Sustainable Development at Bern University of Applied Sciences

Bern University of Applied Sciences BFH provides a programme in teachingresearch and development, continuing education as well as consulting services that is innovative and in line with actual practice. BFH therefore makes an important contribution to the status of Bern as a university hub and a centre of commerce and industry as well as creating an attractive environment for both disciplinary and interdisciplinary activities. With a total of 33 locations in Bern, Biel and Burgdorf, BFH is deeply rooted in the Canton. National and international network promotes the configuration of appropriate general conditions and enables its students and staff to develop their skills in the best possible ways.

BFH sees itself as a modern, innovative university that wants to live up to its social responsibility. In response, it aims to align its profile with the great transformations undergoing society today. In December 2020 BFH identified sustainable development as its strategic field. With its teaching, research, continuing education and its consulting services BFH aims to contribute actively towards achieving the global sustainability development goals of Agenda 2030 (Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs) and to take on the function of a role model.

According to the Rating-Studie 2021 «Nachhaltigkeit an Schweizer Hochschulen» of WWF Switzerland BFH is already among the leading universities in Switzerland when it comes to sustainability. In future this commitment to ensuring ecological viability, social justice and economic performance is to be strengthened and the pioneering role of BFH firmly established.

With the Sustainable Development Action Plan 2018-2022, the addition of several sustainability targets to the current BFH strategy as well as the Sustainable Development Goal, BFH has laid a good foundation for targeted further development and credible profiling in the new strategic thematic focus of sustainable development. The present sustainability report aims to help assess the aims, measures and activities in this focus area and to communicate the sustainability efforts of BFH internally and externally as defined in the following action fields in the target scenario:

  • Research for a sustainable future
  • Education for sustainable development
  • Social participation
  • Sustainable operation
  • School of Architecture, Wood and Civil Engineering (BFH-AHB)
  • Swiss Federal Institute of Sport Magglingen (SFISM)
  • School of Health Professions (BFH-G)
  • School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences (BFH-HAFL)
  • Bern Academy of the Arts (HKB)
  • School of Social Work (BFH-S)
  • School of Engineering and Computer Science (BFH-TI)
  • Business School (BFH-W)

Preliminary remarks on the understanding of sustainability

This understanding of sustainability is based on BFH's guiding principles, which make BFH's values visible and serve as guidelines for action at the university. The understanding is also based on the preliminary work of the university network HOCHN, which developed a common understanding of sustainability in a participatory and consultative process. 

The present text is not a final, fixed 'standard', but an orientation framework for sustainability (at BFH). The understanding of sustainability describes the consensus on how the claim of sustainability, which is based on social responsibility, is to be understood, designed and implemented in the context of BFH. However, what exactly sustainability should mean or signify in concrete fields of action or for a department or an organisational unit with its different approaches, focuses and practices must be negotiated in the respective context. The diversity of different understandings of sustainability should be seen as an asset, since sustainability should ideally refer to and interact with the respective contexts and framework conditions of the department or unit. Precisely because there are different emphases, however, a conceptual clarification fulfils the important function of reducing the scope for interpretation, identifying open questions for further discussion and not losing sight of commonalities despite contextually different implementations.

BFH's understanding of sustainability

Sustainable development is a normative principle that can be described as a measure of global and intergenerational justice and the maintenance of the functions of natural systems. 

Ethically and politically, sustainable development is not an externally prescribed and fixed goal, but an ongoing process of seeking and shaping with heterogeneous target criteria. This process is therefore multi-faceted and culturally variable. 

Its object is long-term responsibility in order to ensure ecological sustainability, social justice and economic performance. It aims at strengthening cultural competences to contribute towards the shaping of social life. Its systemically integrated implementation is understood as an objective for a comprehensive transformation of society. 

The task of universities is to deal theoretically and conceptually, methodologically and reflexively with the processes and conditions of societal transformation towards sustainable development, in particular to contribute to sustainability being implemented in a specific context and how this is to be achieved.

