Interesting times

In the words of the late former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, Climate change represents “the greatest existential threat of our time”. Yet, while many universities and colleges are facing this challenge head on, there remains much more that could be done.

It’s easy to see why governing bodies might be preoccupied. Short-term uncertainties abound, from the Augar and ONS reviews of student funding to the TEF, KEF and REF. And if Labour wins the next general election, all bets are off. We can hardly be surprised if these uncertainties are prioritised over longer-term challenges.


The long view

Universities and colleges can and should take a long-term view. Whereas governments rarely look beyond the next election, many providers trace their history over a century or more, and most hope to have a future at least as long. Institutions look to prepare their students for working lives which may last 50 years and span numerous industries and roles. They also seek to foster ‘active citizenship’ among students, helping them grow in their engagement with the world on social, political and cultural levels.


The (endangered) elephant in the room.

As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows, the future could be catastrophically different from the present reality. Without radical changes in the way we live, we could see droughts, floods, extreme weather events and mass extinction by the time this year’s Freshers turn 30. The sector can hardly claim to be preparing graduates for the future without addressing this reality.

Of course, there is no shortage of good practice to draw upon. Many institutions are taking steps towards more sustainable operation, recognised by EAUC’s Green Gown Awards. Professor Joy Carter, Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester, highlighted the importance of environmental sustainability when addressing GuildHE’s Council last month, and it formed a key theme in our 2016 Active Citizenship report.


Leading by example

Higher education is big business; UK universities had a turnover of some £33bn in 2014/15. This means that collective action can have far-reaching impacts.

Steps already taken by many institutions, and which could be taken up across the whole sector, include:

  • Divest from companies in the fossil fuels sector, and the most heavily emitting industries (just 25 companies have been responsible for over 50% of emission since 1988);
  • Focus their procurement on sustainable companies;
  • Ensure their energy is from renewable sources;
  • Invest in improvements to improve the sustainability of estates;
  • Embed the Sustainable Development Goals into strategic plans and curriculum development;
  • Identify climate change on institutional risk registers.

Universities and Colleges are also visible champions of sustainability, supporting students to make the little changes which together make a big difference, and imbuing values of sustainable stewardship:  

  • Ensuring catering is responsibly sourced, with more vegetarian and sustainable options available and eliminating single-use plastics;
  • Ensuring university vehicles are hybrid or electric and providing electric vehicle charging facilities on campus;
  • Supporting staff and students to access public transport, or to walk or cycle to campus;
  • Providing students with opportunities to take part in sustainability activities such as community gardens or clothes swaps.


Then say something, say something

Crucially, the HE sector occupies a position of trust and respectability. Professors remain the fourth most trusted professionals in the UK, after nurses, doctors and teachers, and followed by scientists. When VCs speak as one, the media listens, and as the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act demonstrated, the university lobby has major clout with policymakers.

HE institutions can continue to undertake and showcase world-leading research which not only demonstrates the seriousness of man-made climate change but also presents possible solutions. They can invest in innovative forms of green growth. They can use their public engagement functions to drive forward changes in individual behaviour right across society. And they can encourage governments to act on a national scale, for example by investing in sustainable energy or public transport.

Universities must use their voices to call for greater action, must support relevant research and teaching, and must, above all, put their money where their mouths are. Only then can they really plan for a sustainable future.

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