Green shoots

Galvanised by last year's inaugural league table, universities across the UK have been busily redrafting environment policies and cutting energy consumption - but there's still a long way to go. Hannah Fearn reports

July 3, 2008

*Please see table on right*

In 2007 it was judged to be third class; now, in 2008, it picks up a first-class award. In just one year, the University of Huddersfield has turned around its performance on the environment and sustainability. Its achievements have been staggering: it has increased the proportion of waste it recycles from 8 per cent to 44 per cent and cut its overall emissions by 13 per cent. When the People & Planet Green League was published last summer, ranking universities according to their environmental performance, Huddersfield lagged behind in a lowly 71st place. Today it sits proudly within the top ten.

But despite individual successes, the overall picture for higher education is less clear-cut, as the Green League 2008, published here for the first time, shows. Although performance across the board appears to have improved, the results for carbon emissions and recycling are not as positive as many had hoped. The figures cast a cloud over ambitions for the higher education sector to lead on climate change within the UK economy.

People & Planet is a nationwide network of students campaigning on world poverty, human rights and the environment. The Green League, partly funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), is its attempt to push universities to set an example on sustainability and the environment by rating their aspirations and achievements.

Although the assessment criteria have been modified since last year, the figures overall reveal improvements across the whole sector. Universities are laying down the foundations for change - by drafting management policies and appointing environmental managers, among other measures. More concrete results, on carbon emissions and recycling, for example, are expected to show up in next year's league table.

The table's publication follows the political debate over the Climate Change Bill, for which MPs approved sector-by-sector targets on carbon emissions after being lobbied by activists including People & Planet. Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, hopes that universities can set a precedent for other sectors to follow. "This Government is committed to promoting environmental sustainability and tackling the challenge of global climate change," Rammell has said, "and we have been clear that the UK's higher education sector has an important part to play in this work."

This year's Green League ranking shows that 117 universities have environmental policies, 101 of which were written or reviewed within the past two years. There are other achievements: 18 institutions have full-time environmental staff for the first time; in total, 70 out of 131 have full-time environmental staff; 88 institutions have developed formal schemes to involve staff in environmental management; and 73 have conducted comprehensive environmental reviews, including 34 that had not done so in 2007.

Over the past year, 86 universities have cut their carbon emissions per head, and 52 have increased the percentage of waste they recycle. Fairtrade status is held by 77 universities.

People & Planet, which gathered data for its ranking from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the institutions themselves, believes last year's publication of the first league table forced universities to raise their game on environmental management.

"We were incredibly surprised to see the impact last year, and so much more response from the sector. Overall the sector is improving," says James Lloyd, head of campaigns at People & Planet. "What we're trying to do with the league is look at performance factors and look at the policies of people putting things in place. It's starting to be taken seriously. It's no longer acceptable to have a policy voted on in senate and then filed away with all the rest of the policies."

The group is pleased that Rammell is pushing for universities to blaze a green trail. "He really wants to take an active role leading the way on this," Lloyd says. "That's important because it reflects the fact that for many years universities have been leading in research on climate change, but we also need them to see it as their role as leading us towards a low-carbon economy."

The results show, however, that the sector is still some way from achieving that. Although policies are being put in place, estate management has not improved as much as might have been hoped. No university achieved full marks on energy resources, and 13 used more energy from non-renewable sources last year. Only ten universities received full marks on ethical investment. Overall, 15 were deemed to have "failed".

"It's starting to happen, but there is a long way to go," Lloyd says. "The majority of universities have policies - those that don't are serious laggards. Having a publicly available policy is a basic first step. Institutions lacking one are proving that they aren't even willing to pay lip service to environmental issues."

Lloyd adds an important proviso, however. "We have to acknowledge that some of the changes that are being made are not going to be noticed in performance fields until next year because there is a time delay in performance monitoring."

Although progress is being made, some still question whether there has been a genuine change of attitude in higher education. "There is still a deep frustration within the sector from many of the students at large," says Iain Patton, executive director of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC). "Change is a slow business. I've been pushing at this for 11 or 12 years. We have had lots of false dawns before. I have to be cautious."

Patton agrees that universities could assume a pioneering role. "We could be leaders of the field and, for God's sake, why shouldn't we be? We're talking education here, we're not churning out industrial processes.

