Engaging Students in the Reporting Process – an example from KU Leuven Faculty of Economics and Business

A number of Sharing Information on Progress reports were recognized at the PRME Global Forum in New York this past July. The nine reports that were highlighted show only a snapshot of all of the interesting approaches to reporting that are coming from the PRME Signatories globally. Another interesting approach comes from KU Leuven Faculty of Economics and Business (KU Leuven FEB) in Belgium. Their report, which was prepared in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative standards, includes a materiality matrix which was prepared by students across a number of Masters level courses. I spoke with Talia Stough, Sustainability Coordinator at KEB, about this unique approach.

What is your materiality index and why did you decide to do one?

The KU Leuven Faculty of Economics and Management engages in the process of sustainability reporting in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The GRI standards provide high-level guidance to help organizations identify and prioritize sustainability-related topics for reporting and communicating. Organizations consider their main sustainability impacts and, in dialogue with their stakeholders, prioritize topics onto a materiality matrix. The results can be visualized on a materiality matrix, which displays issues of increasing materiality to the organization on one axis and to stakeholder on the other axis, where the highest priority issues are located in the upper right section of the chart.

How were students engaged in the process?

In-class stakeholder engagement activities were carried out in the courses Corporate Social Responsibility (available to students of: the Masters of Business Administration; Master of Business Engineering; Master of Environment, Health, and Safety Management; and the Master of International Business Economics and Management programs) and the course Strategic Management: Execution and Control (Master of Business Administration) to identify material topics to student stakeholders.

In the course Corporate Social Responsibility, following a lecture on sustainability reporting and the methodology of the GRI and a short overview of the faculty’s sustainability initiatives, students worked in small groups to discuss which sustainability-related topics they considered most important for the faculty (and greater university) to work on. Students were given a simplified list of GRI topics, augmented with education and research-related indicators from AASHE’s STARS criteria. As a small group, they rated each topic as low, medium, or high priority. Each group also identified its top three topics. Afterwards, there was a group discussion with the whole class on which topics were most material and why.

A group of master students have been assigned to work on stakeholder engagement in their course Sustainable Management. This group of students assisted in the in-class engagement exercise in the Corporate Social Responsibility course, were given material from the exercise to analyze, and developed their own extra-curricular engagement.

How was this input used in the materiality index?

The results of the in-class activity were analyzed by the Faculty Sustainability Coordinator as follows: individual group responses were given a score of 1, 2, or 3 to each topic depending on the response of “low materiality”, “medium materiality”, or “high materiality” respectively. Topics were then categorized as low, medium, or high materiality based the weighted average score. One new topic was proposed during the in-class engagement exercise: impact of cafeteria operations. Since we have no other input on the materiality of this topic, we will need to include this topic in future engagement exercises to collect more information on its cumulative importance to stakeholder.

The content from the activity was analyzed by the Sustainable Management students using qualitative content analysis. Although the results of this were not included in the 2016 materiality index but they have been integrated into our 2017 Sustainability Report.

How was it involving students in the reporting process?

The KU Leuven Faculty of Economics and Business embraces the ideology of utilizing the campus as a living laboratory in sustainability integration. While involving students in stakeholder engagement activities and the sustainability reporting process can be a labor-intensive process (students are not yet experts on the GRI or the topics included in the standard), the potential for two-way learning makes the involvement of students worthwhile, especially in the case of stakeholder engagement.

In-class stakeholder engagement exercises ensure the participation of students in sustainability engagement processes. In our experience, voluntary, extracurricular engagement activities are not well attended, so conducting engagement activities in class helps overcome that barrier. It also offers a manner to communicate about the sustainability initiatives to students who may otherwise not become aware of such activities.

In both capacities (students leading and participating in engagement activities), time is always challenging. In the course Sustainable Management, students have one semester to understand a topic (in this case stakeholder engagement), the faculty’s approach to this topic, and to develop and analyze activities. In the case of the in-class engagement activity, after the introductory lecture on sustainability reporting and materiality, there is only one hour remaining for the engagement activity and discussion. The engagement activity is then analyzed and the results are presented by the lecturer at a later class.

Where there any surprises? Anything you would have done differently?

This is our fourth year doing such activities (both the in-class engagement and the use of master students in the reporting process). Each year, we reflect on the successes and room for improvement and adapt the activity. Last year, I was not able to attend the Corporate Social Responsibility course in person, so I created an online survey for students to rank the materiality of topics on their own. This actually produced more interesting cumulative results, and we plan to re-integrate this back into the activity next year. The idea for next year will be to have students rank the materiality of topics online on their own, then in-class have group discussions on ranking these as a group.

Utilizing the master students in the preparation of the sustainability report is something we believe strongly we should do, but many challenges arise. In the past, we broke students into groups based on sections of the report: economic, environmental, social, education, etc. We found that this resulted in an overwhelming assignment for the students and group work that lacked new analysis. Now we focus group work on themes (based on material topics from past materiality prioritization). Before the semester, the sustainability coordinator contacts internal people responsible for data management on the topic to ensure that data will be available for students (in the past is was difficult to ensure students had timely access to the information their requested; some data required quite some time to generate from the SAP). By working on less topics, the depth of the group work has increased.

Any tips for other schools looking to get their students engaged in their reporting process?

Including students in the reporting process can foster fruitful two-way learning. Students bring energy and fresh perspective into sustainability reporting. One semester is a relatively short timeframe for students to become familiar with the reporting process, the GRI standards, the topic they are working on (e.g. stakeholder engagement, diversity in the workforce, environmental performance, sustainable purchasing, etc.), and to then make a new contribution to the reporting process. This means that there is a relatively high time input for the sustainability coordinator, but limited useable output for the sustainability report. Another option, that we will be exploring more in the future, is the use of master thesis on topics in the sustainability report. This would allow a longer timeframe for a student to go more in depth into a topic, but limits the number of students involved.

What has been the impact of the index?

Based on previous year’s in-class engagement activities, it was identified that students highly prioritize anti-discrimination because there were incidents of students feeling uncomfortable/discriminated against. However, there were very low rates of reporting such incidents. Therefore, based on the in-class engagement activities, we know there is a gap in student experience and formal procedures to report and document discrimination.

Based on the 2017 in-class engagement activity, the topic of: impact of cafeteria operations was identified as a unique topic. This is in line with a common trend we find in that students (and staff) tend to give more priority to tangible topics that they often come in contact with (e.g. paper, heating of the buildings, etc.).

What’s next?

What’s next is the preparation of the Faculty’s 2017 sustainability report (intended to be completed and published online September 2017). Next year, we will open the topic of stakeholder engagement for sustainability at the faculty up as a master thesis topic for our students (max. 2) to work on. We will continue to keep our eye on gender balance based on the high priority this topic receives from the organization (our own gender policy) and student and staff stakeholders. We will continue to use the sustainability reporting process (including stakeholder engagement activities) as a living laboratory activity and include students in this activity. Eventually, we would like to incorporate external stakeholder input in the future, but this remains a challenging task to approach in a systematic and meaningful way. We would also like to engage with other reporting higher education institutions to share experiences with reporting and using the reporting process as a living laboratory activity.


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