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Universities and Net Zero

  • 9 June 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

This blog by HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, is an extract from the Campaign for Learning’s new report, out today, entitled ‘NET ZERO – Greening Industry, Jobs, Skills and Post-16 Education’.

HEPI and Lloyds Bank hosted a webinar yesterday on ‘From COVID to COP26: What more could higher education institutions do to drive environmental sustainability?’ A recording will be made available in due course.

There are not many statues of women in the UK – one assessment suggests that only one-in-five UK statues are of women, and almost none of them is of a young or contemporary woman. Yet, when Greta Thunberg’s statue was recently unveiled at the University of Winchester, there was one of those synthetic rows. It turns out that, where statues are involved, construction is almost as controversial as destruction. Whether or not it was appropriate for the University to spend their own money on commissioning the piece, the episode shows three important things.

First, it reminds us that not all higher education institutions are the same. Winchester has a history of environmental awareness, hosts a number of interesting works of modern art and, spurred on by its religious heritage, is always conscious of its ethical role. So, it would be unfair to accuse the institution of insincerity, whether or not other universities might have been guilty of ‘greenwashing’. 

Secondly, it reminds us that the higher education sector has a direct role to play in tackling climate change. The challenge is probably greater for bigger research-intensive institutions, with – for example – huge numbers of international students making multiple flights each year and considerable endowments, which have sometimes been invested without much of an eye on environmental awareness. Moreover, many universities are the biggest – or one of the biggest – employers in their region, and most have a big physical footprint. So any comprehensive reduction in carbon emissions needs to include them.

Third, it reminds us that higher education institutions are not insulated from the wider concerns of society. They are of society not set aside from it, especially in an age when more than half of all young adults make it to higher education. Society should value universities because, at their best, they can serve as the thread that binds the very fabric of our society and communities together. They do this through the provision of skills to local employers, through transforming the lives of millions of students every year and through pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge. They are also intertwined with the rest of society in other ways, such as through the stonking investments made by the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which has recently committed to net zero for greenhouse gasses by 2050.

One overarching change that institutions can make is to embed sustainability in their own planning. The University of Manchester recently topped the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. That is a huge achievement for such a vast institution but it was no accident. The University’s commitment to sustainability is at the core of what they do, as reflected in their Strategic Plan, which promises to ‘align our work with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’. Putting such commitments formally into institutions’ plans for the future not only reflects the desire for action that exists among most students and staff but also encourages wholly new initiatives.

At a practical level, a second thing that universities can do is to lead by example. The University of Cambridge’s north-west development, for example, neutralised a huge amount of potential opposition by embedding sustainability – for example, in its building standards, its energy use and even the recycling of rainwater for irrigation and flushing toilets. It shows that the desire of institutions to continue expanding and improving need not always fly in the face of environmental concerns. The new Waterside campus of the University of Northampton is another example of what can be done, and the institution recently won an Investors in the Environment Award in part for the use of new technology to reduce the consumption of resources.

University research is crucial in the race to net zero. This is often subsidised (and occasionally entirely paid for) from universities’ own resources. As a country, we have strength in breadth, with expertise across the board, in social science, behavioural economics and anthropology as well as STEM areas, and interdisciplinary approaches are crucial to tackling the world’s grand challenges.

The ideas outlined above might be viewed as less radical than those proposed in a debate paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute in December 2020 (Beyond business as usual: Higher Education in the era of climate change). People must evaluate whether a more radical approach might be more effective but recognise the destructive forces that inevitably come with revolution. In the higher education sector as with the nation as a whole, we need to bring people with us if we are to ensure deep and lasting change. Stopping tube trains or digging tunnels under Euston Station are unlikely to build the broad coalition of support that is necessary. The Green Agenda should not be used by anyone as a backdoor route to foisting their own personal hobbyhorse on everyone else. The idea that greening universities necessitates introducing a basic income in society, for example, is mystifying. Tackling climate change is too important for such silly games.

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