New universities are pioneering the use of environmental policies. Julia Hinde reports
"Sustainable development is very much a mainstream higher education issue", Scottish education minister Brian Wilson told an Edinburgh meeting of ecologists last month.
Peter Toyne, vice-chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, who demanded the "greening" of British universities in a report five years ago, told the same meeting that a "wind of change" had brought a "darker shade of green" to universities.
But despite this optimism much still needed to be done. Higher education's greening is sporadic, Professor Toyne said, restricted to newer universities where a number of trailblazers are educating their students in sustainable living and turning their campuses into eco-friendly havens.
Professor Toyne estimates that only three dozen of Britain's 117 universities take sustainability seriously - making sure their premises are energy efficient and environmentally friendly. But not a single British institution has yet received an internationally recognised Environmental Management Systems (EMS) validation.
Higher Education 21, a government-funded group, is leading the way in university greening. Part of Forum for the Future, a group established in 1996 by three of the UK's leading environmentalists, Jonathon Porritt, Sara Parkin and Paul Ekins, HE21 is working with 25 partner universities. These are chosen partly for their commitment to greening, and any best practice will be copied across the sector.
A sustainable university is one whose use of energy and resources is minimised. According to Ms Parkin, programme director at Forum for the Future, it would use 90 per cent less energy and resources than today, relying on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. As well as being a good neighbour, integral to the local economy, it would develop green curricula where students learn about sustainable development - and how to maintain a high quality of life while reducing impact on the planet - as part of their studies.
Last month HE21 launched a green guide for universities on everything from purchasing policy to waste disposal and transport. Now 17 of the 25 universities - almost all post-1992 universities - are to work through the guide.
HE21, funded for two years by a Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions grant, as well as by its partner universities and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is also working with its 25 partners on a series of guides in which universities that have moved towards sustainability explain their strategies.
Project co-ordinator Bridget Downton said: "The whole object of HE21 is to generate and promote sustainability in the sector and to disseminate best practice. The feeling now is that institutes are no longer saying why should we do it?, but how should we do it?" She stressed that green universities can save money by more efficient use of resources and attract funding through enhanced research and consultancy opportunities.
In a year when the National Union of Students has chosen the environment as one of its key campaigning themes, she added that a green campus may attract students. "As students have to pay fees, they are becoming much more like customers and the universities more like real businesses. Students are saying they want their institutions to be sustainable and they want to be taught about sustainability."
The government too is trying to green education. Last September, the education, transport, environment and regions departments established a sustainable development education panel, headed by Geoffrey Holland, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, which reports to education secretary David Blunkett and deputy prime minister John Prescott. The group is looking at education in its widest sense, from schools, further and higher education institutions to educating the public.
A special group is looking at higher and further education and will report by the end of the summer. Its remit will be reviewed in five years' time.
Mr Wilson raised hopes among those intent on putting sustainability at the heart of higher education when he addressed the HE21 conference in Edinburgh. He said he wanted to make it "clear to any who may doubt that sustainable development is very much a mainstream higher education issue", and stressed the need to educate students.
"Somewhat like the current expectation that all students should emerge from the education system IT literate, we in Scotland need emerging students to be sustainable development literate," he said. "We are going to need an educated population to build a fair and prosperous society that values its environment, now and in the future."
He added that a more immediate issue was the environmental housekeeping practices of institutions. "These institutions must set an example to others, in particular the students they are educating," he said. He later added that "he would have no objection if the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council somehow sought to incorporate sustainable development in their funding formula" for universities.
This last statement has been picked up by those leading the push for university greening who are now keen to see how this can be done. Professor Toyne said: "That would be a real step forward - a red carrot to encourage 'wannabe' greens. It's exactly what we recommended five years ago, but it is better late than never."
According to Professor Toyne, the 25 institutions that have signed up to HE21 are much greener than the rest. They have already shown a willingness to green their campuses and/or curriculum and now want to do more by working in partnership. Most of these greener universities are the newer, post-1992 institutions, which comes as no surprise to Professor Toyne.
"They have their background rooted in business and are often more adaptable to change," he said. "It doesn't mean older universities are not doing anything, but the change seems to be slower." He said that the universities of Birmingham and Lancaster both had exciting greening programmes.
The 25 greening institutions are: Bath, Bradford, Brighton, Central Lancashire, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, Derby, East London, Edinburgh, Falmouth College of Art, Glasgow Caledonian, Keele, Kent, Liverpool John Moores, UMIST, Middlesex, North London, Northumbria at Newcastle, Nottingham Trent, Portsmouth, Salford, Sheffield Hallam, Sunderland, Surrey, Surrey Institute of Art and Design and Westminster.
Copies of HE21 documents and guides are available free from Bridget Downton at Forum for the Future on 0171 477 7730.
Ten steps to eco-friendliness
Peter Toyne's top tips for a green university:
* recycle paper
* manage energy - are the lights off when nobody is in a room?
* check rooms are not overheated or over air-conditioned
* use products which can be recycled
* develop an environmentally friendly purchasing policy where all things the university buys, from electricity to paper, are either from a renewable source or themselves recyclable
* address transport systems around campus. Can you do anything to encourage public transport or cycling? Can you dissuade people from using cars by installing a car parking charge?
* look at how environmental issues are raised across the whole curriculum. Students want to learn about sustainability and how it is key to their speciality
* appoint environmental champion/s - one or two people, including a student, to see things get done. Get the student union involved
* convince the vice-chancellor and senior management that this is an important issue
* produce an annual report on what has been done.