The future by degrees

9th December, 2008 by Anonymous

From campus life to coursework content and innovative research, universities should be at the forefront of the drive for sustainability. But are they up to it? Amy Fetzer gives our academic institutions the third degree.

At Berea College in Kentucky, they don’t just provide housing for their students; they treat their Ecovillage as a ‘living laboratory’. The student accommodation and childcare centre encourages ‘learning by doing’ and its green design elements, such as solar and wind power, rainwater harvesting and composting toilets, are monitored to evaluate how low-impact systems work in practice. The idea is catching on: the University of Bradford is currently recruiting students for its planned ‘sustainable village’ campus.

Elsewhere across the world’s campuses, solar-powered computers, swap shops, free bike hire and chip fat fuel are among a host of initiatives to reduce emissions, cut waste and find solutions to the climate challenge.

Universities not only have massive scope to stimulate more sustainable lifestyles – they can also teach crucial sustainable skills, and act as invaluable centres of research. Many low-carbon innovations, for instance, started life in university labs. But are they teaching what we need to know? After all, with half the young people in Britain likely to be students at some stage, universities shape the workforce of the future.

Forum for the Future founder director Sara Parkin puts it in a nutshell when she speaks of spreading ‘sustainability literacy’ across all academic disciplines. She sees it as a key role of higher education to ensure that everyone, not just a few specialists, emerges equipped to apply sustainability principles to their future at work and in the community.

It’s a vision that many students seem keen to buy into. In Forum’s recent Future Leader’s Survey, covering all university applicants in 2007-08, nearly two-thirds of the respondents wanted to see more about sustainability in the curriculum and the prospectus.

So, apparently, do the powers that be. Both the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills agree that a new strategy is required to make sustainability a core part of all campus life.

"Solar-powered computers, swap shops, free bike hire, chip fat fuel"

A whistlestop tour of campuses up and down the country would certainly uncover quite a lot going on. More than two-thirds of England’s HE establishments could point to at least some research and development under way in this area. But the trouble is that it’s emerging only slowly and patchily. Initiatives tend to be limited to particular departments, like environmental sciences – and all too often they’re dependent on individual efforts instead of co-ordinated leadership. So what needs to change – and how?

The lab of life

From Oxford’s oldest colleges to state-of-the-art architecture like Northumbria’s new law school, there are many lessons to be learned from the way university buildings are designed, built, managed – and monitored. Some, like Bradford and Kentucky’s Berea, are trailblazers. But for many others, the key environmental feature of their campuses is a hefty carbon footprint.

On energy alone, the Carbon Trust calculates that the total buildings estate of further and higher education colleges in England consumes 5,200 million kWh every year. And it emits the of CO2 equivalent of one million people flying to Miami and back; 3.2 million tonnes. The record on reducing it is decidedly patchy – so far. Hence the drive to get universities to adopt the overall UK goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. Its first results were declared in November, when five institutions – Manchester, Keele, King’s College London, Edinburgh and Central Lancashire – were awarded the Carbon Trust Standard mark for moving in the right direction, with an average cut of 6%.

Energy efficiency strategies and building insulation programmes are the most obvious things for them to put in place, but there’s plenty of scope for wider innovation too – and that doesn’t just mean buying ‘green tariff’ electricity from the grid. Edinburgh’s Napier University, for instance, is using money from the Energy Saving Trust to install solar panels which will power up to 80 computers. Westminster is planning to install a range of onsite renewables, including solar panels, a wind turbine and a biomass boiler.

"Many low carbon innovations started life in university labs"

Then there’s transport: another sizeable source of carbon emissions – and another opportunity to make major cuts. At St Andrews they’ve focused mainly on buses (working with the operators so that routes and timings match demand) and on bikes. The university now boasts 500 cycle storage spaces, plus cycle information, maps and maintenance classes, with a bike pool scheme promised soon to help staff travel between meetings. The University of East London already has its own pay-as-you-go cycles for staff, students and residents, with 30-minute journeys free – a kind of mini-version of Paris’s widely acclaimed Vélib scheme. Taking a different tack, the University of Wales converts used cooking oil into biodiesel to power campus maintenance vehicles and machinery. The UK universities which have opened campuses overseas, from China to Dubai, might even be said to be doing their bit here. Instead of flying large numbers of students over to Britain, they fly far fewer lecturers overseas.

