To address climate change, universities need sustainable funding

As COP26 looms, universities’ vital place in the UK’s environmental armoury must be recognised in the spending review, says Judith Petts 

October 20, 2021
A tree in the shape of a pound sign
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In his speech to the United Nations ahead of COP26, the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, heralded a “turning point” in humanity’s battle with climate change. Now, he proclaimed, is the time our actions matter the most.

If he truly believes this, he will put words into action and ensure that the government makes a strong commitment in next week’s spending review to universities and their vital role across the UK and beyond.

Universities are some of the most effective weapons in the UK’s climate and environmental armoury, not least when we want the world to follow our lead. University research and expertise is behind our deep understanding of climate change and the technological advances driving decarbonisation and building resilience. The inclusion of climate literacy across university courses is equipping graduates with the skills and determination to respond to the climate crisis. Universities are generating the leaders of tomorrow to deliver public and environmental good.

Talent is everywhere. It is found in people from all backgrounds and nurtured through every subject. From medicine and nursing to natural sciences, engineering, economics, law, the social and behavioural sciences, arts and humanities – all disciplines have an important role to play in delivering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We need all types of graduates to make important contributions in every world of work they go into, as well as to be informed and involved citizens. Deterring young people from studying humanities or social sciences because they are somehow seen as less valuable is to misunderstand entirely the skills that all graduates bring to the economy and society.

Several universities including my own, the University of Plymouth, have announced COP26 scholarships, capitalising on the moment by inviting the very best students to focus their talents on sustainability. I am pleased that the Treasury is considering match funding for these awards, because they will make a genuine difference. But it will take far more than scholarships to offset the impact of any higher education funding cuts on our future talent pipeline.

Universities are squarely behind the government’s aims to cut carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 and to reach net zero by 2050 – as announced by Universities UK today. Some of my peers are prepared to go further, faster. At Plymouth, we are on track for net zero emissions at both the direct institutional level and also in our energy suppliers by 2025: five years faster than originally planned.

But it will not be straightforward. Universities are large, complex organisations with global reach. Our supply chains run deep and substantial emissions are generated by our international footprints, which the government recognises are essential to extending trade and investment, as well as innovation and UK influence. Tuition fees from international students are a vital cross-subsidy for university research following previous funding cuts.

The climate commitments universities have made are considerably more than an attempt to tout eco credentials ahead of COP26. Vice-chancellors understand that institutions in receipt of large amounts of public money should be judged on what the taxpayer gets in return. In early 2022, we will launch a national campaign to showcase how universities are reaching into every part of the economy and society to educate, inspire and work towards a greener future, together.

The 140 universities that are members of Universities UK are autonomous institutions and highly diverse in size and focus. But in recent years all campuses have become much cleaner, greener spaces, and we know we can do more to tell this story. For example, we are working to simplify our emissions reduction reporting processes.  

One thing is for certain: despite endless potential, universities cannot continue doing more with less. We do not doubt that the prime minister is serious about the UK’s role in facing down the climate emergency and building long-term sustainability. The economy has to be built back after the pandemic, and the country needs universities operating at the very peak of their powers to support all this work. Now is the time for government to support and invest in the strength and leadership of our world-class universities through sustainable funding.  

Judith Petts is vice-chancellor of the University of Plymouth.

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Reader's comments (1)

Will this include stopping universities building hotels on grade 1 and grade 11 food producing land. At least make it a forest, why an hotel in the middle of the green belt. Keele what are you thinking.

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