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The building up process of social accounting at university of torino: main challenges and managerial implications.


The process of social accounting and reporting performed by universities is a voluntary mechanism through which academic institutions could communicate their attitude towards the fulfillment of their social responsibilities. The case of University of Torino will be presented and discussed.

Key words: University social responsibilities; social accounting and reporting; GRI; High Education Institution.


UDC 378.1

Laura Corazza,

Ph.D. M.Sc.,

Department of Culture, Politics and Society,

University of Torino, Research Fellow e-mail: laura.corazza AT unito.it Torino, Italy

The role of education in fostering sustainable development is mentioned in the Agenda 21 discussing the major role of education in the future realization of a vision of sustainability that links economic well-being with respect for cultural diversity, the Earth and its resources. Universities have a key role on influence the society, in a three-fold manner through teaching, research and the so-called society outreach. The relation between a University and its society reflects nowadays the Triple Helix model theorized by Etzkowitz e Leydesdorff

. In this model, the relation between University-industry and government are implicitly interconnected through institutional transformation, evolutionary mechanisms, and, the pivotal role of universities to collaborate for create a knowledge society. Even though, all the managerial process governing a university are changing, following the needs of the external environment, for instance an increase of control and report tools have been implemented in the day by day routine. These tools are used to enforce the accountability duty of universities that, in relation to the efforts of explaining the role of universities social responsibilities, is used in his primitive meaning of “accounting the responsibilities”.

The rising role of social accounting

The role of social accounting (i.e. disclosure and reporting of non- financial information related to corporate’s sustainability) is essential to reach and maintain the legitimacy of an organization between the organization itself and its conferring publics [2]. Usually the stakeholders’ expectations and their legitimacy influence directly the relations between an organization and the society, as they represent the base of a so-called social contract. Different subjects or multilevel categories of stakeholders have a duty in this social contract, and the stakeholder management theory affirm that an effective stakeholder management should represent a source of competitive advantage for an organization as it considers the salience of each stakeholder group [3]. In that sense, social accounting and reporting scholars have confirmed the importance of the process of taking into account how an organization fulfills its social responsibilities using non-financial data [4]. Usually the reporting process is the last steps of a broader sustainability plan of an organization, even though, in certain cases it should be used as a snapshot of the effective commitment of the organization at time zero. Furthermore, the sustainability reporting process should have a dialectic role and it should represent a common ground between organizations and societies to cooperate for a sustainable development of the society itself. As scholars have recognized the leading role of universities as actors of economic development for the societies and territories, universities are approaching the process of social accounting and reporting to demonstrate their commitment to sustainable development up to 5 years. For instance, universities could take a leading role in closing the existing gap between the lack of technical know-how and leadership capacity of companies in general in approaching sustainability issues. Universities generally, need to do more to develop graduates for a changing business context with specific reference to the overarching challenge of the twenty-first century to achieve global environmental sustainability and social justice [5]. This is clear when a university adhere to global commitment networks such UN Global Compact, the Global Reporting Initiative, Principles for Responsible Management Education and the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative. The Global Reporting Initiative is the well-known standard for social reporting processes and its adoption reflects the attitude of an organization to collaborate and be comparable to all the other users at world-wide level.

University social responsibilities and the role of accounting

A sustainability report should have a communicative role, even though the real effective use of this tool is to increase and organize the sustainability efforts and strategies of an organization, specifically, a university.

The process of reporting the responsibilities of an academic, or high-level institutions, using social accounting techniques is worldwide recognized as a voluntary effort through which accounting impacts on the society and external environment (economic, social and environmental sustainability) and moreover, the cultural, organizational and intellectual capital creation. At this point, due to the lack of a common recognized definition of universities’ social responsibilities, the commitment towards sustainable development has been used as a driver to evaluate the few cases of universities’ social reports. The works of Ceulemans et al. (2015) in producing a conceptual map of literature review on sustainability reporting in higher education should be use as a driver for theoretical consideration [6].

As mentioned above, sustainability reporting is a voluntary tool for disclosing efforts towards sustainable development, but little research has analysed the diffusion of sustainability reporting among universities [7]. The study of Alonso-Almeida et al. (2015) confirmed that European universities have been pioneers in the adoption of the GRI reporting standards; thus, these universities can be considered innovators. Nevertheless, worldwide, universities are still in an early stage of adoption. The adoption of SR standards can help to add value to all universities’ sustainability initiatives and improve their visibility and reputation. For stakeholders, SR is a tool to compare SD activities among different universities and may aid in selecting the best universities, starting a dialogic discussion, sharing common interests, for their multiple purposes [8]. Academic authorities should be provided with a better understanding of the benefits of adopting the GRI reporting standards to motivate them to adopt such standards; even though, there is an implicit discrepancy between private and public universities and the duty of accountability mandatory by law. In addition, the work of Lozano (2011) stresses the importance of the adaptation of GRI guidelines in different High Education Institution (HEI) contexts. From the different tools available, the GRI guidelines provide a systematic framework that helps to depart from an environmentally biased view of sustainability. However, the original version of GRI guidelines could be improved to better capture the processes and dynamics of sustainability efforts in HEIs [9; 10].

