Sustainability, as outlined in the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted in 2015, has become increasingly important in higher education, both in terms of strategy and daily operations.
Cop26, opening in Glasgow on 31 October, has further focused minds in the sector. Universities UK has announced that, ahead of the high level meeting, 140 universities have agreed to set emissions reduction targets, making public information on their actions to address climate change and to champion the SDG Accord.
In a guide to Climate Action for University Chairs, published by the Committee of University Chairs on 28 October, Elizabeth Passey, Convener of The University of Glasgow and the Committee of Scottish University Chairs, urges governors to use their "clarity of perspective and degree of detachment" to help their institution rise above obstacles standing in the way of sustainability goals, such as an attachment to "freedoms" that might seem at odds with the green agenda. The guide says the key drivers for institutions to address sustainability are institutional risk – including rising costs, potential reputational damage, and an impact on student recruitment – and strategic opportunities. These include more potential for partnerships and funding, and demonstrating social and economic relevance. It sets out actions boards and senior management teams can take, such as setting challenging emissions targets, committing to a whole-institution approach to climate change activity, improving sustainability knowledge within the board and SMT, and regularly publishing progress towards sustainability goals.
Attempts to identify the environmental and social impacts of university activity, both negative and positive, have in fact been part of institutional governance for a number of years. As well as overarching ethical and corporate social responsibility approaches, universities have been drawing up detailed policies for for a wide range of areas, from energy consumption to research, innovation, knowledge transfer and enterprise.
“There is really strong awareness,” said one governor. “For instance capital expenditure and investment plans are expected to demonstrate green credentials. In some of the boards I sit on, it has been very much part of the conversation for a number of years. More recently, there is a move to see things through the lens of the sustainable development goals. It’s not true everywhere but in the last couple of years people have looked across and recognise the urgency.”
Sustainability is at the heart of capital programmes and campus development strategies at many universities, not least because funding bodies demand it. Digital advances prompted by the pandemic and the blended learning future that is envisaged by many dovetails well with these ambitions.
Discrete sustainability working/steering groups at many institutions provide accountability on the issue; leading developments, monitoring KPIs, generating new ideas and reporting regularly to the executive and governing board.
Some measures, such as energy efficiency in campus buildings and reducing travel, which bring cost savings at a time when university finances are stretched, are regarded as “no-brainers”. One governor described how his university’s fleet of vehicles had been replaced with electric alternatives, with help from a funding body.
“Not only does the change reduce fuel bills, it presents a very visible demonstration of our commitment to the sustainability agenda; they’ve got the name of the university written on the side of them,” he said. “It’s good from a stakeholder management perspective.”
Sustainability measures come at a price, however, so a balance needs to be struck between green goals and hard realities, according to a governor at one Russell Group institution.
“I come from a commercial business background so perhaps I see it as a balance. Some people say that green has to come first but I’d say it is an important consideration alongside other considerations.”
He cites instances where donations or grants from fuel companies which may have been accepted in the past are now rejected because of environmental and ethical considerations.
Student expectations of HEI action on environment and sustainability issues are key drivers of progress. High profile fossil fuel divestment campaigns have notched up a number of successes, and a recent Times Higher Education survey revealed that prospective international students said they were more likely to choose a university based on its commitment to sustainability than for its location.
Given the challenge of managing reputational risk, governors need to keep abreast of student expectations on sustainability, said one governor at a private provider.
“One of the changes in the last five years is the significance of the student voice and embedding it into that governance framework. Sustainability is very much on the student agenda,“ she said.
For one governor at a new university in Wales, constant communication with students and stakeholders on sustainability issues is key.
“Our student union was awarded an excellent in the Green Impact Awards this year, which show how important the sustainability agenda is to them. For something like this, I don’t think you can over communicate.”
Some institutions are going further and actively using sustainability wins as unique selling points to entice eco-aware students. For instance, moving beyond divestment decisions to actively pursue “climate-conscious investment” or using green awards and achievements to stand out from the competition.
Boosting this approach is the emergence in recent years of a number of sustainability performance tables that universities are increasingly mindful of.
One governor described how his university’s sustainability KPI is to achieve a 2:1 measure in the People and Planet University League, which ranks institutions on their environmental and ethical performance.
Green performance tables can provide a useful means of measuring action, according to another governor.
“Many universities have set up working groups looking at league tables that matter to them and also they’ll have a watch list of the newer ones. Things like the Green Gown Awards are prestigious if you win and all the measures that are being assessed in the league table help you manage work in these areas, particularly if you’re a university that has not done much in this area,” she said.
One element which counts towards green rankings is education for sustainable development, which is also one of the UN’s SDGs. Governors pointed to the development of modules and courses, as well as attempts to embed sustainability in existing curricula. Similarly, sustainability in research, whether to address global environmental challenges or building partnerships with the global south, is seen by governors as a hot topic, with sustainability often a feature in funding criteria.
One area where all universities have seen a reduction in their carbon footprint in the past two years is travel.
“The pandemic has effectively reduced our travel to zero,” said one governor. “Even when the pandemic is deemed to be over, I don’t think it will increase significantly. People have realised that you can do things on a more timely basis and much more efficiently using Zoom or Teams. We have had a very green 18 months and I think that will continue to some extent.”
One circle that universities struggle to square, however, is how the dependence on international students, and the drive to attract more, fits in with sustainability.
“I find it slightly incongruous that we profess to be very green and yet our strategy and that of most Russell Group universities is to recruit more foreign students,” said one governor.
Some see online provision and transnational education as a possible answer - enabling students from a broader geographic range to be reached sustainably.
“This was part of our recent strategy day: finding the right balance between online and face to face is going to be interesting,” said one governor.
While governors are well aware of the raised profile of the sustainability agenda, some warn that time constraints and the length of board agendas could hamper full oversight of the issue.
“Our board meetings have an incredibly full agenda,” said one Russell Group governor. “I wouldn’t say green issues get pushed out but they are lesser issues – perhaps because they are generally longer term. However, within the university there are all sorts of groups monitoring our green performance. I’d expect to be at least middle of the road in terms of sustainability and if we weren’t it would become a governance issue.”
Governors’ expectations can add to the voices working to keep sustainability a priority: “I would expect the executive to be actively working on reporting through to the boards,” said one governor. “For the board the focus is on hearing those reports and assessing whether what is happening is robust and extensive enough”.
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