Information and communications technology, of course, can cut emissions through distance learning. It can also help pull piecemeal, patchy progress together in a more coherent, cross-curricular approach to sustainability. Construction management courses at Dundee and Birmingham City University, for instance, both use ‘wikis’ to build up web resources on sustainability in the built environment.

Making it count

Connecting academic work with the wider community looms large in ‘joining up’ sustainability. It can make a big difference if courses in subjects like engineering are flexible enough for students to take them ‘on the job’ – maximising the flow of knowledge between academia and business in both directions. On the one hand, students can try to apply what they’re learning about sustainability to practical issues in their workplace, via anything from implementing video conferencing to re-evaluating their company supply chain. Conversely, they can bring their ‘work’ experience into the classroom, as a reality check for the robustness of sustainability ‘solutions’ in the face of unforgiving budgets and sceptical colleagues.

Business placements, too, can provide a rich seam of ‘real world’ material for incorporation into coursework. Yacob Mulugetta at the University of Surrey has been setting up a programme in which 260 students go into the local council, schools and businesses to help them cut carbon, manage their waste, improve transport and map their eco-footprint.

"In some US colleges students bizarrely put on the air con to cool overheated dorm"

But this kind of engagement is all too rare at present, says Jane Wilkinson, who leads the higher education work at Forum for the Future. Its own masters degree course, Leadership for Sustainable Development, combines lectures and study with six separate month-long placements in business, government and NGOs. In another Forum-driven project in Bristol, postgraduate students at the University of the West of England are devising a range of environmental indicators to help the city tackle high priority problems like traffic congestion and pollution.

And what could be further from that ivory tower cliché than spinning a sustainable business out of a breakthrough in academic research? There’s been a growing emphasis on developing an enterprise culture among universities for a while, of course. But now there are particular opportunities for cleantech innovators to spark the recession-busting start-ups we so evidently need. RawSolar is one example, marketing a revolutionary low-cost solar power system developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Another is Carbon8, created to commercialise work by researchers at the University of Greenwich, who found a way to lock in carbon dioxide with contaminated soil or polluted waste and so form tiny harmless pebbles which can be used as aggregate by the construction industry.

Getting wasted – differently

Universities are also cottoning on to ways of reducing their own everyday ‘waste’ – and re-valuing it as a commodity which can be reused or sold.

Some of their initiatives in this area are pretty down-to-earth; more hands-on engagement than rarefied ‘learning’. One idea is to promote an hour a week of student green activity, preferably on something which will appeal to their lifestyle – such as organising ‘swishing’-style clothes-swap parties.

But however it is done, getting staff and students onboard is vital. With over 10,000 bins and 75,000 people on campus, the University of Leeds raised awareness by taking key staff to see the mountains of recyclable waste going to landfill, and showing students and staff the scale of the problem with photos, posters and talks. Recycling rates have now reached 40%, and appear on target to reach 70% by the end of 2009.

The London School of Economics has tackled its massive end of year waste peaks, when the average student dumps 10-12kg of reusable clobber, by implementing an impressively comprehensive reuse scheme. Unwanted items such as pots, posters, clothes and bedding can be easily sorted, swapped, sold or given to charity – and the amount binned has dropped dramatically. LSE is now sharing its learning with other universities, and forming regional reuse networks through another HEFCE-backed project: Sustainability in Universities – Moving Towards Zero-Waste.

Giving it political clout

Incorporating sustainability principles pays off on so many fronts – saving money, inspiring the university community, attracting students and staff, and making an impression on green ‘league tables’ – that you have to wonder why it hasn’t totally swept the board.

There is the recently launched environmental and corporate responsibility benchmark for higher education, ‘Universities that Count’, launched in November. Rather like a businesses index, the scheme will rate the 64 participating higher education institutes on their performance in this area.

