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The ‘S’ in ESG: social sustainability strategy in higher education

A perspective on how higher education institutions can realize impact and lead the sector by activating a social sustainability strategy.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) themes are becoming increasingly interwoven into organizations of all shapes and sizes around the world – including higher education.

Students, faculty, staff and local communities can all benefit when higher education institutions activate a social sustainability strategy.


The COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for ESG considerations within the higher education landscape. With impacts extending within the classroom to campus operations, to institutional risk and policy management, ESG has already changed the way in which many higher education institutions operate.


From a social sustainability perspective, shifts in core elements, e.g., employee value propositions; diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); wellbeing, created a new normal that students, faculty, staff and community members continue to navigate.


As higher education institutions continue to understand these changes while leading in parallel, adopting an intentional social sustainability strategy can serve as a framework for achieving an institutional culture that optimizes a student-, faculty- and community-member-led experience.


In doing so, higher education institutions can become increasingly competitive, relevant and prepared to tackle future challenges and opportunities that ESG and, in particular, social sustainability themes, will continue to unveil in years to come.


The following report provides a summary of findings related to the Social Sustainability in Higher Education Survey* conducted by Ernst & Young LLP (EY US) in February 2023, as well as initial steps your institution can take to consider a social sustainability strategy. *Survey data is from February 2023. As such, data may not reflect any themes present in the higher education landscape since then.


Compared to its corporate counterparts, the higher education sector has not yet been impacted by ESG reporting standards and disclosure regulations. However, if the same trends that have so quickly impacted the corporate world begin to also apply to higher education landscape, this may require an immense organizational shift. Proactively preparing your institution for this future can serve as an opportunity to lead in the sector now as opposed to catching up with potential new requirements down the road.

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