There are a growing number of university sustainability efforts, but the literature provides limited information to help universities decide if they are focused on sustainability aspects important to their stakeholders. To address this gap, Canadian student leaders’ conceptualizations of sustainable development (SD) and sustainable universities were investigated using a mixed methods approach with qualitative interviews and nested quantitative concept checklists. Themes were developed through thematic analysis and compared with support for checklist concepts to explore similarities and differences between the datasets. Conceptual variance existed between student leaders concerning sustainability; there was greater agreement between participants regarding conceptualizations of sustainable universities. Participants also believed that universities have a responsibility to lead by example and to educate both students and the greater community about sustainability. This research provides insight into the conceptualizations of a key university stakeholder, the importance of localized discussions of sustainability and encouragement for universities to engage in sustainability.
While efforts to integrate Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) at universities have been increasing, said integration has not been occurring fast enough to counteract the unbalanced nature of humanity’s interactions with the planet. A number of studies have delved into the possible barriers slowing this progress and incentives to increasing sustainability initiatives on campus, but rarely have they included the student perspective. This knowledge gap was addressed as part of a study that utilized semi-structured interviews and concept checklists with 27 Canadian university students’ unions’ presidents to investigate their conceptualizations of sustainable development and sustainable universities. Thematic analysis utilizing an inductive approach was employed to discover key themes. While a number of themes emerged, one that was overarching as a general concern and both a barrier and incentive to a more sustainable university was university finances. This in turn is connected to students through enrolment and recruitment efforts as tuition represents a large proportion of university budgets. Participants believed students hold the greatest ability of all university stakeholders to promote sustainability on their campuses and when combined with their ability to impact university finances, the possible impact of empowered students to initiate change for more sustainable campuses is great. In order to harness this energy, this study makes recommendations to further enable students to engage with and mobilize their university campuses and stakeholders. Even potential students could influence universities by demanding deeper commitments to sustainability. This research contributes to scholarly research by presenting the perspectives of an understudied, yet important, university stakeholder group regarding factors influencing campus sustainability and recommendations for student empowerment. This research was part of a larger SSHRC-funded study investigating university stakeholders’ conceptualizations of sustainable development, sustainable universities and the role of universities in the journey towards a more sustainable future.