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The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

New report urges universities to have zero carbon emissions by 2035 and to rethink knowledge and teaching practices for the era of climate change

  • 10 December 2020

The Higher Education Policy Institute is publishing its first ever report on climate change. Beyond business as usual: Higher education in the era of climate change (HEPI Debate Paper 24) by Keri Facer, Zennström Professor of Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University and Professor of Educational and Social Futures at the University of Bristol, outlines how universities and colleges can help lead the UK’s strategy for tackling climate change.

Drawing on powerful case studies and a robust analytical framework, Professor Facer presents recommendations for how policymakers, staff and students can approach the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change. She makes a compelling case that universities and colleges have a key role to play in addressing the climate crisis, from COP26 (the next UN climate conference) in Glasgow to the Government’s levelling-up agenda and informing the public about the changing climate and ecological collapse. To make the changes necessary, universities and colleges must act meaningfully and swiftly and not just ‘greenwash’ their activities.

At a national level, the report argues for:

  • the development of a massive open programme of public learning as a partnership between The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the BBC and UK higher education;
  • a ‘moonshot’ capital and revenue research fund to stimulate the research and innovation needed to ensure that all UK universities and colleges have zero carbon emissions by 2035, with a 75 per cent reduction by 2030; and
  • the creation of a £3 billion National Green Livelihoods Transition Fund.

In reference to education providers, the report argues:

  • institutions must focus on massively reducing carbon emissions from their day-to-day operations, including from staff and student travel, and commit to sustaining biodiversity;
  • institutions should interpret their civic role as including the need to help educate adults away from carbon-intensive work and towards socially positive investment; and
  • universities should collaborate more, building alliances between scientists, artists, politics and society, particularly from marginalised communities.  

Professor Keri Facer, author of the report, said:

Universities and colleges are the UK’s critical learning infrastructure – they help us think our way out of problems, invent new ways of living and adapt to change. We need urgently to harness these resources to help us, as a society, transition towards more sustainable futures.

We need a massive, nationwide programme of learning and innovation to help us transition – in our infrastructure, our way of life, our food systems and our values – towards a society that can survive well in conditions of significant climate disruption. For that, we need to mobilise our universities, our colleges and our great national educational institutions like the BBC.

It’s time we gave up on the idea that going to university is just about preparation for a business as usual economy – that is not going to ensure our young people survive and thrive in the future. We need our universities and colleges to be helping students imagine and create different futures that are not dependent upon fantasies of endless economic growth and ecological extraction.

The Government urgently needs to get its house in order in terms of its climate credentials. It will host the COP26 in Glasgow next year and needs to give a strong example of how it is leading the world in climate action. One way to do this would be through a Green Livelihoods Transition Programme that provides free university and college to adults that lets them transition away from high-carbon employment to imagine and create sustainable livelihoods.

If the Government wants to level up, it needs to invest in the people of deindustrialised towns and cities to ensure that they have educational opportunities, by creating new centres for green innovation and skills. To do this – you need to get the universities and the colleges on board.

Michael Natzler, Policy Officer at HEPI, said:

The world has been busy battling COVID for most of 2020. Nevertheless, the climate crisis grows more serious. Universities and colleges have a critical part to play in the national and global effort to stem the impact of climate change. Their roles extend beyond research and teaching, and acting as sustainability leaders ought to be at the heart of their civic missions.

Some universities have made progress in recent years, yet higher education managers and governors must address whether their institutions’ green initiatives are meaningful or simply “greenwashing”.

Amidst the pain and disruption in 2020, it has been shown beyond doubt that educational institutions can transform their practices when necessary. We witnessed this first in March, with teaching rapidly moving online, and again in August, when admissions offices responded flexibly with each unravelling of the A-Level fiasco. The challenge of climate change is no longer on the horizon; it must be the next issue for universities to tackle head on.

Notes for Editors

  1. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to help shape the higher education debate with evidence. It is the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded by higher education institutions and other organisations that wish to see a vibrant policy debate.
  2. HEPI is currently on the shortlist in the Health & Social Policy category at the Prospect Think Tank Awards 2020.

1 comment

  1. George Longman says:

    With bond yields so low, and massive investments needed to fund GHG reductions, is it time for a UK-wide investment scheme for HEIs to pool pension contributions and apply to long term energy efficiency and emissions reduction projects across their estates? From the USS pension annual report:, bond fund achieved 3.5% growth, similar to benchmark. A low bar to jump for a sustainable return?

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