Care for the environment and cash for the university coffers

August 29, 2003

Martin Ince outlines the work of Environmental Consultancy Services.

Academics with a concern for the environment want to change the world as well as observe it. At Northumbria University they are doing just that and at the same time are joining in the increasingly vital task of bringing cash into the institution.

Environmental Consultancy Services is one of about 25 businesses run by Northumbria staff. Helen Manns, head of subject in environmental management at Northumbria, is one of the participants in ECS. She points out that environmental management is one of the university's specialisms. "ECS is a way for us to generate income from this base at a time when the university needs a more diverse revenue stream," she says.

ECS is a small business by Northumbria's standards - taking up part of the effort of three academics, including Manns - Jbut it has been able to participate in several large projects and led a $250,000 (£180,000) Leonardo project funded by the European Union.

Manns says that the work of ECS matches the experience base of the academics in Northumbria's environmental management group. "There are three main areas in which we work. Our basic skill is in the science of waste reduction, which we offer to both the public and private sectors. We also carry out environmental audits and provide guidance and advice on environmental management. This is often a matter of making sure firms are complying with the law," she says.

The aim of ECS is to bring cash into the university, but Manns insists that there are scholarly payoffs too. "We teach waste management and environmental planning here, and many ECS projects have turned into undergraduate case studies," she says. ECS is also active in building up the management capacity needed to cope with environmental issues. "Any contract we perform normally involves at least some training. In addition, we train managements of small and medium enterprises, in particular, on various types of energy and environmental management, including waste management." Part of this work involves creating workbooks that will allow managers to improve company practice and their own skills.

Next, says Manns, ECS plans to develop continuous professional development packages for companies that want to enhance their environmental management base. She adds that "apart from work coming from the European Commission, 99 per cent of our business is in the northeast".

The university has set up a central organisation, Northumbria Commercial Enterprises, which is a £4.5 million a year organisation, to group its services to industry and the public sector. Tony Hackney, commercial director of the company, says that departments at the university get involved with industry "as a matter of course".

"This activity is not an extra. We are mainly a teaching university, and with 24,000 students we are the eighth biggest in the country. But we also regard it as part of our job to engage with industry at the pragmatic rather than the theoretical end of research," he says. "This brings in money, but it also takes our specialist knowledge into the marketplace.

"The biggest of our activities is training, which is provided by our business school. Another is engineering, which generates about £500,000 a year."

But Manns warns that commercial consultancy, although intellectually and financially worthwhile, is not straightforward.

"The environmental management business is very competitive and we regularly bid for business against well-known private-sector consultants," she says.

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