. These rankings influence public perceptions about higher education institutions worldwide. The ranking systems use performance metrics across various categories such as academic reputation, faculty-student ratio, citations, and increasingly, sustainability initiatives. The weighted criteria produce comparative institutional benchmarks.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mohd Azree Idris

The incorporation of sustainability metrics in major rankings has increased over the years. This emerging focus is praiseworthy, as integrating sustainability principles across teaching, research, operations and community engagement is crucial for institutions worldwide to address urgent challenges highlighted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), like climate action (SDG 13), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), and zero hunger (SDG 2).

In Malaysia, leading universities, exemplified by the University of Malaya, have made remarkable strides in sustainability, reflected in their rising global rankings. The University of Malaya stands at 66th place globally in the QS rankings, notably excelling in promoting social equity in Asia and conducting research aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This recognition underscores the institution’s commitment to fostering fairness, inclusivity, and addressing critical global sustainability challenges, making a significant contribution to the broader sustainability agenda.

Other Malaysian public universities like Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia have also gained rankings through proactive efforts in sustainable education, institutions and impactful research. USM is now Malaysia’s leader in sustainable institutions while UTM is ranked in the top 100 universities globally for sustainable education parameters. An increasing number of Malaysian universities have also started publishing comprehensive sustainability reports, showing growing organizational commitment.

However, Malaysian Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) need to significantly accelerate the scope and scale of sustainability initiatives on campus to improve performance in global rankings. More extensive and deeper industry partnerships can drive faster progress through collaborative R&D, development of green technologies, large-scale sustainable campus infrastructure transformation, and skilled talent production.

Leading public universities and private higher education institutions must collaborate to benchmark global best practices in campus sustainability. They should also more prominently showcase their sustainability credentials, given that surveys show 43 percent of prospective international students, especially in major destinations like Australia, UK and US, actively research university sustainability efforts as part of their decision matrix.

As a relatively young private university established in 1999, Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN) has an advantage in nimbly embedding sustainability within its organizational DNA right from the outset. With strong backing from parent firm Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB), a leader in renewable energy, UNITEN can aim to become a model fully sustainable campus within Malaysia and the region.

UNITEN should significantly boost its Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) efforts in infrastructure, operations, pedagogy, research and student engagement. Structured partnerships with TNB, its parent company, can generate highly impactful sustainability solutions on campus through joint innovation and consultation projects.

TNB’s ambitious 8.3GW renewable energy capacity target for 2025, in line with Malaysia’s National Energy Transition Roadmap (NETR) to reinforce net-zero greenhouse gas emissions aspirations by 2050, also presents a timely opportunity for UNITEN to boost research and develop specialized green engineering talent through industry-academia linkages. As a sustainability leader, TNB should actively engage with Malaysian universities beyond just UNITEN to achieve renewable energy goals through joint research, innovation, consultancy and highly-skilled talent development.

Ultimately, sustainability must be pursued not just for improved university rankings, but as a long-term organizational commitment for the global public good. Through holistic ESG strategies, universities can solve pressing societal challenges on the ground via sustainability education, research and thought leadership. Resultant ranking improvements will then organically reflect such efforts.

As Malaysia aims for 70 percent renewable energy contribution by 2050, universities have a crucial role to play through sustainability education, action-oriented research, and thought leadership. TNB, as a national renewable energy leader, and UNITEN can spearhead and model win-win industry-academia partnerships to collectively drive the national sustainability agenda.

The author is an Associate Professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering, Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN), and may be reached at azree@uniten.edu.my

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