A guest blog kindly contributed by Professor Joy Carter, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Winchester
Together as a sector, we need to re-evaluate what we do and to make the climate emergency a higher priority than it is at present.
There are some notable exceptions, but the higher education sector as a whole has been half asleep on this agenda. Following MPs approval on a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency, it’s time we all did more.
On a personal level, the climate crisis is an issue I am passionate about. I participated peacefully in recent Extinction Rebellion protests and I fully support the school children’s Climate Strikes. I am proud to lead an institution that puts sustainability at its heart, work which is vital to enhance and protect all life and the planet.
Last October, Winchester was one of five universities (with Newcastle, Northumbria, Nottingham and Reading) to sign the Government’s Emissions Reduction Pledge, committing to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent by 2020. All universities will be doing some level of work along these lines, and the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC) is a fine organisation doing amazing work.
But my question is this: are universities (and I include Winchester here too) doing enough to work together and lead on the climate emergency?
What will it take for us to become known as a sector taking action on the climate crisis?
The sector as a whole, Universities UK, GuildHE and mission groups need to show greater leadership. The climate emergency should be awarded the highest importance by sector organisations; they must create and support cross-university networks tasked with tackling the numerous challenges we face. There is a particular onus on Vice-Chancellors, supported by their Governing Bodies, to become leaders on the climate emergency. We have a unique voice within the UK and should use it to lead. Greta Thunberg is an example to us all! We must also support the NUS in their excellent work on sustainability, including developing student leaders.
The climate crisis has not been at the top of most universities’ strategic priority lists. With pressures around student recruitment and funding, institutions have been slow to act. We now need to step up and lead. How can we ensure each new strategy being developed, each new contract being signed, each new course being developed considers the climate crisis?
Universities have a responsibility for future thinking and preparing students to do the same. Having recently received the accreditation at Winchester, I absolutely commend the NUS ‘Responsible Futures Accreditation’ to all HE and FE institutions. As part of the accreditation process, students complete a thorough and valuable audit of how the formal, informal and subliminal curriculum address sustainability. All institutions need this!
Future–facing estates development is paramount. Since 2006-07, the University of Winchester has achieved a 45 per cent reduction in emissions intensity against a 30 per cent target. All our electricity comes from renewable sources, none of our waste goes to landfill and our recycling rate is 60 per cent. Also, all our recent buildings are BREEAM excellent, but there is still so much more to be done, by us all.
We cannot do this alone. We do need to work together as universities and to partner with organisations such as the EAUC and NUS. We must also drive behaviour changes, from the supply chains we support as big purchasers to the communities we engage with regionally, nationally and internationally. Like some other universities, Winchester is currently working to eliminate single-use plastic across everything we do. As well as changing our own operations and the behaviours of students and staff, it also requires us to work with suppliers to do things differently. If we work together, this will be something we will be able to make bolder, faster moves in.
Universities by their very nature tend to see things in shades of grey – perhaps we need to be more black and white? By that, I mean we have to be bold in our thinking on the climate emergency and sustainability. We must lift our heads to the bigger problems facing society and reflect this in our voice to the wider world. We need to be positive, peaceful activists and drive consensus on solutions to the challenges we face.
- Universities must work together to lead on the climate emergency – Governors, Vice-Chancellors, staff and staff unions, students and student unions.
- We all need to embrace the first rate work of the NUS and work with them to empower student leaders.
- The EAUC must receive greater recognition and support.
- Winchester might be one pioneer in its approach to sustainability and climate emergency education, but we must all do more. We need a partnership approach and sector-wide response to delivering meaningful action.