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Sustainability
Universities should be forerunners when it comes to responsibility

What does the widely debated issue of responsibility in tourism and hospitality mean for the industry today, and more specifically, how it could and should be applied to universities?

Published : 29.10.2020

Michael “Micha” Lück, tourism professor at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), was visiting Haaga-Helia Porvoo campus during the autumn semester 2019. He has been to Porvoo several times before, and both our staff and students love the insights he always shares with us. During this visit, we discussed the widely debated issue of responsibility in tourism and hospitality, what it means for the industry today, and more specifically, how it could and should be applied to universities.

According to professor Lück, universities should have an edge when it comes to responsible behaviour. Universities teach it, and due to the cost-cutting measures they have been subject to in the recent years, universities are now more conscious about the economic ramifications of their actions than perhaps before. Some universities do already a good job at being responsible, especially in the Western hemisphere, but in some regions, such as Asia, they are not really there just yet. There is still a lot to learn from economic, environmental and social responsibility.

Environmental responsibility

Let’s start with the environment first, as it often offers very inspiring actions. Michael’s own university in New Zealand aims at composting as much as possible and beekeeping is taking place on the roof of the campus. At AUT, they have already had for some years a committee which chooses two to three responsibility-related topics to focus on and work with each year. That engages people and encourages them to take responsibility actions in their everyday lives.

Closer to home, Helsinki University already compensates the air travel emissions of all staff. Haaga-Helia has also moved towards the same goal by starting to compensate the carbon emissions of the flights of our president. We were also overjoyed last year, when solar panels were installed on the roof of our Porvoo campus — a start for a responsible campus. We are still looking forward to welcoming the first bees! Campus honey would be a hit.
There are many great examples of environmental responsibility around the world, and many positive ways to influence the environmental footprint of students and staff on campuses.

Social responsibility

Environmental and economic responsibilities are already much discussed in the media. Less attention is given to social responsibility. When it comes to social responsibility, professor Lück highlights that universities have a huge responsibility, which is often underestimated. It relates to the influence we as university staff members have on our students as well as on our colleagues. What we do and what we say, or decide not to do or say, has an impact.

Some students and staff may have issues in their personal lives that have a detrimental impact on their academic performance. In professor Lück’s experience, there are lecturers and professors who may not always have good people skills and may not communicate effectively with their students. They just tell the students that “if you don’t do this, you will fail and goodbye”. At AUT, he says, they are rather good at acknowledging that many students may have issues at home.

There are students who cannot afford the train ticket needed to come to class or, due to cultural reasons, are unable to attend lectures because they are needed at home to take care of younger siblings or to attend weddings lasting several days. These are issues where lecturers have a responsibility to consider the reasons behind the actions. Of course, we have to say that at some point, the students need to deliver, as the university cannot give the degree as a gift. However, there needs to be a certain degree of responsibility to be sensitive and empathetic to the individual requirements of the students. Certainly, we also do this kind of consideration at Haaga-Helia. At a small campus like Porvoo, all students are individuals and we are able to consider their individual cases.

Another equally important issue, according to professor Lück, is that universities are increasingly overloading their staff with excessive demands. He states that long-time employees are leaving universities: People who have been there for several years and still have some 10 years left before retirement, just get enough and say “I don’t want this anymore”. The job has become frighteningly stressful; It is just too much pressure. According to professor Lück, this is an issue many universities are dealing with right now.

As universities are assessed by governments, it increases the pressure to perform well. Even in New Zealand, they have a situation where research outputs are directly converted into money, resulting in demands on more and more publications from individual researchers at the university. It can be a daunting task to keep up with, along with teaching and other commitments.

Responsibility towards external stakeholders

Michael stresses the fact that research is funded by the public through taxes. Thus, the public also has the right to know what they are paying for. Therefore, publications should be public and freely accessible. In university culture, that may not be the case as researchers are often rather secretive about their data, especially if someone else is paying for it. As tourism researchers, we also have a responsibility to publish in such a way that the actors in tourism and hospitality industry can have access to the main results of the studies. As an example of how this could be done, professor Lück always sends his reports to the companies he has cooperated with. According to him, the companies are interested in the results, too. Even if they do not directly fund his research, they support him nonetheless.

Researchers may not have the obligation to be open about their results, but they could show responsibility to the public and the industry by making their research more accessible to others. Of course, the secretive behaviour shown by some researchers is related to the pressure to publish and not letting anyone steal their ideas.

To reach a bigger audience, AUT has a journal where they summarise their published research for the industry. This has received good feedback and industry representatives claim that they actually read it. We at Haaga-Helia have also been encouraged to publish the findings of our research and projects in blogs, UAS journal and other publications. It is important to disseminate and tell our internal and external stakeholders about what kind of interesting stuff we actually do around here!

Responsibility starts with small actions, simple steps that we all can take every day. Meeting each other with a more attentive ear and empathetic attitude can do wonders. We can learn more responsibility from each person we meet. When we talk to staff and students at our own campus, when we meet our commissioners in companies, when we visit conferences in our own country and abroad, we can always share our experiences and learn more about responsibility. We wanted to share the discussion with Michael Lück with you. Maybe you, too, get some food for thought.