Institutional anchoring of sustainability

BFH has had an office for sustainable development since 2018. The office is headed by a member of the University Executive Board who is appointed by the President by decree. The permanent commission of the same name reports to the office and is strategically managed by the head of the office. The commission consists of the sustainability officers of the individual departments as well as one representative each of services and students. The main tasks, competences and responsibilities of the head of office and the commission are defined in a performance mandate. The commission meets at least six times a year and is supported in its work by the Sustainable Development Office. In addition, there are sustainability groups in the AHB, HAFL and G departments, as well as an exchange network of infrastructure managers from all departments.

In the course of defining sustainable development as a strategic thematic field, the Sustainable Development Department is also to be restructured. The new structure should help bundle competences and resources in sustainable development across departmental boundaries. This should sharpen the profile of the BFH and make better use of its potential to actively contribute to social transformation in the sense of sustainable development. The transfer to the new organisational structure is planned for September 2022.

The state of development will be regularly reviewed at all ten organisational units of BFH using the EFQM model. EFQM is a globally recognised framework for action that supports organisations in managing change and continuously improving their performance. The common thread of the EFQM model is the link between an organisation's purpose, vision and strategy, and how it creates sustainable value for its stakeholders and achieves outstanding results on this basis. The model analyses how sustainable value is planned, developed, communicated, delivered and ultimately realised as an overall experience. The next EFQM assessment will take place in 2022. The results of the assessment will be used as key indicators in the next sustainability report.


Materiality analysis

To identify the material topics for BFH's sustainability reporting, an initial list of 24 potentially relevant topics was identified in a first step by means of interviews and the support of BHP - Brugger und Partner AG (BHP). In a workshop with 17 representatives from all departments, the Equal Opportunities Office, Services, Human Resources, Quality Management, the two Vice-Rectorates for Teaching and Research and the student body, these topics were verified, defined in terms of content and narrowed down from 24 to 20 topics.

The 20 topics were then individually weighted according to their relevance by the workshop participants and the project team, consisting of the head of department, two representatives of the Sustainable Development Commission and two experts from BHP. In addition, 13 structured interviews were conducted with internal and external stakeholders. They weighted the 20 verified topics according to their relevance and discussed and evaluated the potential impact of BFH in these topics on society, the environment and the economy.


  • Head of the Office of Higher Education, Department of Education and Culture, Canton of Bern
  • President of the School Council of the Bern University of Applied Sciences
  • Member of the University Board and entrepreneur (practice partner)
  • President designate of BFH
  • Administrative Director of BFH
  • Vice President Teaching
  • Head of Research BFH-TI/Member of the Research Commission and Sustainability Officer BFH-TI (double interview)
  • Head of Teaching BFH-HAFL and member of the Teaching Commission
  • Entrepreneur (practice partner) and member of the Advisory Board of BFH-W
  • President of the Student Association of the Bern University of Applied Sciences (VSBFH)
  • Co-Director USYS TdLab, ETH Zurich
  • HR Business Partner Losinger-Marazzi (practice partner)
  • Head of Akademie-Praxis-Partnerschaft (APP), Insel Gruppe AG (practice partner)

From this, eleven topics were selected by the project team with the involvement of various leaders. These are, on the one hand, the ten topics with the highest relevance and greatest impact (marked in the rectangle at the top right in Figure 1) and on the other hand the topic of energy and climate. The latter was selected because it too is highly relevant for BFH in relation to the goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2030. In addition, the topic of governance was subsequently merged with compliance and ethics following internal discussions.

These eleven topics are taken into account for the sustainability report and assigned to the four fields of action "Education for sustainable development", "Research for a sustainable future", "Social participation" and "Sustainable operation" (Figure 2).

For each of these eleven essential topics, targets were defined to be achieved by the time the current BFH strategy expires in 2023 (with the exception of climate neutrality, which is targeted by 2030).