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Building back greener: the role of UK universities in helping to ensure a sustainable future

  • 21 April 2021
  • By Lucian Hudson

This blog was kindly contributed by Lucian Hudson, Director, Advancement and Communications, Durham University, and Chair, Earthwatch Europe, and lead author of ‘Universities at The Crossroads’. Last year Lucian wrote a blog for HEPI about the importance of the THE Impact Rankings which you can read here. You can find Lucian on Twitter @LucianHudson.

Released today, the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings 2021, are a timely spur to action to all universities globally if we as a sector are serious about promoting and embedding sustainable development across our research, education and operations. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, governments, business and civil society across the world are refocusing on recovery. Rhetoric has to be matched by action but it is becoming received wisdom that systemic threats – particularly climate change and erosion of biodiversity – are real and leadership matters. Action is required across every sector and at every level: global, national, regional and local.

Having so effectively responded to the pandemic, UK universities have a critical role in leading post-pandemic recovery, bringing on skilled graduates to enable economic growth and to build a better society. Universities can also show moral leadership in giving priority to sustainable development and in so doing better connect with their communities.

These rankings – more than most – speak both to excellence and inclusion. Being sustainable is increasingly important for universities. Prospective students (and prospective staff) want to see evidence of progress and so our funding is moving in that direction. Being sustainable also supports good local community relations. If universities are to avoid negative perceptions of perpetuating elites, assessing their impact in achieving the wider public good through meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a credible and tangible way to demonstrate broader social purpose.

The THE Impact Rankings are the only global survey to assess universities against progress towards the 17 SDGs. Now in its third year, the THE rankings are gaining significant traction with a record 1240 universities from 98 countries and regions participating. Western countries dominate the top 10 but 24 countries and regions from the six continents are in the overall top 100. The UK has record numbers with 20 universities in the top 100. UK universities have more top spots across all the rankings. If I were in Number 10 developing the UK Government’s programme to build back better, I would see this as an excellent opportunity to work with UK Higher Education to build back greener.

The University of Manchester tops the table with first place for work towards both SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production). University of Plymouth leads on SDG 14 (Life Below Water). Durham University is now in the top 100, up 14 places in 87th place, which makes it one of the biggest climbers this year others include Stratchclyde, Queen’s Belfast, Aberdeen and Bournemouth.

Durham has won praise for our world-changing research, our responsible institutional approach and the tireless work of our students – and dedicated staff. Examples include protecting and enhancing local ecosystems across campus – including our stunning 10-hectare Botanic Garden (now once again open to all after COVID) and protecting and sharing cultural heritage (Durham World Heritage Site, libraries and museums, student arts scene). Research is important too: we are part of The Water Hub, working with communities and government agencies on water security and sustainable water use. Durham Energy Institute undertakes leading interdisciplinary research, including into energy decarbonisation. We have also made a global commitment to sustainability, becoming one of 209 institutions from across the world to sign the SDG Accord, which is a response and commitment from universities and colleges to the UN SDGs.

Even though international multilateral action is more difficult now than before and during the Global Financial Crisis, there is now the possibility of clear and dynamic leadership on tackling climate change and increased momentum from the world’s main powers. Universities should be at the heart of a wider social movement to inspire leadership, forge cross-sector collaboration and mobilise its people, resources and networks to transform society’s response to climate change.

Speaking about the opportunity for universities to lead the way in a societal sustainability transformation Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer at THE commented:

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to every generation and the traditional measures of what makes a great university are being shaken up by a need to actively demonstrate a commitment to everyone from the next generation of students and alumni to research partners and local businesses.

It is obvious that universities are uniquely placed to help create a fairer, more sustainable world. Across the SDGs, through partnerships both locally and across borders, institutional research, involvement in local communities and embedding sustainability across their missions, they can play a more holistic role in creating positive change than many others.

The THE Impact Rankings show that there is so much good work to celebrate across the UK and beyond. But the global challenge is pressing, and the time is now for more universities to participate in these rankings. Our students, staff and stakeholders will be expecting it and increasingly so as the world starts to focus increasingly on COP26. We hear time and time again that many members of the public and politicians across the spectrum are sceptical of universities and their impact. Contributing to UN SDGs is one way we can show our value, protect our world and support our business success all in one go.

In a few weeks HEPI will be announcing an event about universities and the pivot towards sustainability in an era of climate change. Make sure you are signed up below to our mailing list so you don’t miss out on registration.

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1 comment

  1. Great article, well said Lucian. But there is one fundamental problem with the THE approach to the SDGs. Isolating and reporting on each Global Goal on its own completely fails to recognise the ‘interrelatedness’ and ‘indivisibility’ of all 17 goals. We can do great things to advance each goal, but unless we step back and look at what we are doing through the lens of the other goals, we certainly risk hitting the target but absolutely missing the point.

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