The case of University of Torino and the process of social reporting

The critical success factors for participatory processes within sustainability initiative in HEI has been reported in the work of Disterheft et al. (2014). They recognized the importance of: structural elements, process and persons [11].

Referring to structural elements, University of Torino has a key influence on society in a two-fold manner: it trains and educate people and it participates in governance at the national and regional level. As confirmed by Sedlacek

, the framework in which universities operate is composed by: education, research and governance, where the so-called third mission and societal outreach is embedded in all three. Education is both at individual and societal level; research is considered under knowledge creation and knowledge transfer, while governance is perceived as internal organizational process and external commitment. Under this lens, universities impacts at the regional level on human and social capital sphere of influence and in addition, over economic development of the region itself [12].

Over 67,000 students (3800 international) and more than 4,000 academic and administrative staff, the University of Torino (UniTo) in north-west Italy is one of the country’s largest and most prestigious universities. Founded in 1404, today, UniTo offers over 150 undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses in almost every field of study.

A growing number of courses are taught in English, and Italian language tuition is available for incoming students. The University’s 27 departments offer excellent opportunities for Italian and non-Italian academic staff; 4 doctoral schools provide 29 doctoral programmes. More than 120 buildings are located in Turin and in our metropolitan area.

Those structural elements of UniTo imply a strong recognition of UniTo social responsibilities, included into the Strategic Plan of our universities such as:

Remove economic and social obstacles which limit access to the right of higher education

Right to work, creation of employment

Corporate welfare

Participation in the elaboration of development strategies and competitiveness of the territory

Communicate to stakeholders those initiatives implemented in the social, environmental and economic sustainability area

Environmental sustainability (Energy saving plan)

Economic sustainability and financial, as well.

The process of reporting and accounting of these social responsibilities have been founded over the assumption of Lozano (2011) and the choice of an international reporting standard (GRI) has represented a step towards years of efforts and actions to affirm the social responsibilities of the university in the society and concretely. It is a powerful way to translate and communicate the production of intellectual capital, the society outreach, the environmental consciousness to our stakeholders. The process lasts a year, divided in different phases: materiality analysis, stakeholder engagement activities, interviews, data retrieval and editing phase.

Persons involved in the process used to work as a heterogeneous group in which there is a strong commitment by the Rector of UniTo. The working group is composed by: Vice Rector for Public Relation, Director of the Finance Depatment, Professors, Researchers, Experts, Administrative Staff members. One of the pro is represented by the effective information retrieval that means a easy access to datamining and also to uncodified knowledge. On the other side, we encountered problems related to different time sensitiveness (approaching the deadline) and an adverse attitude towards data responsibility. Managerial implication noted were: coherence between sustainability reporting and other internal and external documents produced by the university in order to fulfill mandatory ministerial regulations [13]; trustable information based on shared data; communicative purpose of the document that allows people speaking clearly and translating complex administrative process in easy-to- understand contents.


This paper is a brief discussion over the case of University of Torino’s process of social reporting and, as it, it represents a starting point for the development of future research over a sustainable university.

The notion of a ‘sustainable university’ has recently been explored [14]. Whilst the concept is contested, Sterling defines it as: “one that through its guiding ethos, outlook and aspirations, governance, research, curriculum, community links, campus management, monitoring and modus operandi seeks explicitly to explore, develop, contribute to, embody and manifest—critically and reflexively— the kinds of values, concepts and ideas, challenges and approaches that are emerging from the growing global sustainability discourse [14]”.

The increasing need of accountability to key stakeholders, and the demand for new tools that are useful for governance at universities, have led to the development of new forms of reporting, including social accounting and reports techniques, which are helpful in the implementation of knowledge and awareness of sustainability issues. Universities can occur to social reports in order to educate organizations and stakeholders to a greater sensitivity to SD topic, and to shared values and actions involving students, professors, employees, and communities, as a whole.

The process of social accounting implies several decisions affecting organizational behavior and personal attitude especially during the phase of data retrieval when administrative and technical staff are involved closely to select and elaborate data for a not ordinary purpose.

Future researches will discuss profoundly the process and its relation with the concepts of university social responsibilities in the light of regional development.


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