HSBCCan universities do more on climate change? 

Can universities do more on climate change? 


Addressing the climate emergency needs to be driven from the top, agreed an HSBC roundtable at THE Live

Today’s generation of students are activists against climate change who expect their universities to be on board with the cause, often choosing institutions with a strong record on sustainability. 

As part of its commitment to communities, HSBC aims to finance economic growth that is sustainable, and at THE Live 2019 hosted a roundtable at which higher education leaders discussed the challenges of becoming carbon neutral and what they were doing to accelerate progress. 

Simeran Bachra, from CDP, a not-for-profit platform where organisations can disclose data on sustainability progress, argued that we still have some way to go. Hundreds of companies have committed to action that will keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius, but we’re only on track to hit 3.2 degrees Celsius. Bachra offered a list of five actions that universities can take to speed their progress: disclose and share data, and become more transparent; reduce their operational emissions by looking at, for example, transport links; engage with their supply chains; review their courses and curricula with regard to developing greener skills; and collaborate with their cities and communities, for example by providing resources for research.

Many of the universities in attendance are already working on at least one of those actions. Mary Pierre-Harvey, director of estates and campus services at Oxford Brookes University, explained how the university has recently re-procured its catering contract. “Sustainability and being local were top criteria rather than the lowest price,” she said.

However, there can be a gap between what students expect of their institutions and their own behaviours, according to Paul Ryan, pro vice-chancellor and dean of humanities, arts and social sciences at Regent’s University London. “Students now expect to recycle – it’s a hygiene factor. But there’s a disconnect between what they do as individuals and what they expect of us,” he said. Graham Smith, director of the sustainable finance unit at HSBC, agreed, citing the environmental impact of always-on platforms and services such as Uber Eats and Amazon’s delivery drones.

“They [students] order food that’s cooked and transported to them, they waste more food and use more energy than the previous generation,” he said. “When it comes to courses, there’s a lack of critical thinking – someone might be fascinated by the idea of a drone delivering a Firestick and a packet of popcorn, but what does that mean? It’s important we hold them to a high standard.” 

Katie Bell, chief commercial officer at Middlesex University London, suggested that students’ unions could do more to influence behaviours. “We need to encourage students’ unions to lead it more than they currently do. We offer recycling everywhere and we’ve gone plastic free, but although students embrace it, it’s still early days,” she said.

At the University of Bristol, students support climate change activism in a variety of ways, including hosting a people’s assembly in response to the climate emergency declaration, attended by more than 200 people from the community. But Martin Wiles, head of sustainability, felt it was difficult to juggle priorities. “Everyone has strong ideas – we have to prioritise them and be transparent. Should a vice-chancellor publish his or her carbon footprint, for example? We should question why we are flying to meetings, why we’re creating more car park spaces,” he said.

Depending on location and type of institution, these priorities will be different and their impact will vary. The University of London, for example, has multiple campuses, halls and facilities, so is able to scale up its sustainability efforts. Its Reduce the Juice sustainability engagement programme has led to recycling rates of more than 80 per cent in halls and is now being rolled out to partner universities. Chris Cobb, pro vice-chancellor for operations and UoL’s chief operating officer, explained how this fitted with the university’s other civic activities, such as engaging with the Greater London Authority on changing the model for student accommodation to make it more affordable.

But he also argued that institutions needed to challenge their own business models. “University business models rely on international students,” he said. “Maybe we need to think about whether we invest in attracting more commuter students who live closer to the institution, or better learning technologies so they can learn from home?”

Martha Horler, data and compliance manager at Futureworks Media College, noted that smaller providers want to be more agile but must operate under the same regulatory structure as everyone else. 

There was a clear argument for greater collaboration and better coordination. “Efforts to decarbonise electricity and heat require the involvement of multiple parties,” said Richard Murphy, managing director of The Energy Consortium. Universities must also exploit their links with industry, for example through higher-level and degree apprenticeships.

“We can engage with the new apprenticeship standards and link the curriculum to sustainability goals,” added Lisa Rowe, deputy head of the Centre for Work Related Studies at the University of Chester. “Students on apprenticeships tend to do a major project every single year with an employer, and there’s no reason why that could not be linked.” 

Most agreed that sustainability needed to be driven from the very top and across disciplines. “Every stakeholder should be able to challenge others,” argued Philip Tamuno, head of sustainability at Queen Mary University of London. 

Kai Peters, pro vice-chancellor for business and law at Coventry University, argued that institutions should “mainstream” sustainability to accelerate progress by making it a part of every curriculum. “Management can effect change for the institution but how do we know whether we’ve hit a tipping point? This is not just national – we need to look at good practice globally.” 

Universities need to be sure they are authentic about their journey towards sustainability goals.

“You need to be transparent and bring people with you,” advised Stu Meades, an energy and sustainability consultant. “There’s a mistrust of ’greenwashing’ but you also need students to recognise that changes won’t happen immediately.”


The panel

Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (co-chair)
Graham Smith, director, sustainable finance unit, HSBC (co-chair)
Simeran Bachra, UK cities manager, CDP (keynote speaker)
Katie Bell, chief commercial officer, Middlesex University London
Chris Cobb, pro vice-chancellor and deputy chief executive, University of London
Mary Pierre-Harvey, director of estates and campus services, Oxford Brookes University
Martha Horler, data and compliance manager, Futureworks Media College
Stu Meades, energy and sustainability consultant, Goldsmiths, University of London
Richard Murphy, managing director, The Energy Consortium
Kai Peters, pro vice-chancellor, Coventry University
Lisa Rowe, deputy head of the Centre for Work Related Studies, University of Chester
Paul Ryan, pro vice-chancellor, Regent’s University London
Philip Tamuno, head of sustainability, Queen Mary University of London
Suzy Verma, head of corporate banking, Birmingham, Coventry and Warwickshire, HSBC
Martin Wiles, head of sustainability, University of Bristol


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