"Further and higher education have a great opportunity to lead on sustainability," he adds. "We have researchers and academics, we understand more and more about how our planet is working, about how people are impacting on each other and the planet. So we have a great opportunity to explore new ways of living and trading."

But Patton argues that there is a cultural problem within higher education. "There is still conservatism; there is still a reluctance to lead. We're not great risk-takers."

Another issue is that universities receive little in the way of official recognition, policy prompts or reward for making a genuine effort to improve their environmental management. Although the Green League has given students and campaigners a public-relations stick with which to beat their institutions, Government funding is not linked to performance on the environment. Given the current economic climate, of course, most might be encouraged simply by the financial savings to be made.

Despite the lack of incentives, however, the top-performing universities have been adopting innovative approaches to sustainability. At the University of Gloucestershire, the greenest UK university, all staff have been instructed in how to reduce their campus carbon footprint. Academics and management staff hold "paperless meetings", and students can join a cycle loan scheme. Daniella Tilbury, professor of sustainability at the university, says the excellent performance results show Gloucestershire's determination to build sustainability into the student experience and the curriculum.

"We're trying to bring it into the core of the university, and I think that's the difference," she says. "We're also working to model good practice, and we need to show that it's possible to do it, so that students who are going to have influential positions in the future will understand how it works."

Students from other institutions are visiting Gloucestershire to see the progress that is being made. "They're asking how they can present the issues to their staff to make changes in their institutions," Tilbury says. Despite the success, however, she is not complacent. "Because we have topped the Green League this year doesn't mean that we have got there. We have a long way to go."

At the University of Plymouth, the involvement of all departments has been the key to achievement. "There is a real enthusiasm among everybody to do something about sustainability," says Alan Dyer, associate director of the Centre for Sustainable Futures. "With our project, it's a pulling-in rather than a pushing-in. Finger-wagging isn't going to work. It tends to annoy rather than inspire."

Dyer says Plymouth is following what he calls the "four Cs model", which attempts to tackle climate change and university performance through the curriculum, on campus, through the university's community and in its culture. "If we are going to make a significant difference, people have to connect with a different way of thinking, and belief has to come from the top," he says. "It's really (about) finding innovative and inspirational ways to bring this into your field of expertise. That's been forthcoming. It's that kind of culture, that this is a really important thing to do and we have got to engage with it."

The University of Huddersfield has also focused on the wider community in order to achieve change, says Geoff Cocker, director of estates. "Central to that success has been what we call 'recycling champions'. These are the people, staff and students who volunteer across the university to promote recycling among their local groups," he explains. To reduce emissions, cleaning staff were also instructed about basic energy-saving measures. "We have had a series of seminars reminding them of the importance of turning the lights off because they're here and gone before the vast majority of our staff arrive at work."

At many universities, appointments have been made as a direct result of the surprising and disappointing figures contained in the 2007 Green League. John Hindley took up his post of environmental sustainability manager at Manchester Metropolitan University in December. His role was created largely as a result of student pressure and disappointment at the institution's 2007 ranking. Last year the university was deemed a failure; this year it scored a 2:2. Among the changes Hindley has introduced are better travel planning and more recycling facilities. He also intends to pilot "zero waste" halls of residence, within which students will be encouraged to donate items they no longer need, such as clothes and soft furnishings, to local homelessness charities.

"We have certainly been driving things forward since my appointment. The Green League is becoming increasingly important. It gave universities a massive shock last year, and everyone's very competitive - they want to go up the league. It had a great influence," Hindley says.

Nevertheless, many universities continue to underperform. Two of the lowest-ranking institutions - London Metropolitan University and Middlesex University - both declined to comment on their poor positions.

Other universities have made improvements in areas that are not currently measured by the Green League but which may be recognised as the rating system evolves. The University of Bradford, for example, has banned its staff from taking domestic flights to attend work-related events and meetings; and the University of East Anglia has entered a partnership with the Building Research Establishment to promote a sustainable built environment.

