Dlouhá, J., Henderson, L., Kapitulčinová, D., Mader, C. (2017) Sustainability-oriented higher education networks: Characteristics and achievements in the context of the UN DESD. Journal of Cleaner Production, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.07.239
Higher education institutions (HEIs) are, as a sector, an important actor in society and their role in sustainability transition has been acknowledged. However, their commitments to sustainability expressed through the adoption of various declarations are often not effective unless combined with other ‘internal’ and ‘external’ strategies (concerned with activities within and outside the institution, respectively). Networking is an example of the latter: universities enter into coalitions in order to discuss progress in sustainability implementation, exchange experience and formulate joint policies. The presented research explores the field of sustainability-oriented higher education networks, analyses their key areas of interest, inter-network relationships, links with the policy field, and (conditions for) cooperation in joint programs and strategy development. Based on information gained through desk-top research to map the field from 14 HE networks' web pages, a survey was designed and distributed to selected university networks, with 15 responses received (30% response rate). Qualitative analysis of the data concentrated on the elements of social capital: the diversity of the networks, heterogeneity of the membership, size, regional scope and communication formats. The networks' activity areas range from those supporting sustainability initiatives within individual HEIs (education, research, campus operations, outreach) and networking initiatives directed beyond individual institutional change (contribution to policy debate at national, regional and global level, professional development and student network initiatives). The achievements of the analysed networks show a considerable contribution to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) in all their reported outcomes. Dialogue with key actors held after the exploratory mapping and the survey stages resulted in further delineation of the benefits and goals of cooperation: achievement of academia's cumulative impact on the sustainable development of our societies. This study highlights the significance of the autonomous character of HEIs based on data from 25 HE networks in total, and how they not only follow, but also stimulate the policy environment, consciously contributing to shared (sustainability) goals. Networking thus may be an important mechanism for systemic change in higher education, and the nature and role of social capital embedded in higher education networks should be the subject of further exploration.