What lies beneath the surface? The hidden complexities of organizational change for sustainability in higher education

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There is widespread recognition that higher education institutions have an important role to play in the transition towards a more sustainable global society. In this context, many universities have embarked on a journey towards ‘sustainability', and there has been increasing research on related processes of organizational change. There is evidence that ‘human' factors have an important role to play in change processes and numerous case studies capture how these occur, but there is little synthesis of qualitative research in this area. This paper presents a meta-ethnography of 13 qualitative studies from peer reviewed academic publications. Using a grounded approach, we identified nine themes which we then synthesized in order to develop an in-depth understanding of organizational change processes for sustainability. This led to the identification of a number of hidden contradictions and tensions that seem to characterize such processes. These contradictions and tensions lead to recurring barriers to change and issues that can undermine the very sustainability of change processes. These issues are also influenced by the perception of who has power to affect change, networks and institutional structures. We discuss the implications for research and practice and suggest the need to recognize existing tensions and contradictions through reflexive practice and genuine dialogue as well as developing flexible structures and moving towards ‘double loop' learning within institutions. The meta-ethnography presents a look beyond the surface of what has become an increasingly important area of institutional change in higher education, helps to inform practice, and contributes to emerging research imperatives.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)175-188
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
Publication statusPublished - 7 Feb 2014

Bibliographical note

This is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Journal of Cleaner Production. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Journal of Cleaner Production, 106, (2015). DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.01.081


  • sustainability
  • higher education
  • organizational change
  • meta-ethnography
  • qualitative synthesis


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