There are now fewer and fewer excuses for underperformance. Last year, Universities UK published its Greening Spires report to highlight examples of best practice in sustainability. It has also set up a sustainable development group, consisting of a number of vice-chancellors from across higher education, and which first met at the end of June. Rannia Leontaridi, director of policy at UUK, says the group will champion the green agenda by leading local and international debate, policy forums and research.

"Universities proactively engage and indeed are leaders on the green agenda through their research, teaching and community engagement," she says. "University research is pivotal to help tackle current and future environmental issues; teaching is vital to the transfer of knowledge, an area that has an increasing priority, as seen through the large number of environmental degree programmes now available in the UK; and community engagement is vital on the home front, by ensuring the environmental sustainability of university campuses." She adds that universities are currently looking at "new and innovative ways of pushing the green agenda on campuses and within the community".

In their efforts to improve sustainability, some institutions are turning to external environmental management and benchmarking systems. The Green League shows that 28 universities admit to using these but anecdotal evidence suggests that interest is more widespread. The Carbon Trust, which runs a higher education management scheme, claims to be engaged with more than half the sector in helping to identify and implement carbon saving. It has worked with 50 universities, saving £22 million and about 185,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Participants can expect energy bills to fall by up to 20 per cent.

"As well as generating cash savings that can be invested in valuable resources for staff and students, cutting carbon emissions can also boost a university's environmental credentials, which in turn may lead to an increase in applicant numbers," says Tom Cumberlege, the trust's public-sector manager.

But despite improvements there is clearly a long way for UK universities to go - many still fail entirely when judged against People & Planet's green criteria. The league will become tougher and more comprehensive each year, so universities will have to raise their game to maintain their rankings and will have to work twice as hard to improve their performance when judged against each other.

Universities are urged to remember that the push for change is not only about appearance and ratings but also about their responsibility to their students. "We're giving people the skills and values for life - and what an opportunity, what a responsibility, we have, to ensure that these people leave equipped," says EAUC's Iain Patton. "Our students are going out into an ever more complicated world. I think we fail our students and we fail our employers if we do not ensure that they have this understanding."

Ethical Investment: The experience from Edinburgh

Overall, the higher education sector is said to be failing to ensure that its financial investments are ethical, which is one of the areas on which it is judged by the Green League.

Leading the way on sustainable and positive investment is the University of Edinburgh. It has chosen a flexible investment policy, looked after by fund manager Baillie Gifford.

"We have a policy that excludes tobacco investment, but that is all, and then it's up to members of staff or students to bring forward concerns about particular investments that the university holds," explains Jon Gorringe, the finance director.

Complaints raised are investigated by the university and the fund manager to assess their validity. "They're taken through a university committee process. We then have the facts of the case checked out by the SRI (sustainable and responsible investment) people, and then come to some decisions about what actions need to be taken. As a last resort, this can be disinvestment," says Gorringe.

In the past year, complaints have been made about the university's financial involvement with the oil company Total because of concerns about gas production in Burma, and about a major lender in the banking industry because of its support for investment in oil and gas exploration. The university is currently talking to Total about its policies; the second case remains unresolved.

"I think the way we do it here is incredibly positive. But we have to be increasingly mindful that as a university we have major things to do ourselves in terms of our green agenda. We are far from perfect," says Gorringe.

What wins green points?

For the Green League, universities were ranked by performance in each of the following categories:

- A publicly available environmental policy Universities were allocated points out of ten for having a policy, whether it had been revised in the past two years and the targets it set, for example on waste management and emissions.

- Full-time environmental staff Up to 12 points were allocated for the number of full- and part-time staff with responsibility for environmental management.

- Environmental auditing Institutions were awarded up to ten points for how well they had analysed their impact on the environment.

- Fairtrade status Universities accredited by the Fairtrade Foundation were awarded three points.

- Ethical investment policy Up to three points were available for institutions holding an ethical investment policy, and how rigorously that policy was applied.

- Energy sources Depending on how much energy the university acquired from renewable resources, four points could be picked up here.

- Percentage of waste recycled Up to four points were available, according to the proportion of total waste recycled.

- Carbon emissions per head Four points could be won for low emissions.

- Improvement in performance indicators Points were awarded for improvement against performance criteria in both this and last year's Green League. The most improved picked up six points.

- Water consumption per head A performance criterion introduced into the league this year. The institutions using the least water received four points.

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