But if initiatives like these really took off, could we see more colleges appointing sustainability experts at senior management level – as has been advocated forcefully by US expert Steven Lanou at MIT? More of them, too, might follow the lead of people like Nan Jenks-Jay. As dean of environmental affairs at Middlebury College in Vermont, she has helped make her institution a beacon of good green practice – not least by getting its academics, administrators, students and facilities managers to talk to each other and work together better. Instead of the kind of bizarre situation where students end up putting on the air con to cool overheated dormitories, Middlebury now has a joined-up strategy across the board. The aim is to make the whole college carbon neutral by 2016 – via a combination of energy efficiency measures, onsite renewables, technological innovation and educational programmes, with carbon offsetting strictly as a last resort.

The ripple effect

“Universities must lead by example,” says Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey. “If they don’t, they’re sending out inconsistent signals, and students won’t take sustainability seriously.” But if facilities for cycling (and recycling) are widely used on campus, and technologies like solar power become part of the ‘normal’ way of doing things, then graduates will more likely expect (and demand) them afterwards, in their jobs, homes and public buildings.

"If sustainability becomes normal at university, then graduates will expect - and demand - it in later life"

So far, graduates with a strong academic background in sustainability are in a small minority. But already it’s possible to track their career paths into major public and private sector organisations, and each year their influence grows. You’ll find them in government departments, at the top accountancy and consultancy firms, and in initiatives such as the Carbon Disclosure Project and ClimateWise. Former engineering student Andy Davey, who attributes his ‘sustainability mindset’ to what he learnt at the University of Surrey, says the doctorate has given him “the insight and tools to put sustainability principles into practice within the NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency, and has informed the approach I have taken to all my policy jobs in Defra”. Alumni of the Forum masters course can be found in both the NHS and Defra too, as well as at the Treasury, the Olympic Delivery Authority, major companies such as BP, and organisations they’ve started themselves, including Beyond Green, Upstream and Futerra.

“There are some aspects of sustainability we don’t understand yet”, says Jackson. What, for example, are the most effective policies for changing unsustainable behaviours? “Universities are one of the only places we can think creatively about these challenges.”

Sara Parkin takes a somewhat different tack. For her, it’s not so much a lack of research that stands in the way of a society-wide switch to sustainability; it’s more a matter of finding effective ways to communicate the solutions that are emerging.

Either way, however, Jackson’s and Parkin’s arguments both point to the same conclusion. It’s not enough for universities to offer ‘sustainability’ as a subject option or an afterthought. It has to be at the core of what and how they teach and research, of how they manage their estates, and how they provide for their students and staff to conduct their lives. As Ann Finlayson of the Sustainable Development Commission puts it: “The question universities should be asking themselves all the time is ‘Is that enough? Shouldn’t we be doing more?”.

Gloucestershire’s greener degrees
The University of Gloucestershire is something of a star on sustainability. Its strengths include:
  • Commitment from the top: vice-chancellor Patricia Broadfoot, who also chairs the Universities-UK sustainable development task force, says that “the biggest single thing we do is to try to inspire students about issues of sustainability”
  • A strong track record in teaching on the subject: reinforced by the recent creation of a Sustainability Institute
  • High standards in environmental management: it was the first English university to achieve registration to ISO 14001
  • Recognition from students: it came top in the 2008 Green League drawn up by student campaign group People & Planet
  • Sharing the learning: it recently published its own book on sustainability in universities, Greener by Degrees.
Earthship exemplar
Students at the University of Brighton have given a big boost to one of the city’s most prominent new landmarks. Their evaluation of the environmental performance of the Earthship, a local eco-visitor-centre built entirely from reused and recycled materials, and relying on rainwater and renewable energy, showed how well the prototype worked. As a result, Brighton and Hove City Council has now granted permission for 16 Earthship-style homes.
Top tips for a green uni

The would-be-sustainable university should:
  • Set a strategy – with targets and accountabilities
  • Install experts at management level – to co-ordinate both operational and academic initiatives
  • Be clear about the business case – emphasise savings from energy efficiency, better waste management and resource use, and eligibility for ‘green’ grants
  • Engage – take all stakeholder groups along
  • Talk straight – present problems and progress in simple and vivid ways

For more information on Forum’s masters course, visit

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